Christmas Tree on Camelback Mountain: Respect It, or Santa's Helpers Might Kick Your Butt

This story originally published on Dec. 5, 2017.

The Christmas tree is back on the summit of Phoenix's iconic Camelback Mountain, along with Camelback Santa posing for photos and passing out candy canes.

As I found out on Sunday, though, disrespecting the Macy's-like atmosphere on the mountaintop might bring the threat of an old-fashioned holiday ass-whupping.

You can watch my experience in the five-minute video above, which, as of Tuesday morning, had been viewed on Facebook more than 12,000 times.

"If you don't want it to be here, go to a different fucking mountain, dude!" one man jeered as I shot the Facebook Live video, noting that the tree was there in violation of city policy. "Nobody wants you here."

Another man was so annoyed, and so moved by the holiday spirit, he threatened to throw my iPhone off the mountain and beat me up.

City of Phoenix policy prohibits leaving anything intentionally in its mountain parks, including holiday decorations like the tree. Yet people have been bringing a tree up to Camelback's summit for the last few years in apparent violation of that policy.

On Sunday, during one of my typical jaunts up Echo Canyon Trail to the summit, I saw the tree and decided on a whim to shoot the live video. Narrating in smart-ass mode, I ended up vying with Camelback Santa for attention for a few short minutes. I didn't identify myself as a Phoenix New Times reporter, which perhaps caused some people to speak with less inhibition than they might have otherwise.

"Do you know who put it up here?" I asked Santa.

"Uh, no comment," he said.

Several of the two dozen or so people on the summit voiced support for the tree, and when asked if someone should come to the summit with a chainsaw, one woman yelled back, "No, they shouldn't!"

That's when things went well south of the North Pole, and I was told to shut up and "go home."

Santa became decidedly un-jolly and walked up close to me.

"That's enough," he said quietly. "That's enough."

One of Santa's helpers then stepped up and said, "I could take your phone and chuck it off the side. What are you going to do? There's no cops around ... Shut the fuck up, okay?"

Then Santa stepped up again almost menacingly, prompting me to ask if he was going to "beat the shit out of me."

"No, he's not," said the other man. "But I'm gonna ... When we get to the bottom of the mountain, I'm going to take your ass out."

I soon wrapped up the video and hung out on top for a few more minutes, then hiked back down Echo Canyon.

The fact is — as some of the roughly 200 comments on the video show — not everyone likes the Christmas tree tradition at Camelback Mountain, which sees about 700,000 summit hikers annually.

The city isn't trying to be a Scrooge, either: The goal is to keep mountain parks in as natural a state as possible, and also because in the past the tree and ornaments have created litter.

Last year, someone took a saw to the tree left on the summit, ticking off the people who bring the tree and their supporters. The act also brought attention from the local news media outlets, some of which took the pro-tree side with headlines like, "Valley grinch targets Camelback Christmas tree tradition; group not giving up."

As I reported on November 30, 2016, Scottsdale resident Max Dembow, who has helped bring up a tree in recent years, vowed that the city could not stop him and his friends from using Camelback Mountain as a holiday display.

The city temporarily relented, with Parks and Recreation Director Inger Erickson allowing a replacement — but only until January 1, 2017. Officials said they would seek public comment on the issue this year.

In May, the Phoenix Sonoran Preserves and Mountain Parks Preserves Committee decided unanimously to stick with the existing no-tree policy.

A few months later, the city's parks board listened to public comment about the tree, including from John Cressey, a.k.a. Camelback Santa. But the board wasn't swayed.

Board chair Sarah Porter, as an August 25, 2017, Arizona Republic article reported, said: "I am left with the impression that this group has commandeered Camelback Mountain for their own holiday display items ... (I am) not saying it isn't fun. ... But it wasn't done in a way that thoughtful residents do something like this."

Cressey later declined comment for this article.

Gregg Bach, city Parks and Recreation spokesman, confirmed on Monday that the city's policy remains in effect.

"Park rules prohibit trail users from leaving items atop the city’s mountain summits and along any of its trails," he said. "City staff is mindful that this is a holiday tradition for some trail users, but reminds the individuals involved in this tradition to be respectful of how it impacts other trail users and the city’s efforts to maintain that natural area. Staff reminds trail users to follow 'Take a Hike. Do it Right.' hiking safety guidelines and 'Leave No Trace' principles."

A Channel 12 (KPNX-TV) news chopper circled the 2,704-foot summit on Monday and highlighted the tree, which apparently had not been taken down by Santa, or park rangers.

Max Dembow was among the commenters who criticized New Times for the video and my irreverent attitude about the tree. He wrote on New Times' Facebook site that this year, all ornaments are made from birdseed and that the litter problem has been solved because tree "patrons" clean up the area daily.

"The tree is mounted to the metal pole on top of the mountain, it is fixed and removed and taken down on New Years Day," Dembow wrote. "...The other news networks celebrate the season, you're the only one (and only news outlet) who acts like a grinch and stirs up emotion and tries to create problems. Please, have some integrity."

As my video and the comments of the tree's supporters show, there's no denying the strong beliefs some hold that the Christmas tree should remain on top of Camelback Mountain — and that questioning their festivity won't be tolerated.

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