Finding a crowd-free Tahoe | Visiting the Keane Wonder Mine
Special to the Tribune
For the past few weeks I have been skiing some of the best snow of the season, and I haven’t been thinking about much else. Yet out of the blue (or the gray as it were) I received an e-mail with a video attached telling a story that seemed almost other-worldly when compared to the snow-inundated reality I’ve been living in. This e-mail was written by my friend Dean Fleming, who recently got hired by a wilderness construction company to rig safety lines. Since that time he has been working in Death Valley National Park to help secure a dangerous mine site that is closed to the public.
When I read the word “wilderness” directly followed by the word “construction” I was a bit turned off, but knowing that my buddy shared my ideals about land conservation, I read on. As it turns out, the company – aptly named Mountain Methods – has been contracted by the federal government to mitigate the hazards at the abandoned Keane Wonder mine.
Before I get into the details of the job, first a little history. In 1903, long before Death Valley was brought into the protective folds of the National Park system, two men were prospecting the western slope of the ominously named Funeral Mountains, where they came upon a very auspicious find. These two sourdoughs were Jack Keane and Domingo Etcharren. Jack, a luckless prospector of many years, lent his name, and his reaction to the discovery, to the large gold deposit.
The discovery of gold in Death Valley created a small rush to the area despite the location’s inhospitable environment. Throughout the following year, many other claims were staked, but the difficulty of extraction – due to the ridiculously high temperatures, the near absence of water and lack of development in the area – quickly thinned out the active claims to the concentrated deposits.
Keane Wonder sits on a mountainside at just shy of 2,800 feet. No roads access the mine. As a result of the rugged and challenging location of the deposit, Keane and Etcharren bonded the mine to a Capt. J.R. Delmar to finance the start-up costs. At the end of the first year, Delmar had spent all his money and the mine had yet to yield a single ounce of gold. Accordingly, the bond was passed on to an L.L. Patrick and then to a John Campbell. Neither man made the fortune on Keane Wonder that they had hoped for, and finally the financial burden was passed on to Homer Wilson. Wilson attacked the project with all his might and finally got the mine to produce.
Wilson financed many of the structures that still stand at the mine today. He organized the construction of the 20-stamp mill at the base of the mountain, the 4,700-foot long, gravity-powered tram to transport the ore from the mine to the mill, and he expanded the parameters of the mine by adding new claims. Before the mine shut down in 1912, his management resulted in the extraction of an estimated 1.1 million dollars in gold deposits.
After that, the mine changed hands several times as new chemical extraction techniques were used to further remove lingering gold deposits both in the ground and in the tailings left behind by Wilson’s operation. Finally, in 1942 the mine was closed for good and the Park Service purchased the property in the 1970s.
According to the Park Service website, the mine site proved to be quite dangerous: “So much material was removed that the entire mountain slope above became unstable and started to collapse. Besides the obvious danger of entering a crumbling mine, just being on the surface above or near the mine has become a safety hazard.” As a result the mine has been closed to the public since it acquisition.
In comes Mountain Methods, Inc. and the safety-line rigging skills of my friend Dean. The Park Service contracted Mountain Methods because they specialize in doing difficult construction work in wilderness settings. In many ways the job of closing the mine faces the very same obstacles that opening it did back in 1906-’07. The are still no roads accessing it, no local water source, powerful winds and blisteringly hot temperatures. As a result, everything needed at the site was flown in by helicopter or hiked in on the back of the workers. Setting up this operation required over 80 helicopter drops!
You might be wondering at this point how one closes a mine that is literally collapsing in on itself? Due to the reclamation of the site by the local animals, especially populations of bats, the mine cannot be demolished with explosives. That method probably wouldn’t work anyway due to the large number of shafts, adits and open pits on the mountain side. So it must simply be secured.
The Park Service’s plan is to have the contracted company install a series of fences and coverings over the dangerous features littering the site that will prevent human access. At the same time these barriers will allow wildlife access to the features that have become their homes of the last 70 or so years. In many of the smaller shafts, bat gates (essentially metal bars over an opening) are being installed for that very purpose. However, on the larger openings like the Glory Hole – a 50-foot-wide by 70-foot-deep hole in the earth – more creative methods must be employed.
The plan is to cover the Glory Hole with a cable mat secured from points around the rim of the opening. Protection of the workers installing this mat with rappel lines is the main objective for the line rigger. The real problem is that there is not much solid rock on the hillside in which to set anchors.
In a normal climbing scenario, a three-bolt anchor is strong enough to hang your car from. However, in Death Valley, Dean describes the rock as essentially just hard dirt. As a result he must place up to six bolts for each lower-out point to give him the confidence that his co-works will be safe. Even with a power drill, that’s a lot of work. After the lower-out points are set, workers rappel into the glory hole and begin the arduous task of drilling two-inch by three-foot deep holes into which pins are pounded to secure the mat.
This all might sound easy on paper, but don’t be fooled. Anchoring into loose rock, high on a mountain, with winds that can reach 100 miles an hour, two and a half miles from the nearest road and supported by a helicopter that can be blown off course without any warning, is very dangerous work. Much like the miners who opened the earth up in the first place, Mountain Methods’ employees are literally putting their lives at risk to reopen this unique landscape and historical feature.
My hat is off to Mountain Methods and the expertise of Dean Fleming in keeping the whole crew safe. I for one look forward to making this hike when the Park Service opens the area after nearly 50 years of closure.
– Nicholas Miley is a freelance writer living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra Nevada and writing about his experiences.
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