Entering the Lee Smith Mine underground mine through a portal reminds me of how science programs render falling through a wormhole. Because I’ve never been in a working underground mine, my mind races to create a reference, and relating the experience to an animation is as close as I can get to real life. What follows is other-worldly.
As the editor of Mining Quarterly just a few months into the job, I need to get comfortable with getting out of my comfort zone. Newsgathering for a mining magazine means visiting far-flung mine sites, some on the surface and some below — in deep, dark confined spaces.
My husband is John Featherston, a senior mining engineer for Small Mine Development at a mine in the Jerritt Canyon Gold complex. He insists on being the first person to take me underground. I accept, of course, because I liked the idea of being able to try out the experience in the company of the man I trust most, in territory that can unnerve even the sturdiest characters.
“We’ve had guys walk out and say, ‘Take me home,” John says.
In an office building at the bottom of a pit, at an elevation of 6,833 feet in the Independence Mountains about 50 miles north of Elko, John ensures I have the appropriate safety gear, including hardhat, earplugs, safety glasses, boots and a belt with a W65 self-rescuer, a device that converts carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide to breathe in case of a fire.
A last task is to take matching brass tags with a number that correspond to my name in a visitor log, hang one on a board indicating I would be underground, and place one in my pocket. Brassing in and out is an age-old mining technique that allows anyone to know by glancing at the board who is in the mine if there is an emergency.
“The mine’s huge,” John says before we go under. “You’ll see in some areas from one to another, it’s upwards of a mile.”
With miles of drift reaching depths of 1,100 feet below the surface, the mine might be huge, but the portal is an about 17-foot-high by 15-foot-wide opening. The entrance sits at the base of an about 250-foot rock face. Once inside, a sense of total dependence on John as my guide and on our modified New Holland tractor as our ride comes over me, along with the darkness.
The ash-colored carbonaceous limestone ribs and back of the drift absorb the beams from the headlights and headlamps, our only sources of light. They narrowly illuminate the surrounding hardrock, bedecked with cow-panel-like screens held up by salad-plate-size bolts, plaster-like shotcrete and concrete backfill. Above, utility pipes and an almost never-ending slithering, shivering vent bag made of brattice cloth pipes in fresh air.
In the absence of clear sight, my other senses kick in. Wind blows in my face, and the temperature and humidity change slightly with almost every turn. I hear constant radio communication, the knock of sump pumps, whir of fans and roar of engines as we rumble along. Smells like that of sulfur, ammonia, wet soil, drill oil and extinguished fireworks fill my nostrils.
“I smell a jumbo,” John says as we turn toward a drift where a driller makes holes in a heading.
A little later, I see up-close how a loaded heading looks. John parks the tractor and announces through the mine radio our intention to fire a round and ensure the area is clear. He takes down a sign warning, “Danger, Explosives” and leads me toward a rock face covered in an array of orange wires attached to blasting agents.
“You don’t want to step on anything orange,” he warns. “When we shoot this off, we are going to advance this drift 10 feet.”
John takes his time to check the sequencing and makes sure the holes are tied in correctly. He explains how the explosion is initiated by pulling two igniters that light the fuse. I trace the orange cables with my headlamp while I listen. Then he turns to me with a question:
“So, do you want to pull one igniter or both?”
“That’s my girl.”
The motion takes me a couple of tries, but soon I pop the igniters, and the fuse begins to sizzle. We briskly turn and walk a safe distance away. (John later tells me he was tempted to duck and run as a joke, even though we had about five minutes on the fuses.)
Back at the tractor, John announces “Fire in the hole” on the radio, and I wait for the boom. A rapid series of shots like gunfire sound first, and just as I begin to think the blast isn’t as extreme as I anticipated, the real explosion begins with a roar like thunder. The noise is nothing compared to the shockwave in the air, which slaps my jacket on my chest and back as it moves back and forth.
Another stop is at a heading where a miner loads rounds into predrilled holes from a powder truck. The machinery is unlike any other I’ve ever seen in the world, and its unfamiliarity adds to the illusion of visiting an unknown galaxy. More travel leads to other bays where we see more equipment specialized for underground mining such as muckers, haul trucks, a jammer, jumbo drill and Cubex drill.
Operating a Cubex drill for exploration, SMD miner Marvin Butts adds another drill rod. He grabs a sample bag and reaches in for a handful of drill cuttings. He holds it out to me, indicating I should feel it. The rock cuttings are warm and wet, and the material has the consistency of rock salt between my fingers.
We climb back on the tractor and I buckle in as John says, “I want to show you my wells.”
He takes me to the mine’s source of water and explains more about the mine infrastructure, including the nearby 125 horsepower vent fan and secondary escape hoist. The hoist features a bullet-shaped cage that, with the push of a red button, would descend to rescue four miners at a time. In an emergency, ascending 800 feet in the hoist would represent the only way out of the mine if the portal were inaccessible.
Thankfully, for us, leaving the mine is as simple as turning the tractor around, reversing our course and driving out the portal onto the surface — back into a world I recognize.
But now, after my first underground mine experience, I can say the underground realm is one I recognize, too.