Close calls

The following are some stories about real underground dangers that I have encountered personally, or just some tales that I felt might be worth telling. You also may want to read some other stores involving bad air by using this link.

Story One

Long ago, and in a silver mine far away in the California desert, 3 of us were descending a deep vertical shaft. This shaft had a nice ladder in good shape, and we were careful to move using what mountaineers call 3 point support, namely always having 3 hands and feet on different parts of the ladder while the other is in motion. Over the years I have had one or two occasions where rungs broke or came off altogether and this caused only a momentary and minor loss of balance. This shaft had levels every 100 feet (as usual) and below one level there was a jam of timbers partially blocking the shaft, but that we were able to squeeze past and keep descending. Below this the ladder deteriorated markedly in quality. I was in the lead (at the bottom) and took a look below me to see the ladder dangling in space and ending and the bare shaft continuing to unknown depths below. It would seem that what had happened here is that water had risen in this shaft, floating this rubbish that we had scrambled past, and causing the deterioration of the ladder. Now that the water had withdrawn, the lower part of the ladder (and shaft timber) had simply fallen away. It is our good fortune that with the weight of several of us on this questionable ladder, it had not fallen away also with us on it. (Editors note: It is also fortunate that the "logjam" of timbers we had bypassed stayed put once we were below it -- it is always worth paying attention to large loose objects that may be dislodged once you are below them, particularly when you have a party of several people.)

Story Two

This isn't really a danger story, but is worth telling nonetheless. Myself and a companion were in a mine in the north end of the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona. We had entered through an adit and down a side branch "tunnel" I could see what looked like a ladder and winze descending. Sure enough it was, and as I arrived at the ladder and looked down, I was shocked to see someone with a headlamp on the ladder just a few feet below me. Once I recovered from my surprise, I realized that the winze was filled with crystal clear water and that what I saw was my own reflection with the ladder descending into the depths ... under the water.

Story Three

This story is from sometime in 2004 or so. A partner and I had invested a huge amount of effort in accessing and descending perhaps 700 feet down a vertical shaft and were eagerly hoping to find a connection into a larger mine nearby. On one level we had roamed around and found a ladder descending into what looked like a series of stopes, and I grabbed the ladder and gave it a shake, more concerned with how well it was attached than anything else, but it registered in some corner of my mind that the ladder seemed oddly "rubbery" and I hesitated just as I was in the midst of swinging my weight onto it. The wood was a bit grey in color (not entirely unusual), but I found that I could dig my fingernails into the wood and tear it apart. What had once been strong pine, was now something much like balsa wood because of fungus and rot with just a bit of dampness underground.

Story Four

This one is recent, circa 2007. My partner and I were descending a slowly deteriorating metal ladder in a vertical shaft. As a short side note, I recently read that over 80 percent of accidents in working mines take place in or near shafts. We had just explored the 600 foot level and our information told us that there was just one more level below, the 700 foot level. My partner remained at the 600 level and I descended the ladder to the 700. We had found this to be a good method since it was easy to yell up the 100 feet between levels and having only one of us on the ladder avoided knocking loose rocks and junk on the guy below. I yelled up to announce my arrival and took two steps out onto the station platform and it suddenly collapsed under my weight. I almost fell through the resulting hole (my leg hit mid-thigh on the edge of the hole), but luckily sprawled sideways and caught myself. If I had fallen through I would have dropped 12 feet or so onto a sloping section of rock, and would almost certainly have slid into the shaft (a drop of maybe 40 feet into the water I could see below). This station platform looked like every one we had seen above and walked on, but with the humidity close to the water in the bottom of the shaft, the timber was completely rotten and worthless. The timbers that broke were once 4 x 12 inch planks. My partner said that the noise from the collapsing timber falling down the shaft sounded like someone had driven a truck down the shaft. (Oh, and by the way, two of the rusted tubular metal rungs on that ladder broke under body weight near that station -- another good reason to only have one man on the ladder at a time -- and even that was one too many.) That particular 700 level remains unexplored.

Story Five

And the last story (for now anyway) involves my dog Lily. My son, my dog Lily (a female doberman) and myself were exploring on the surface in an old mining area in the Santa Teresa Mountains of Arizona. We were climbing a mine dump that was at the angle of repose (as they all are) and above and to my right I spotted a cone shaped depression on the side of the dump. Lily also spotted it and it looked like welcome level ground to her with her feet struggling on the slippery and steep footing of the dump. She gained the lip of the cone, only to immediately slip down the other side and my heart sank as I saw her tumble out of sight, sure that I would never be seeing her again in this world.

But her yelps soon greeted our ears, and I cautioned my son that on no circumstances was he to get near this hole, and he waited in the shade of a bush, while I hiked back to my vehicle to get what little I had to affect a rescue: about 80 feet of 8mm rope, a tow chain, and a large duffel bag. I had no idea what had stopped her fall or how deep the hole really was or what kind of injuries she had suffered. I returned to find her just in sight and a huge juniper tree offered a sturdy anchor and a tied myself to the rope at what I guaged to be the proper distance and descended, determined if need be to stuff her into the duffel bag and haul her out that way if she was hurt. As it turned out she was fine (ignoring one or two scratches). The juniper tree hanging over this hole had been dropping needles and debris for many years which now formed a mattress like pad at the bottom of the hole and she had fallen maybe 20 feet onto this and was unable to climb out. There is no telling what is under all the juniper debris.

There are a couple of morals to this story. The first is that dogs in the vicinity of old mine workings should be kept on leash for their own safety! (I have seen several dead dog carcasses at the bottoms of mine shafts and holes that I have explored). The second is that it is always a good idea to have a real rope and some gear in the vehicle, even if you have decided not to be doing anything "technical" (as I had since I had my young son along).

Story Five

This is a story that I have picked up from news reports online. Apparently a couple of young men were recently riding their dirt bikes near my old favorite silver mining area in California. One of them pulled off the difficult climb of a small steep hill and had gained the apparent safety of its strange level summit, only to find himself falling to his death as he drove into the mine shaft in the center of the dump. This is a sad and tragic story that many would use as justification to bulldoze every abandoned mine. I do think it would be responsible of the owners to put a chain link fence around such a death trap. On the other hand, a bit of awareness would tell a person that they are in a old mining area and these hills are waste dumps from the mines, and the openings that produced the waste are surely close at hand.
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