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Call of Darkness

darkness1My feet were dangling through a two foot square opening in the wooden floor. A hundred feet below me Bill shouts up that it looks interesting and that we should join him. I double check the rope to make sure I threaded it properly though my rappelling rack, doing it wrong can have fatal consequences. I try to find a foothold so I can ease down through the opening. The shaft below me is pitch black and my headlamp only lights up a small area around me. My mouth is dry and I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. Tony’s quite voice and British accent are calming. He assures me that the rigging looks good and that I am doing fine. Did I mention that I’m afraid of heights? No really, I’m afraid of heights.

Easing down farther into the blackness the rope tightens up and starts to take my weight. I really need three hands right now, two to lower me down through the opening and one to hold onto the rope and control my descent, but unfortunately I am a hand short. Finally my foot settles on a small rock outcropping allowing me to ease down into the blackness of the shaft. Once again I check my rigging, this time to ensure that my hair or clothing are not getting tangled in the rappelling rack. Above me I can see Tony’s light shining down as he monitors my progress. Glancing down I can see Bill’s light illuminating my landing point. Minutes later my feet touched down on a wooden platform. I remove myself from the rope and yell up to Tony that he can start his descent.

darkness9Most people I talk with about mine exploring think I’m absolutely crazy. So what leads people to venture into dark, dangerous places like old mines? For me the answers are adventure, exploration, and an interest in history. Adventure was probably the primary attraction when I first started exploring old mines. I was going places where few people would dare to go. It was exciting and a bit scary at the same time. Although the sense of adventure still exists, it has been surpassed by the desire to explore the unknown and the feeling of being tied to history. As I make my way through a mine I think about the miners who dug the tunnels, blasted with dynamite, laid down track, and built ore chutes. Why did they labor in such dangerous conditions where the loss of life was a common occurrence? What would draw them to this life? As we explore in and around the mines we often find reminders of their lives.

Southampton UK and had flown into Las Vegas to spend a week exploring old mines
and ghost towns. Of the three of us, Tony is by far the most experienced with years in the sport and great technical skills. Bill lives in Southern California and we both got serious about mine exploring about the same time and have spent quite a bit of time exploring various mines together. We make a bit of an odd team though, since I’m old enough to be his mother. Even as we were setting up our camp I could feel the call of darkness drawing me into the mine. It wasn’t long before we were each standing around the truck organizing our gear and
loading up our backpacks. It was obvious to me that the guys could feel the call too. We
decided to take a quick walk through the mine before we came back out for dinner. We clicked on our headlamps and headed inside.

darkness4Only a few feet inside the mine the cool and breezy weather outside gave way to the even temperature. The steel tracks and wooden cross ties had long since been removed, leaving only indentations in Just over the hill from Delamar lies one of the town’s two cemeteries, the headstones are a poignant reminder of just how difficult life was in the late 1800s. The Lamar mine earned the nickname “The Widowmaker”, due to the numerous miners who died from silicosis of their lungs. The mining and milling methods used extract the gold from the quartzite rock created what was referred to as “Dagger Dust”. Breathing the dust damaged and scarred their lung tissue and some miners died in less than a year after arriving in Delamar. Tony is an avid mine explorer from the floor. Our lights illuminated the tunnel, but you could feel the heavy darkness all around. Apart from our footsteps, the mine was absolutely quite.

We soon came into a large wood lined chamber that once housed a large winch and to our right was a large headframe towering over a nearly vertical shaft that descended further than our lights could shine. When the mine was in operation a steel cable would have came off the winch drum, up over a sheave wheel mounted at the top of the headframe, then down into the shaft to pull ore skips full of rocks up from the lower levels.

darkness8A bit further down the tunnel we spotted an interesting ladder, which descended about thirty feet down a small shaft. Climbing down the ladder, we found a small passage that lead to an old hand winch standing over another shaft, this shaft was deeper and curiously had two ladders. A newer one built on top of an older one, we decided to rig up a safety line and climb down. Tony went down first and soon called for me to join him; I slowly eased myself down through the hole until I could get a toe on the ladder. After about thirty feet, I realized that the shaft opened through the ceiling of a huge chamber and the last twenty feet of the ladder was simply dangling in mid-air! The bottom of the ladder didn’t even touch the ground. Did I mention that I’m afraid of heights?

