PHOTO: Ian Fohrman
PHOTO: Ian Fohrman

The Most Sacred Shacks, Shrines, and Sculptures in the Mountains

Finding them requires intimate knowledge transferred by someone who has already been there

Hidden among wind-swept pines at ski resorts are dozens of renegade structures varying in complexity and craftsmanship. They exist across the country and range from shoddy lean-tos and stacks of logs to beautifully crafted tiny homes as well as mementos and memorabilia hung from trees. Many are built in memorandum of souls that graced these mountains before departing too soon. Some are simply reprieves from the weather--a spot in the trees to rest or imbibe. Each has its own character. The most well-conceived shacks are situated at the top or bottom of good skiing and are difficult to get to. Finding them requires intimate knowledge transferred by someone who has already been there, continuing a time-honored tradition that creates a cultural lineage and fosters respect for the creativity and ingenuity of the mountain community.

PHOTO: Franklin Towers

A Place of Rest

I watched a silhouette disappear into the trees ahead. My skis chattered over wind-blown sastrugi on the run-out of a massive cirque as I pointed fall line to keep the figure in sight. I had just descended almost 2,000 feet of steep, perfectly smooth wind-buff, toward the craftsman of a legendary secret shack.

When we came to a stop in a clearing of aspens and pines, he was half-hunched over a wooden lockbox hanging from a tree and blending into its surroundings perfectly. He twisted the combination out of my view and turned around holding a bottle of Ullr schnapps. The wooden box was a simple creation, but I felt as if I'd been initiated into a secret club and accepted as a part of a beautiful culture. We took swigs, laughed, let the endorphins settle into that nice warm spot in the center of our bellies, and then sat in a quiet reverie before we closed the box and skied on.

PHOTO: Matt Power

A Place of Celebration

Dispersed among the steep trees of the Elk Mountains in Colorado are semi-hidden troves of folk art. Whereas other renegade shacks are built exclusively for its creator and a select group of knowledgeable locals, the Aspen shrines are known and documented. According to David Wood, the author of Sanctuaries in the Snow--The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass, there are over 100 separate shrines, plaques, and memorials in the area. Each is thematic and most are dedicated to a musician or a band.

"To me, the shrines play a role in Aspen's funkiness," says local Chris Davenport. "I love them and cherish the memories I have of so many locals who are enshrined up there."

The Jerry Garcia shrine was reportedly the first such memorial on the mountain. A Stoner Ave. street sign was nailed to a tree in 1995 and marked its humble beginnings. Two decades of additions, modifications, and the turning of the seasons brought laminated photos and news articles, beads, artifacts, and assorted knick-knacks to adorn the trees. It is a convergence of two worlds--skiers and Deadheads--in this special spot in the woods.

PHOTO: Grant Kaye

A Place of Rememberance

Perched atop an exposed and storm-beset peak in the northern Sierra is an eagle made of steel. Inside the eagle is the outline of a heart; the inscription inside reads: We love you, Daddy. --Ayla and Sherry

The eagle was built to memorialize Shane McConkey (who died in a ski BASE-jump in Italy on March 29, 2009) and it sits above a 63-degree ski line, littered with sharp rocks and skirted by a mandatory air that McConkey often skied on powder days. Many hike up to the eagle year-round to remember McConkey and other loved ones, or to take in a moment of silence.

"I went there when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer to pray, even though I'm not religious whatsoever," says filmmaker Scott Gaffney. "I asked my wife to marry me right there several years before Shane died. Now it's where my best friend is memorialized. And when someone else passes away, people tend to gather at Shane's eagle because it feels right."