Nine parts fearless, one part crazy |

Nine parts fearless, one part crazy

Willoughby CollectionFred Willoughby demonstrates gymnastic prowess on Hayden Peak.

My father was nine parts fearless and one part crazy, according to his peers. My mother reported the ratio in reverse.

By the time I was old enough to witness, he had started a new life, one of sounder judgment. No doubt, fatherhood had changed his reckless ways.

For one of his first daring dances with death, he swam a raging Gunnison River as a pre-teen, without telling his parents. He was an extraordinarily strong swimmer who later in life carried passengers on his back as he lapped the Glenwood Springs pool. Those days, the pool was even larger than it is now.

During high school, father took advantage of gymnastics equipment in the Armory Hall (now City Hall), popular from a previous Aspen era. He honed his upper body strength by practicing the iron cross on rings suspended from the ceiling. He also mastered the horizontal and parallel bars. One day he walked to school on his hands upside down, and greeted a teacher as he ascended the steps to the entrance. On a bet, father performed a handstand on the railing at mid-span on the Castle Creek Bridge.

As a young man, he out-maneuvered a number of Castle Creek Valley avalanches on long skis. Unafraid of heights, he dangled from tall structures and negotiated many of Aspen’s mineshaft ladders. Once, on a drive to Glenwood, to avoid being thwarted by a washed-out bridge, he drove a Model-T on a culvert that spanned the river. The culvert was just wide enough to maintain contact on each side.

Father had experienced many close encounters while working in mines. Most of those involved dynamite. Starting work as a teen in the Midnight Mine, he survived cave-ins, close calls with high-voltage electric lines, gangrene (when his hand was crushed from falling rock), and many near-falls while working on mine shaft timbering. After he worked his way to foreman, he rarely asked anyone else to take on dangerous tasks; he accomplished them himself.

Knowing his propensity for fearless action, it did not surprise me to hear about his most courageous, or crazy, mining-related decision. In 1933 the Midnight tunnel, started in Queens Gulch to explore the Castle Creek fault for two miles, was approaching the old Midnight workings in Little Annie Basin. The tunnel was dug below the level of the old mine with the intention of intersecting it to drain water from its lower levels.

Father and Carl Sandstrom started to tunnel uphill to make the connection. They checked their progress frequently, but their exact location and the exact location of the old workings were in doubt. The threat of unexpectedly tapping into the reservoir of water above them was always on their minds. There were too many stories of previous Aspen mine accidents where miners drowned and were hurled by high water pressure as they encountered underground water reservoirs.

As they approached the old workings, water seeped into their work area and soaked them through their rubber coats. Their hip boots filled with water.

Finally, father, with his uncanny sense of knowing where he was underground, told his partner they were one round away from blasting through. As they drilled the final holes, water squirted out of some drill holes: too much water for the blasting powder. While the flow increased, they set their dynamite charges and clambered down the 100-foot slope. They heard the first blast when they reached the main tunnel. They leaped onto a mine car and rolled down the tunnel grade, relieved that when the wall of water came, at least they would already be on their way down 6,700 feet of tunnel.

As it turned out, they had not tapped into the old workings. Instead they had reached the level of groundwater. For weeks, it continued to drain at the same rate as it did before their blast. They waited while water drained from the ground between the uphill tunnel and the lowest level of the old workings. Then they abandoned that slope to start a new one in a different location to reach the older workings.

It was probably 10 parts luck that they were not killed.

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