After a full day of driving I pulled my twelve year-old SUV into the parking lot of - I kid you not - the Shady Motel. We were in Caliente, Nevada and it's just before eleven given the hour we lost from the Front Range, past midnight to us. There's a note on the locked door of the motel office with a phone number, so we called and waited three minutes in the fifteen degree weather to get the keys to a first floor room. We didn't get the room closest to the railroad tracks, but the next one over. I slept like a log.
We made a quick stop at the only gas station in town the next morning to fill the tank and a 5-gallon jerry can, plus get a handful of stale donuts for breakfast. Some miles outside of town, we found our turn with some assistance from previous hours spent poring over maps data and satellite photos. Another dozen miles or so down a series of dirt roads we arrived at our destination, miles from another living soul.
Most underground mines, especially those from the turn of the century, don't look like much on the outside. The trained eye notices a few things: remnants of timbers and stones from a hundred year-old mill, tailings piles that stretch down the hillsides from haulages, and my favorite: adits peppering the hill side with untold secrets beyond.
Underground mines are amazing feats of engineering. Some span for many dozens of miles, through twists and turns and all sorts of contortions as the miners followed whatever vein they were after. We entered over a dozen adits - places where the mine meets the outside world - during our first day at this mine. Some went on for hundreds of yards, some simply ended after a few feet, remnant of an exploratory dig. Others were vents, dug for fresh air to be brought to the depths below. Most tragically, some ended in collapse, either man-wrought or natural, with no passage to whatever lay just beyond.
We stumbled upon one entrance because of the features on the hillside. There was outcropping of rock that looked interesting, so I wandered over and started climbing around and between the jagged rocks. Lo and behold there was a deep chasm between two fins of rock. About fifty feet below there was a well-trodden path of sorts, and a hole beside that stretched into inky blackness. I scrambled back to the top and found a way back down the hillside and on to the path I had seen from above, through a hole dug in the rocks decades before. I grabbed Tyler, my friend and partner in exploration, and we pushed into the mine.
We were on a main haulage line, littered with sections of narrow-gauge rail, fragments of powder boxes, and countless offshoots where the miners were looking for more ore to extract. Occasionally there were ore chutes over our heads, where the rock was sent from stopes above into cars on the haulage line. We pressed on, exploring the occasional auxiliary path if it looked like it led to something interesting.
Towards the end of the line, there was a massive slanted stope where the miners had extracted literal tons of rock. It stretched on below us, and ended in darkness our lights could not illuminate. Watching our step around the slope, we pushed on to the very end where there were remnants of a winch. The wooden frame of the hoist was intact, but the metal bits were all long gone, extracted and melted down into supplies for the effort in WWII. We started back the way we came, but decided to detour our way up.
Ore chutes are about two feet square, with timbers two inches thick lining the box. They are meant for workers above to throw ore into, using gravity to send it into mine cars below. In addition, most of them have a personnel chute alongside for the miners to get to the workings above. We picked a chute that had a mostly-intact ladder, dropped our gear and headed up.
These chutes are not for the claustrophobic. They are about as wide as my shoulders with an inch or two to spare on either side. They are too small to go up with a pack on, so I put my flashlight in my pocket and relied on my headlamp to light the way up.
I popped out of the chute in the middle of another hallway, almost identical to the one below. There were more ore chutes, bits of rail, and passages that carried on in each direction. Tyler followed me up and we followed one passage into a decent-sized stope, and on to another ladder to go up yet again.
This mine, we read later, had sixteen working levels when it was shut down. We saw maybe four of them that ended in this haulage. It's a big mine!
The second day, we decided to head straight into the main haulage level and explore those workings. At the truck, we geared up with a bit more to haul than usual, including a full set of tools for single rope technique descent and ascent.
About a thousand feet inside the mine, the workings began. We dropped our gear and explored a bit more. The main level is filled with large chutes, stopes, and a few collapses. In addition, there are a fair number of tags that span from the late thirties into 2014 - this mine is clearly known among the local population.
Behind a ladder we found a massive stope, probably 80 feet from floor to ceiling. The shelf we were standing on put us fifty feet or so from the floor, with no easy way down. We took note of the square set timbering across the room and moved along.
After exploring every path we could find on the main level, we started up and down some ladders. Most of them led to small workings, nothing worth noting. So we decided to go deeper.
On the first trip in the day before we noticed some vertical shafts that went nearly straight down into lower workings. They were about six feet square, and one had a wooden ladder that stretched down as far as the eye could see - with only a few broken rungs. We dropped some rocks to try to guess at the depth, but the shaft was ever so slightly inclined so the rocks would bounce off the edge until the sounds became too soft to even hear. Even my 1,000 lumen light couldn't find the bottom. So, naturally, we rappelled in.
I set an anchor on two pieces of rail set across some 10" square timbers. Unsure of the depth, I knotted the end of the rope and fed it into the hole. After paying out the length of it and hoping it was enough to reach the bottom, I tied the other end to the anchor that I was trusting to hold me over the bottomless pit.
I secured my rappel device to the rope, put my pack on, and slowly began the descent into the void. Over a hundred feet down there were two planks across the 6-foot wide shaft the rope had piled up on. It was a nice place to stand and rest and shout up to Tyler about my progress. I still felt air moving from below, so I was less worried about stale air and oxygen deprivation. I fed the rope through a narrow opening in the makeshift floor, shimmied my body through, and continued the descent.
