Mining the mountains of Aspen for history
September 25, 2011
ASPEN – I’ve found my niche in the Aspen outdoor world after taking a long, circuitous route to get there.
I’ve climbed a few fourteeners, but I’m not obsessed with bagging all of them.
I haven’t fished since my pre-teen years and haven’t hunted in decades.
My alpine skiing skills are OK, but I’ll never get mistaken for Chris Davenport. I shuffle along on cross-country skis and my uphill gear is ridiculously heavy.
I’m passionate about mountain and road biking, but who isn’t?
What really trips my trigger is exploring mining ruins. History has always fascinated me, and I got the urge to learn more about Aspen’s silver mining glory days soon after arriving in town in the mid-1980s.
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My 17-year-old daughter has caught the bug too, so I’ve dragged her around many a steep slope in search of elusive mining-era relics, simply to check them out and leave in place. She put up with a lot of trial and error last summer when we negotiated the steep slopes of the Mine Dumps on Aspen Mountain. Those slopes take on a different life when not covered with several feet of snow, and they contain more relics than meets the eye in winter.
Both sides of Independence Pass provide a treasure trove of mining history. The Champion Mill, tucked far up a drainage and over a divide on the east side of the pass, is easily the cream of the crop among the ruins I’ve seen. I wasn’t even aware it existed when I saw it for the first time from afar.
I got interested in exploring Mount Champion because when the light is just right, you can see old buildings and the upper terminal of a mining gondola far up on the slope of a mountain that ends up in your face as you make a tight switchback on Highway 82. While lumbering up a snaking old mining road on the peak a few summers ago, I saw the Champion Mill far below and off in the distance. I became obsessed with seeing it up close. I returned a week or two later with my friend Jac to gander at the massive boilers still on site and to stare in awe at the towering ramshackle mill building that appeared to be a pile of matchsticks in danger of collapsing at any time. (That was a couple of autumns ago. I don’t know if the structure survived last winter’s high-elevation snowloading.)
I’ve been to Mount Champion four times over the years and never tired of it. The mountain breeze whistles through what’s left of the buiding, but with little effort you can imagine what a bustling place it once was. I imagine the mill was operated by men with big moustaches and grime that was impossible to wash off their hands, faces and clothes. The gondola likely dumped a steady load of ore from the mines peppering the slopes far overhead. The miners lived like moles, burrowing in early in the morning and emerging at dusk.
My latest foray back up in the hills was Sept. 18 in an obscure canyon with an even more obscure trailhead off of Highway 82 about 4 miles east of Twin Lakes. The trail was a lung-scorcher, a steady climb with rare breaks. I was armed only with the knowledge that the old Fidelity Mine was 2,667 vertical feet above and a tip that an old stamp mill still existed along the route.
About halfway into the hike there was, indeed, a standing shack with a bunch of equipment still inside. This, I presume, was the rumored stamp mill, where ore from the mines was pulverized for easier transport.
At the humble mill, the narrow path turned into an old mining road that snaked up at an ungodly pitch. Pity the poor beasts of burden that worked that mine well over a century ago. The sight of structures up on the hillside, at an elevation of 12,667 feet, kept me slogging along.
My dog Ginger and I hit paydirt at the end of the road, on a southern ridge of Mount Elbert. Although the last two buildings remaining at what was once probably a large compound had collapsed, there were two intact load-out docks. The wooden docks jut precariously into the air on the mountainside, like docks heading into a deep lake that dried. Narrow rails for ore cars are still attached to the docks. Big hooks at the end of the rails caught the cars and allowed a miner to dump the ore.
The only other surviving relic was a rusty, old wood-burning stove, likely used almost year-round at one time in that forlorn and chilly place.
Weather, age and vandalism continue to take their toll on central Colorado’s mine works. I’m on a mission to see what I can before all that history fades away.