Underground is the essence of mining. As a kid of perhaps ten-years old, my father took me a mile down a shaft of the mine where he worked as a mine captain. Somewhat fearful, I followed him close into the vast space of metal that was the cage. Down we sped to great noise for what seemed an eternity. Water seeped and dripped and gushed everywhere. All was wet. At last we slowed, stopped, and the great metal doors clanged open. We emerged into a great hall with dark-rock walls and soaring ceiling. Everywhere there was metal: rails, ropes, tools, and cocopans.
I was allowed to wander around this room with him and to spy down tunnels stretching far into the dark.
“Down there are the stopes,” he told me. “The ceiling gets lower and lower, and the tunnels narrow and narrower. Men are crouching to drill, blast, and get the gold.”
I was getting wetter and colder. The chill air blowing from great fans was a wind of hurricane force. Yet it seemed cozy. My father was happy; this was his familiar territory; the rest of the world was shut away 6,000 ft above us; and here was where the money came from to feed family. He knew his way around.
I though of this long-ago descent underground earlier this week when I went underground again. This trip was nothing like the first.
First we had to attend an induction lesson. In a dull room with small windows looking out over the tundra, we gathered on cheap seats around a deal table to listen attentively to a large man sent to lecture us.
He made some perfunctory remarks about safety; glossed over a few PowerPoint slides—he had done this so often before that there was nothing new in it for him, although we were excited and keen to learn what to do.
Then we had to sign umpteen forms testifying that we knew the responsibilities of the mine manager, the role of the underground rescue team, where to hide if there was an emergency underground, and how to phone the surface if we were the first responders to a fire. Much of it seemed irrelevant–yet it was comforting to know that the mine manager felt personally responsible for us. Although I doubted that I would recall the details in an emergency. “Just hope our guide know what to do,” was my silent prayer.
Hence we were lead with some ceremony through the general change rooms. Now deserted as the miners were underground or sleeping, we were told. I glanced at the concrete floor, the plain wood benches, the chains hanging from above and from which were suspended baskets of clothes. Somehow it all seemed the same as in my youth when I saw the general change rooms for the first time.
We were lead to a small, executive change room, carefully unlocked by our guide. Here we were fitted with bright orange overalls and yellow-tipped boots. The effect was almost comical to see my fellow colleagues change color and appearance; they seemed so much bigger yet clumsy once the blue hard hats and multi-fabric gloves were on. The load increased as we were hung with a battery and lamp; as we were hung again with a metal canister that we had been taught to pull open and suck on if the air underground went foul.
Thus outfitted and feeling more like clowns ready for the arena than engineers going beneath the earth, we trudged outside where a blue sky and a few white clouds floated a final farewell. The truck was waiting for us. I pulled hard and sore to get up the high step and into the metal cage of the truck. The driver chatted back and forth on his radio and got more instructions than I imagine a 737 pilot gets before taking off in a storm.
The trucked splashed through some mud and large pools and stopped before a grand rock portal. More radio chatted and the big metal doors swung open. And we bounced into a tunnel and the dark.
A mile in and how many meters down, we relaxed and begun to talk about the rock strata we were passing: the light gray that is mined for valuable materials and the dark gray that generates the waste rock. I noticed the water coming out of fissure and joints; the pipes swinging overhead taking water up and out; the green christmas lights on one side, the red on other to mark in and out I was told.
At last we reached our deep destination and parked anywhere in the confined space. Out I jumped right into a deep pool of water, but those boots held and my feet stayed dry.
We were reminded to turn out head lamps on and the effect was a small beam of light that you had to carefully direct to see that new design pipe supports, the rock piles beneath your feet, the sloppy tailings and cement mix that parades as backfill, the metal cage and geotextiles that parade as prospective bulkheads when grouted, and the water everywhere.
We fell into deep and profound technical discussions of cement ratios, permissible slumps, pump size, viscosity and flow rates, beach inclinations, and the distance various mixes will flow. Then the discussion got even deeper: the resistance of the bulkhead, pressures on the walls, pore pressure dissipation, and setting rates. The thorniest issues is how the backfill will respond to blasting and repeated pounding by traffic. This could have been any dull committee meeting room for all our brains cared as the engineering problems were dissected and analysed. I cannot recall if we got the right answer, but promises to investigate were made.
I was getting cold and wet again and was grateful to climb back in the truck and be blindly driven to the surface, which we reached in record time once those great metal doors had swung open and disgorged us.
Back in civvie clothes and sipping a cup of hot coffee, I reflected on the fortitude of those who, like my father so long ago, go underground every day. Like him, I suspect they too like the solitude, the isolation, the removal from the problems of the surface, the routine, the slight thrill of danger, and the constancy of cold and wet relieved by physical exertion.
I admire them. We should all thank them. And they should be very well paid. Until I go underground again then, give a thought to those who make mining happen.