Just below the platform, I couldn't help but notice that the ladder disappeared altogether. I was suddenly keenly aware of the rope holding me, and was glad for it.
Another hundred or so feet down I came to a hallway. I swung to the side and planted my feet firmly on the ground once again, now well over two hundred feet below Tyler, whose light I could just barely make out in the inky blackness.
I detached from the rope and started to piece together my surroundings. This was definitely another level of workings, with rail line and even a mine cart nearby. There were a lot of footprints in the silty floor, so I was definitely not the first person down here, though likely the first in many years. I noticed that one set was a pair of tennis shoes, so I figured there might be another, easier way in. I yelled up to Tyler and, after some miscommunication, I told him I was going to look for another entrance - perhaps one with a better ladder or one that went outside. We agreed to either meet at the truck in thirty minutes or back at our opposite ends of the shaft in 35.
I ran around, frantically trying every passage I came upon, and came to the conclusion that the only way in was vertically. Meeting back at the shaft, I told Tyler to come down, but bring only what we could haul out of the hole again. He rappelled down to meet me.
We set out to explore the level. We found mine cars, collapses, and some cement bags littering the floor.
There was an ore chute that was not collapsed with rocks, and Tyler had the brilliant idea of going up into it. He weaseled his way in and called back for me to follow him. I shoved my camera in and finagled my way up into the chute.
It went up and up and up! There were several ladders that led to rooms, and a few places where we just had to climb the rocks. Rooms led to hallways that led to crawlspaces that led to more ladders - before we knew it we were in the smallest depths of the mine, where they must have sent only the best timber-men.
We descended back the way we came, and back out of the ore chute. I slid down it like a children's slide, and popped right out!
Down another hallway from the haulage there was a massive collapse of rocks and timbers. I initially walked past it, but turned back when I saw a note a previous explorer had left with an arrow to the collapse. Venturing further, I realized there was a passage that went up! I very carefully crawled over the rubble, and found myself in a massive stope, standing on what must have been square-set timbers for the entire room, now in a a heap. Tyler followed me in, and we both gawked at the scale of the place we were in, hundreds of feet below the surface.
After exhausting every option on that level, we made our way back to the shaft, with the rope still waiting for us. Since there was no ladder, we were forced to ascend the rope itself, a very tiring prospect.
Then I realized: the rail line was intact, and very sturdy! I gave Tyler an ascender and kept one for myself, attaching it to my harness. I headed up first, and my idea worked. Instead of ascending the rope, I climbed up the near-vertical small gauge rail, and pushed the ascender up with me. It wasn't a perfect system, but it was safe and far less strenuous than the sit/stand frog system of SRT.
I got to the platform midway up and hollered down for Tyler to join me. It was a good place to meet up again and haul the gear up. I set a makeshift anchor and built another one to haul the gear up from. Tyler joined me, and I felt just secure enough to take the camera out and snap a picture.
We got to the top again and I checked the time for the first time since going underground at 9am - it was past 6pm! We had been under for more than eight hours, and decided to call it a day. There is always more to be explored, but that's what drives us to return...
Our next mine lay deeper into the middle of nowhere, many miles from the nearest gas station. We topped off at the only station in town and ventured on. We spent some time on the Extraterrestrial Highway, just a few miles from Area 51 - but we didn't see any UFOs.
Middle of nowhere brought on a new meaning. We didn't see any cars for many miles, and valley after valley brought us further into nothing. Seriously, nothing. No houses, no buildings, no roads, simply joshua trees and dirt for miles.
We turned off the "main" highway and continued up yet another dirt road several miles to our new destination.
This mine was significantly newer than the first. It was shut down in the nineties due to the plummeting price of tungsten, its primary product.
Upon entering, I noticed a few things - this mine was unlike any I had been in previously. For one, it was large, even the haulage. Some mines I have to stoop in to get around, this one was big enough to literally drive my truck into.
The first thing we came upon was the headframe. It had an all steel construction, unlike the wooden hoist at the older mine. I dropped a rock down and never heard it hit the bottom...
I also noticed that in this mine there were no rails. Most older mines used rail cars to get ore in and out, but as technology progressed and processes got more efficient there was a shift to electric and diesel loaders.
I also felt way safer in this mine. Instead of hundred year-old timbers in place to hold potentially falling rocks, there were giant steel I-beams with 2-inch boards holding up.
They worked surprisingly well, even in the event of a collapse!
We explored the main level a bit, then went out and up to a higher adit several hundred feet up the road.
We went in and continued as far back as we could walk. About forty minutes in, the level ended in a massive stope, about as large as I've ever seen.
We went back to the entrance, tracing our steps all the way back, and found an older section of the mine that I enjoyed a lot more than the newer, seemingly more sterile section of the mine.o
There was not nearly enough time to see even a fraction of this mine, so we had to pick and choose. Most of the mine was pretty gutted, there were very precious few artifacts left. There were more stopes, ore chutes and retention ponds than you could shake a stick at.
We woke up on day four and made our way back to the mine. We were already tired from the previous days, but we wanted one last crack at it. Before entering we stopped by the miner's dry, an outbuilding where there were offices and a place for miners to put their clothes before changing into their jumpsuits.
We went back in to the main adit, where we went up an older raise from before the modernization of the mine. It went up two hundred feet or so, and to a level that took us to the outside!
We found yet another adit, which took us to some more of the older workings.
It was fun and interesting to see the intersection of old and new.
All in all, it was an excellent trip, and I can't wait to go back and explore these and other mines in Nevada!