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Water sloshed into the air, onto the ground and all over the judges as members of the University of Arizona alumni team dunked and shook gold pans in a trough during the International Intercollegiate Mining Games in Cornwall, United Kingdom, this spring.

The U of A alumni team, made up of five graduates from the school of mining and geological engineering over the past 14 years, united for the competition at the King Edwards Mine in Camborne. The event was hosted by the University of Exeter’s Camborne School of Mines, March 29-April 1. Each U of A graduate now works in the mining industry in careers including underground contracting, consulting, engineering and construction mainly in Arizona, Idaho and Nevada.

The team name is “Desert Drunks,” a hangover from their college days, and each has a snarky nickname emblazoned on their team shirt. Participants were Dave Vatterrodt, “Miner Dave,” 2004; Scott Birkbeck, “Dr. Evil,” 2008; John Featherston, “Old Man River,” 2008; Robert Tracy, “Tubesteak Tracy,” 2010; and William Werner, “Animal,” 2011. Because the U of A alumni team was short one teammate, I — “Lady River” — filled in as an alternate, based mostly on my being the willing wife of an alumnus and having a fair ability to wield a Swede saw and other hand tools.

Although other U of A alumni sometimes constitute the crew, a core group gets together for the mining competitions as often as their schedules allow, wherever in the world the events might be, including destinations of three years past in Kentucky, Montana and Australia.

They say the event gives them an excuse to get together in new and exciting places once a year while staying on top of what is happening in the mining industry. Plus, the grins on their faces while they play in the dirt show that what they affectionately call “mine comp” is just plain fun.

“Being part of a team and rising to compete alongside our peers gave me a visual of how we’re part of something much larger than ourselves,” Werner said. “The mining competition makes our community more tangible.”

This year’s event in a historic mining district of England helped amalgamate the team for competing, camaraderie and mining- related sightseeing. The whole experience led to lessons on cultures, history, friendships and networking.

For the gold panning event, my team members cheered for each other in a taunting way, with good-natured insults and as many insinuations as one can make about “shaking it” and catching flattened lead ball bearings in the gold pan’s cracks. As with most of the competition’s seven events based on old-fashioned mining techniques, contestants raced against the clock. The idea behind gold panning is to find all five bits of metal from among a measure of muck as quickly as possible using water, and judges watch carefully to ensure none is lost. Losing one results in a time penalty.

Our group escaped without a penalty but not without a serious scolding. One of the lady volunteer judges — a proper Englishwoman who might faint if she heard a conversation in an Elko establishment — took offense to the content of their jeers, saying the American alumni were “irreverent to each other” and “irreverent to authority.”

Turning to the youngest of the crew, she poked a finger into his chest and said, “YOU are the worst.” She made him apologize to each of the women present for his behavior.

To his credit, the young man removed his hard hat, went to each of the three judges, took their hands, and offered a rather charming apology to all. His enthusiasm was not dampened — which is more than anyone nearby could say of their clothes.

Another judge chalked up the circumstances to cultural differences. Observing the almost 40 teams — including seven other alumni teams — affirmed the second judge’s perspective. To my senses, nearly all seemed equally loud and boisterous in their own ways. Some poor students even ended up being tossed into the gold panning trough by their peers.

Groups also displayed a wide range of ages, from the seasoned alumni team from the University of Nevada, Reno, to the hopeful someday graduates from the same school. Three of the five UNR Mackay Muckers Alumni participants had a child on the student Mackay Muckers team. (Read more about the UNR teams in “Family mining games” on Page 5.)

The bonds of family and friendship were evident among the U of A crew, as well. I showed my support by volunteering for the hand steeling competition — my least favorite event to watch, much less participate in. Over the past two competitions, I’ve seen more than one student smash their hands with hammers and leave with broken bones.

The guys decided I should go second in the lineup as we each attempted to pound and twist a steel spike into a concrete block as far as possible in two minutes. Two minutes turns out to be a long time to whale a heavy hammer, and my already modest swings became pitifully short as time chipped away with a slow but rhythmic tink, tink, tink. Let’s just say I didn’t help the team win that one, although they politely told me I did a good job and reserved further irreverent remarks for their former classmates. The UNR alumni took first place in the hand steel event, achieving a total depth that was nearly twice ours. (Sorry, guys!)

Track stand proved to be the event that allowed the Desert Drunks to shine. Hardly needing a word of planning, the five team members took on their roles to assemble and disassemble a 5-meter section of railroad track. The crew moved through installing sleepers, rails and fishplates as though their dance was choreographed, and as though they had been doing it together for years — and indeed, they have.

Their second-place performance in track stand and positive outcomes for jackleg drilling and gold panning made up for our hand-steeling attempt, and in the end we tied with UNR for fifth place among alumni overall.

Although the medals we brought home for three events now hang with pride in our offices or home bars, accolades are not the point of the U of A alumni attending mining competitions.

“Staying in touch on a personal level helps keep us all up to speed on how the industry is doing,” said Vatterrodt, team captain and founder of Jackleg Consulting LLC. “What company is buying another, what mine is starting development or production, and sometimes, more importantly, what company is hiring. … Events like the mining competition are where those industry contacts are made.”

Contact Suzanne Featherston, Mining Quarterly editor, with story ideas or suggestions at or 775-748-2715.


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