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Avalanches so predictable they had names

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby Collection The tunnel entrance to the Midnight Mine, center, was often covered in deep winter snow.
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Avalanche locations in Castle Creek valley are obvious. Treeless gullies running from the ridge tops to the river bottom show the swaths of avalanches. Miners who worked in the valley gave them names: “Coke Oven Slide” for the one from Highland Peak because it ended near charcoal kilns that had been used in earlier times, “New York Slide” for the one in the gulch of the same name, and “Newman Slide,” the long gully just downriver from the Music School campus.

Working year-round in the gulches, miners developed avalanche premonitions whenever exceptional storms left deep wet snow. A February storm in 1933 put the crew of the Midnight Mine on edge.

Fred and Frank Willoughby, and Vic Meader were drilling holes to blast a section of the silver vein at the end of the Midnight tunnel in Queens Gulch when air for their drill stopped. The air came from a compressor outside of the tunnel, nearly two miles away, so they waited for someone on the outside to restart the compressor. After a long wait they decided to quit for the day. When they reached the entrance they were greeted by the blacksmith who excitedly explained, “slide came down, nearly took out the mill.”

The avalanche came down what out-of-bounds skiers now call the Midnight Mine run. It slid annually, but the Midnight mill was located outside of the usual slide area. This oversized slide reached the corner of the mill and smashed several windows. The electric and telephone lines had been taken out, which is why the compressor had stopped. The slide also hit the bunkhouse where the night shift crew had been sleeping. Snow went through the windows and covered the unsuspecting miners.

The blacksmith notified father, who was in charge at the mine, that Orville Shideler and Art Dansdale had been so spooked from being buried in the snow that they left, on foot, for town. With no phone communication, the men remaining at the camp worried about whether the two had made it to town, as they had to walk through many other avalanche zones.

After dinner, Vic Meader, who was related to Orville, could not contain his fear for their fate and announced he would head to town to search for them. After a brief discussion it was decided four would go: father, my uncle, Meader and Harry Strupple, who had also been in the bunkhouse when the slide hit.

The snow was wet and deep. Tree branches were bent to the ground. In the dark, progress was arduous. The first leg of their journey was to make their way down Queens Gulch following the road that at that time paralleled the creek. They moved as quietly and carefully as they could knowing that the steep gulch sides had slid even in less snow. They made it to Castle Creek without incident, but when they got to the river they heard and felt two large slides, one in Queens Gulch where they had just passed through, and another they were sure was the Coke Oven Slide.

They proceeded toward town using their carbide miners’ lamps to show the way. Heavy snowfall and wind hampered progress. When they found foot tracks in the snow, they assumed that the miners they were searching for had passed before them without incident. As they approached the area of the Music School Campus, they waded through water. To avoid it, they climbed the valley side, a difficult task in the deep snow. Father and my uncle were younger and broke trail while the two elder miners fought fatigue. They soon discovered the cause of the flooding: the Newman Slide had filled the entire bottom of the valley, blocking Castle Creek and backing water upstream.

They reached town around 4 a.m., where they learned the other two had also reached safety. The next day father returned to the mine. Castle Creek had cut through the Newman Slide, draining the temporary lake. Queens Gulch was buried with timber scattered everywhere, sticking out of the snow like porcupine quills. All of the traditional slides had come down. The Midnight ceased mining operations to spent two weeks shoveling the road to provide access by horse-drawn sleds.

Three years later, a similar slide hit the mill. The avalanche veterans stayed put and rode out their fears.


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