13 February 2011

Chapter 49:"Blast and Avalanche at Mother Lode," Pt 3

ML projection
Detail of the upper part of the Mother Lode and Marvelous mines as a projection. Note that the
Marvelous vein at the 400 level does extend all the way to the surface.
Directly  below is the vertical shaft that extends from the 600 level to the 1400 level

Frank looked around and realized he could not hear any activity at all.  
From this point the sound traveled well.   If there was work in
progress at this level, it would be quite evident.  All the lights were
running, but the place seemed to be deserted.  The one constant sound was
that of the winds blowing through.

 This is unnerving.  For whatever reason, no one’s here.
Oh God, the
lights are blinking again.  My feet are cold. I’ve got to get out of here!

The enormous mine system seemed to have its own life force separate from the men
who worked there.  Sometimes it was not a very friendly one. Frank finally
realized that he was the only one in the mine.  It was an eerie feeling. He was starting to shiver as the cold wetness creeped through. 

Oh, oh.  I’m out here in the middle of this mountain alone and I’m
developing hypothermia. Should have called first.

ML elevator
Mother Lode vertical shaft elevator in 1937  --Earl Biestline
He quickly stepped back on the elevator. It had not moved.  Frank began
feeling very alone down there in the bowels of the earth.  His own crews
were a very long distance away. 
An ominous feeling swept over him.

Something doesn’t feel right. This is not where I want to be.
 It seemed like a long ride up to the Rhodes tunnel.  When he finally
reached the 800 level, Frank could hardly wait to push open the gate and get out
of that elevator and out of the tunnel completely.  He was feeling strange.
His feet were losing their feeling and he was becoming disoriented.

ML vertical shaft
Six decades later: the Mother Lode elevator shaft
--Curvin Metzler
The Rhodes tunnel headed east, following the Marvelous Ridge until it eventually
came to a dead-end.  A few hundred feet from the vertical shaft, it is
intersected by the adit tunnel which headed south, ending at the portal to the
ML camp.  This was the tunnel that Warren Richelsen, Eldon Johnson, the
Indians and Frank had followed months before when they first investigated the
route for purposes of reopening the camp.  It was now well lit with a
string of lights extending all the way to Mother Lode upper camp.
The lights flickered again, then went off. 
It turned completely black instantly. Frank lit
his carbide lamp in the dark.   The
lamps were particulary easy to light, even in the dark.  Frank was starting
to feel outside of himself.

          I’m in trouble. I was lucky I could even light the carbide. I’ve got to get out of this tunnel before I pass out and freeze to death in the icy water on this rocky floor.

He thought about the lights.  It no longer felt safe in here at all.

          The storm must
have taken out the power line to Bonanza.
Could have been a lot worse.  I just got out of that elevator. 
What a predicament that could have been.  I could have been trapped in that cage and died in there.  Or the motor could have failed and et loose, plunging me all the way to the bottom.  Damn that’s a long way down.

He sped up his walk to the snowshed entryway, feeling a great need to get out of
the tunnel.  It was almost as though he was fighting for air.  Frank
pulled opened the door. The snow rushed in nearly enveloping him.  He
pulled his way out of it in a frantic swimming motion.

Amazing. It’s blocked by the drifts already. Can’ get through.  Got to try the waste ore exit.  Should be open down there.  Need to get out of
He pulled himself out of the snow drift and staggered unsteadily down the 80
feet of covered rampway.  The snow had drifted up to the top of the
trestle, nearly covering this exit as well.   But he could get out
here.  It was a such a long way from there to the boiler room door. He
would have to work his way through the deep, heavily drifted snow.

This is not my idea of a good day. I’m so cold I can hardly move.  Have to crawl through the drifts toward that door.

