snow slides. I find Ariadne.
The winter of ’80 – ’81 was
a dangerous one for miners, and in no less then three instances I was within a
hair’s breadth of crossing the Great Divide. I was mining at the Belcher on
Sultan Mountain, and between the mine and the boarding house was a draw that was
a constant menace from snow slides during the winter season. One morning we were
crossing this draw on our way to work when a slide started. All but one of our
crew of seven were buried in the snow. Two were killed; three were able to
scramble out. I was covered entirely except one hand, which was out of the snow
about six inches. The rest of my body was packed in what seemed to be a mould of
concrete. My hand however, was seen in time, and I was quickly rescued. The La
Plata Miner had a headline that week, “Saved by a Handout!” The two men
killed were not found until the following spring.
My second escape was with Rasmus
Hansen, while carrying the mail on skis from Mineral Point across Lake Como to
the Alaska Mine. Lake Como is an ancient crater, the sides or rim of which rise
abruptly to a height of a thousand feet or more, and the lake itself is of
unknown depth. It seems to have had some influence on the deposition of mineral
in that locality, for great veins cross and criss-cross the lake. The
“Bonanza” lode alone measures 304 feet in width, and the “Seven-thirty,”
“Red Rogers,” “Saxon,” and numerous others indicated mineral deposits of
gigantic proportions. Many years ago dragnets were used to salvage the rich ore
that had crumbled from the immense outcrop, but no real effort has been made to
drain the lake with a tunnel. In the winter, many slides run from the heights
above the lake, and if one is caught in the path of one of these avalanches,
there is no escape except by running before it, and unless the lake is frozen
over, there is no possible way to avoid death by drowning. Once a slide has
started and one is on it, there is no escape. Everything is moving, and there is
no stepping aside to reach terra firma. A leap to one side or in any direction
is fatal, for in the churning mass any movement at all will involve one, and he
will become part of the slide. I have found there is only one way to save
oneself in a snow slide, and that is to drop at once and spread-eagle on the
surface. In nine times out of ten one will float along to safety, if they are
lucky enough not to be dropped over a precipice.
On this particular day, Rasmus
Hansen and I had begun to coast down the hillside to the lake when we heard the
snow break above us. There was an ominous crack, succeeded by a sudden sinking
of the snow under our feet. Instantly we swung our ski poles between our legs as
a brake to control our speed down the slope and give us better balance, as we
were racing like lightning over what seemed to be a mass of jelly, the like of
which resembled the feeling one has in an earthquake. The entire mountainside
was on the move, and we were flying over it with a rush that sucked the very air
from our lungs so that we could hardly breathe. Without our poles it would have
been impossible to maintain equilibrium, and even with then the slightest
obstruction in our path meant death. Down that terrible half-mile slope we
rushed, beating the slide by a hair as we reached the ice of the lake, our
momentum skimming us over the then surface of ice as feathers wafted in the
wind. We had reached the opposite side as the snow behind us swept down like a
tidal wave, crashing through the ice and losing itself in the blue waters below.
My third experience with slides
that winter was at Red Mountain, while taking a pack train of forty-five mules
along the hill under the Genesee Mine. It was the most innocent-looking place in
the world, being only a gentle slope from the mine to the trail, and no one
suspected that a slide would run there. Yet the whole mountainside slid with a
swiftness that enveloped the entire pack train, which was loaded with supplies.
I went down with the mules, but the body of one of the animals protected me from
suffocation. We lost thirty-five mules in that slide.
That winter Bill Long and I made
another excursion to the Salt Mountains to try to locate the white ribbon of ore
that had paid us so well at Denver, but although we spent two months in the
search we were unable to find either the gulch or the vein.
During one of my prospecting
trips around Silverton I had found a fine outcropping of ore near the summit of
Storm Peak, at an altitude of 13,000 feet. The ore was a grey copper, and a
specimen from the vein croppings assayed 1002 ounces in silver. The height of
the find and the lateness of the season made the cost of working the assessment
prohibitive at that time, so I covered it up, intending to make the location
early in the spring.
It was late in April 1881, when I
returned from my quest in search of the lost mine in the Salt Mountains. The
spring in the San Juan was opening up with fine promise. The snow was already
disappearing from the flats, and in the higher reaches the hot sun in the middle
of the day, followed by the frosty nights, had put on a crust that would hold up
a man no matter how deep the snow. On the steep sides of the saddles, the snow
had melted into riffles so that the slopes resembled a natural staircase, until
softened by the two o’clock sun.
To take advantage of this
condition, on the evening of April 20 I went up to timberline, where I built a
fire, and with my back against a tree I waited for the break of day. During the
night a few coyotes came and snarled at the fire. Then a huge porcupine, which I
first thought was a bear, lumbered by and mounted into the next tree, but soon
all was still as I sat there and watched the brilliant display of spring stars.
A person who has never been on a mountain peak at night, lying on his back and
looking up at the heavens through the clear atmosphere, has no idea of the
brilliance of a spring sky in the Rockies. The stars seem so close that you can
almost reach up and touch them. The whole transparent sapphire dome is ablaze
like a billion diamonds, sending off flashes of blue, green, red, and gold. Each
tiny star is separate and distinct as it sparkles and glitters along the Milky
Way, so well named by the Chinese as the “River of Light.” There is a
feeling of exaltation of which comes in knowing that you are a part of it all,
and yet a realization of what an infinitesimal speck you are in such a universe,
where neither time nor space is important. The wind blows over you, clean and
fresh from the everlasting snow, bringing the scent of the pines and mountain
flowers, and peace from the petty affairs of men.
When the first streak of day appeared and the sun began
to gild the tips of the peaks above me, I gathered up my pack and started for my
goal. My course lay up the Uncle Sam Basin, which derives its name from the big
Uncle Sam vein that fringes the foot of Storm Peak. Then mounting the staircase
of the steep slope to the saddle, I rested. Down the other side of the saddle
was a corresponding bank of snow to the floor of the adjoining basin, on the far
slope of which lay my discovery.
a shovel as a sled, I let go, fairly flying over the icy surface, spinning
around and around and only touching the bumps, but by spreading out and keeping
a firm grip on the handle of the shovel, I maintained my equilibrium while the
mountain carried across the floor of the basin and up the opposite slope.
Leaving the shovel stuck in the snow and using the location stake as a staff, I
reached my discovery of the previous fall. The winds of winter had kept the
outcrop bare, so I had no difficulty in breaking off pieces of the vein for a
monument around my stake to prove my discovery. I named the claim the “Ariadne,”
the name of a ship I once knew which bore the name of the wife of Bacchus.
With my errand accomplished, I slid down the slope on my feet. As I
retrieved my shovel, I saw two men emerge from the timber, evidently bound for
the same place I had been. I continued on my way, however, in the same direction
I had come, and arrived in town in time for breakfast.