Going Underground

A couple of days ago I went underground. Literally.

It all started with a drive to Ouray, which is 19.4 miles away from Lake City as the crow flies. But because (at least in the winter) you have to drive around lots of mountains, Ouray was actually 136.5 miles away.

Once there we got to a road which reminded me of the Alpine Loop. The sign on the locked gate was a little ominous.

But our business was further up that road – so we continued on. Past evidence that the sign was accurate…

…until we reached a mine that is being readied for working again after a long period of inactivity. The price of precious metals is currently very high (March 2012). In times of uncertain economies, gold and silver tend to do very well on the markets. I suppose they seem somehow timeless, secure investments. So, it is currently worth re-investing in mines which had previously been un-economic to run.

The history of mining is a constant iteration of boom and bust cycles. I imagine all this activity means that we’re currently in a boom. It was possible to see old mining buildings, still on the site from one of the previous mining booms.

Once up there, we donned the requisite safety equipment and headed down (actually up – though it felt like down) into the mine. It was a little bit muddy, but not unpleasant. The hissing of water and air pipes accompanied us. Many mines rely on air being pumped into them, but this one has natural ventilation, which will be helped along by fans in certain places, as the mine develops.

The miners who were giving me the tour (I will call them Luckies No. 2 & 3) showed me where some fellow miners were drilling into the wall of the mine to make a drill station. From the drill station they will sample the rock to find out the location and size of the vein that they will be mining.

To extract metals, the miners drill into the rock face, and then load it with dynamite to blast out the rock so that they can take the ore to be milled. There is an art to everything; the number of holes you drill, the direction they point in, and the timing of your explosives can all make an important difference.

I was at the mouth of the mine when this particular round went off (far away, and around a corner mum, don’t worry). I felt my lungs compress as the series of explosions took place. The corrugated tin building shook, and I screamed, ducked, and tried to cover my head and my ears at the same time. I am very tough. Luckies No. 2 & 3 thought so.

What all of this mining is about, is extracting metals for stockbrokers to trade, for us to wear, and to use in medical, digital, and transport applications (amongst many, many others). We all use this stuff. It’s in the computer you’re using now. And the amazing part is that it was created through the interaction of water and heat and rock – a process called mineralisation. These minerals form in a crack or void that was already present in the rock, and that shows up as a vein.

Some are very skinny, others are wider, and some are fractured. This one is a real corker, each colour represents a different substance, some of which we value very highly. The white is quartz, the yellows are various stages in oxidisation of minerals.

When wandering around the Ute Ulay I often see pretty coloured rocks on the ground and I want to pick them up. I wonder if the very first miners were inspired by pretty rocks too.

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