With an estimated 200,000 abandoned mines throughout the State of Nevada, any longtime resident is bound to encounter one at some point. Many are curious about the inner workings of these relics of our past, because after all, mining essentially built our state. The temptation to pick up a flashlight and go in can be a strong one.
Exploring these abandoned, or “orphaned,” mines can present with some major risks, but can also be done in a way that makes it rather safe. The best way to be safe is to know the dangers, which is what this article is about. Some of the hazards are pretty obvious, but others are completely invisible.
The first and most common danger that fits the category of sounding fairly obvious—falling deaths and injuries in vertical or steeply inclined shafts. Many shafts can be in excess of 100 feet deep, and can even hit water, presenting a drowning risk if you survive the fall itself.
Extreme caution should be observed when approaching the edge of any vertical shaft. The main reason being that the edge can give away under pressure and there is no way of knowing if it already weakening or not until it’s too late.
Then there are gloryholes. The name may sound funny, but what they describe is anything but. A gloryhole in mining lingo means a vertical shaft that was drilled from the bottom up; i.e. the miners tunneled upwards from below to the top of the mountain, usually following a large deposit of whatever they were mining. Why this makes them exceptionally dangerous to approach is that the opening will be smaller than the shaft leading up to it. Essentially, the edges are not supported underneath and will easily crumple when stepped on; sending you freefalling to the bottom of a possibly deep shaft.
Naturally, this leads us to the other big risk to be found inside a mine—cave ins. Cave ins are not as common as they sound, but, none the less, a very real possibility. Banging your head on the wrong rock, making a little too much noise, or just plain bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time can all spell cave in.
Air quality, and contamination, is another aspect of mine safety to consider. In the old days, they would use a candle to test the air in questionable pockets because the flame requires breathable levels of oxygen to burn. Low oxygen levels can be found in deep levels of these old mines.
A big problem with low oxygen is that it means there is something else in the air. Carbon Monoxide (CO) is odorless and tasteless, essentially undetectable, and can kill you in a short amount of time depending on how concentrated it is. For instance, at 4000 parts per million, CO can cause you to lose consciousness within 15-20 minutes and death within an hour. If you smell something funny, begin to feel light headed, tired, or feel like a headache is starting, get out immediately. Do not ignore odd smells (high deposits of Carbon Dioxide can taste acidic, Hydrogen Sulfide smells like rotten eggs, etc.) as they could be toxic.
The best line of defense against these air pollutants is to wear a respirator or gas mask while in the mine. At minimum, you should have one with you for emergencies. Since most of the pollutants are lighter or heavier than air and collect at the top and bottom of the tunnels, try to breath from the center point of the corridor.
It is a little known fact that mines “breathe.” The shafts, tunnels, and openings can create an air system where new air blows in and old air is pushed out of different places. The airflow can vary with the weather, causing the various gases that could be trapped in one area to move to a previously safe area.
Light. There is no such thing as too many flashlights, or too much light. Relying on your cell phone to explore a tunnel is a bad idea, and extremely ill advised. Make sure you have a good flashlight with fresh batteries and at least one backup light per person, at minimum. You do not want to end up feeling your way out blindly, this is a good way to step into a vertical shaft, get bit or stung by something (you won’t even know what bit you) that could be on the wall, and the list goes on.
Encountering wildlife. Snakes, scorpions, spiders, and bats are the main creatures you may find living inside of a long abandoned mine tunnel. It is possible to surprise, and inadvertently corner, a coyote as well. All of these are dangerous to find in a confined place, such as a mine.
A dark, unused tunnel is a great habitat for the Brown Recluse spider, possibly the most dangerous spider in North America. Black Widows are the only other spider poisonous enough to cause death on our continent, and they could easily be living in a mine as well.
Rattlesnakes, Mojave Greens, and a vast array of scorpions all live in our desert and can potentially be found inside of these long forgotten tunnels. A tight space with limited movement available to you is far from ideal if any of these are found.
Besides keeping these considerations in mind, it should be noted that dressing appropriately can also help a lot. Wear boots, preferably steel toed, for maximum foot protection and bring a hard hat and eye protection. Wear thin, breathable, light colored clothes that cover as much skin as possible to protect yourself from the sun, guard against the heat, and protect your skin from cuts, pokes and critters.
For more about the dangers discussed here, nature.nps.gov has a great report on this topic. Since a good hike is often a prerequisite to getting to an abandoned mine, you may want to read our previous article “Hiking Precautions” by Sean L. Taylor.