This was the largest stope that I have ever been in, it was close to one hundred feet long, eighty feet wide, and eighty feet high from the lowest point to the highest. The entire floor was covered by a disarray of large 8”x8” timbers in varying lengths. We concluded that the entire chamber had originally been filled with square-set Like so many boom towns in the American west, Delamar came into existence as the result of gold being discovered in the area. It was founded around 1889 and the town’s population soon reached a peak of 3,000 occupants. But by the 1900s, the gold had run out and Delamar‘s time had run out as well. It was destined to be a secluded Nevada ghost town. Without a doubt, this was the scariest ladder I’ve ever
climbed! When I reached the bottom, we called up to Bill for him to join us, knowing that he was in for the climb of his life. We named the ladder “The Zigzag Ladder of Death”. timbering, but at some point most of the structure had collapsed on itself. Perched in an alcove high up along one wall, sat the remainder of square set timbering that had not been pulled down into the collapse. It must have been an absolutely amazing structure before it collapsed.
Square-set timbering was used by miners to shore up chambers from collapse. Timbers were arranged in the shape of a large hollow box about ten feet on each side and about seven feet
high. They built outward and upward soon filling the entire chamber with a grid of hollow boxes. In this structure, each box supports the ones around it, transferring the weight of the ceiling down through the boxes to the floor. This chamber must have had eight to ten levels from floor to ceiling.

darkness5The following day we decided to head up the hillside to another mine entrance. Our hope was to find a connection from the upper level down into the main level of the mine; the upper level had partially collapsed. After a bit of digging we were able to open a passage just large enough for us to squeeze through and were rewarded with some amazing passages and a shaft leading downward. After we rigged our ropes and rappelled down the shaft. We found ourselves in an area that didn’t have all the graffiti that we found in other parts of the mine. The names and dates written on the timbers were written in soot, a sure sign that they were made by miners using their carbide lamps. The only sign of recent access was a 1980 dollar bill nailed to a beam by an earlier explorer, this is part of the thrill of exploring places like this!

A quick exploration revealed that the two exits from this chamber were blocked by a jumble of large wooden timbers that had collapsed on themselves. In one of the collapses it looked like we could squeeze though a small gap between the timbers and the wall, Tony peeled off his backpack and squeezed through the hole. We passed the backpacks up to him and followed through the opening, once again we found ourselves in a familiar chamber. On the far side, we could see the “Zigzag Ladder of Death” hanging from the ceiling and realized that we were standing in the same alcove that we found the previous evening. There we were, thirty feet above the floor of the chamber with no way to safely climb down and out through the main entrance of the mine, but we had not brought a second rope with us. So the only way out, was for us to retrace our path and climb back up the shaft!
Special rope ascenders are used that will slide up the rope, but not downward, we each use two ascenders to climb the rope. One is attached at our waist and one we hold with our hand. The hand ascender has a rope loop that dangles from it. We place our foot in the loop and stand straight up. The ascender attached at our waist slides up the rope, then clamps down the rope as we start to sit back down. This allows us to move up the rope at about twelve inches at a time. It’s a lot like trying to do one legged deep knee bends while dangling from a rope. The technique when properly executed is fluid and efficient…then there’s me.

There I was, hanging from the rope at the top of the shaft, I needed just one last push to climb up and out of the shaft. With a helping hand from Tony and a bit of ungraceful crawling, I was up! I had just completed the most challenging and scary climb of my mine exploring career.
darkness7It would soon be time to head home but I knew it wouldn’t be long before I would again hear the call of darkness. We thoroughly explored the chamber and were excited to find our way down into two lower levels. What started out as a quick walk through the mine turned into a four hour exploration. All too soon it was time to head out for some food and a good night’s sleep.


This article was courtesy of Joanne Lighthart