September 9, 2003
Russ Holmes, who died last week, was a wonderful storyteller and explainer. Before Carl’s Pharmacy closed its soda fountain counter in 1979, I enjoyed many conversations with him at one of the nicest meeting places Aspen has ever had.
Russ, a wiry and rangy man in his late 60s, was as fit and handsome as any movie star. Jim Blanning told me that Russ had dated his mother when he was growing up. They must have made a beautiful couple.
My experience in mine tunnels was very limited and ad hoc. I had gone exploring in the then-ungated Smuggler Mine with some friends from the Independence Lodge, where I lived during the winter of 1963-64. That I had any acquaintance at all with being underground probably had something to do with his telling me a little bit about his trade.
Most mines around here are three-dimensional mazes. A vein of paydirt ore can run in any direction and be cut off by small and large faults on any axis. The tunnels chasing it look as if they were dug by gophers with vertigo. Mines require constant minor repairs for maintenance.
The interior of a mountain is almost a living thing, in the sense that it settles and shifts. What appeared to be solid ceiling can cave in. Russ told me that he and another guy were sitting on the floor of a tunnel with their backs against the wall when, without warning, the ceiling dropped three feet right over their heads without caving in on their spot.
I think he considered that incident one of his war stories, although he told it an even-toned deadpan voice with which he described how the air in a tunnel could change from safe to poisonous within an arm’s length.
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Miners and mountaineers internalize many clues about their surroundings. The trend of a route on a mountain follows the logic of the rock structure as does the trend of a mineralized zone. Both can sense danger almost beneath conscious awareness, like a sort of peripheral vision.
Russ was at home in Aspen’s underground anti-world. There are over 50 miles of tunnels beneath Aspen Mountain and he was one of the last men who knew very much of them.
Books at the library and exhibits at the Historical Society will reveal the enormous industrial infrastructure that serviced dozens of mines in Tourtelotte Park, at the head of Spar Gulch and at the bottom of Smuggler Mountain. On Aspen Mountain, it has been groomed out of existence.
In the early ’60s, an ungated tunnel into the Lower Durant Mine was right next to the bottom of the #5 chairlift up Bell Mountain. When I worked on a crew that cut the North Star ski trail in 1964, a bulldozer smoothing out the flat area near the bottom of the old #3 lift opened up an airshaft that went down hundreds of feet. My old climbing partner, Harvey Carter, skied into an airshaft in Tourtelotte Park and was able to save himself by clinging to a sound log as he undid his long thongs. Years later, an 11-year-old kid named Wilder Dwight didn’t.
Russ was perhaps the last Aspenite who spent almost his entire working life in the mines on which this glitzy resort town is built.