His shivers began to turn into shaking.  He knew he was running out of
time.   Frank  began a final determined effort to work his way
over to the boiler room door and safety.  The wind was still howling. It
stung his face.  Progress was slow and painful, and the snow and cold was
working into his clothes.  A gust took his helmet, leaving his head
unprotected.  It was taking longer than he thought it would. Frank was
shivering almost uncontrollably as he  half swam and half crawled, inching
his way through the shifting drifts with whatever strength remained.  Then
Frank realized he was heading the wrong way, moving too far downhill towards the

Whoa! Must have somehow lost track of where I am.   All that blowing snow  turned me around.  It’s hard to see the camp from here. I can’t believe how cold it is with this wind.  My ears are aching and my nose, ears and fingers hurt.  And my feet.  I can’t feel my feet. Got to get to that door. 
He finally encountered a wall.

Which way to go?
What’s that? Generator. Sato must have got the generator running. The boiler room must be close. Got to make it there.

mine signals

He followed the wall, crawling along the top of the snowdrift until he felt the
door he had been seeking. It took a final enormous effort to make that reach for
the cold steel knob and turn it. The door gave way, popping wide open.  
Frank fell inside into the warm but unlit room where the boiler and generator
seemed to be happily purring away.  He was exhausted and his body was going
into fits, but he knew he had made it and he felt relieved.  Safe at last. 
Now he just lay there, the door still held open by the snow which followed him
in.  He was too weak to push the door closed. 
Frank drug himself over to the boiler.  The warmth of the boiler gave Frank
enough strength to drag himself up off the floor.  He looked back to the
open door where the snow had developed a three-foot high drift that was pushing
inside.  He was too weak to fight it now.  That crawl had been longer
and colder than he could ever imagine.  He was still cold and he felt
disoriented.  He was shivering badly.  The mental stress of realizing
how close he had been to being buried alive alone out there had taken most of
his strength. 

He needed to work himself  back to the kitchen where he could get help. 
Sato and Jim should be in the mess hall.  He felt dizzy as he opened the
west-facing door, which led into the elevated outside walkway up towards 
the rec room where the large billiards table stood.  To his alarm, the snow
had even begun to drift over this walkway  as well.  The whole camp
was dark.  Sato must have turned off everything not needed so he could
conserve the energy of the generator.

One more outside area to crawl through.  Just one.  I can make it. Got this far. And here I am with Ellen. Ellen?  What am I doing with Ellen? What’s happening to me?

Steam pipes ran under the elevated walkway.  They usually kept the walkway
cleared, but the extreme drifting was offsetting the steam heat.  Frank
fought his way up the walkway, once again feeling his remaining strength ebbing. 
The heavy winds and stinging ice and snow in the air made the relatively brief
distance seem very long.  He finally crawled his way over to the door on
the lower end of the large building.  With one last major effort he pulled
himself up far enough to turn the door knob.
He told himself to hold onto the handle so it would close behind him.  It
was much warmer inside.  The radiators seemed to be working in happy
harmony with the boilers, though the warmth  was offset by breezes which
seemed to come from everywhere.   There was so much wind and cold
stinging air that it was almost impossible to overcome.  At least it was
not stinging cold in there, just  cool and breezy.   He tried to
collected himself once again so he could begin working himself uphill toward the
kitchen.   He passed through the billiards room. It was dark and noisy
from the wind blasting the windows.  He pulled the door open leading into
the long hallway which ended at the kitchen and dining hall.  He could see
a small light at the end.  It seemed a long ways off.  The tunnel
seemed to grow longer. Then it darkened as Frank passed out.

Mother Lode upper camp view 3
The Mother Lode camp awaits its fate
Frank opened his eyes, but he did not know where he was.  He was suffering
from delusions brought on by hypothermia.  The Japanese had pulled off most
of his wet clothes and the hard-frozen leather boots.   He was down to
his shorts and covered under something heavy and warm.  Then his mind began
to clear. The only really warm place except for the boiler room had to be the
kitchen. Frank wanted to get up, but lacked the strength.  Sato came over
and looked down, showing great concern in his eyes.
“You should not have been out there by yourself.   You came in from
the boiler room. Tanaka found you on the floor in the hallway.  Good thing. 
You are in bad shape.  Really cold.   Tanaka helped me drag you 
here.  We pulled off your wet clothes and boots before you froze in them,
and then we drug  a thick bedroll  in here so we could put you in it. 
The generator quit and now the boiler is down. We followed your path out there. 
I had to force the door outside shut, but too late.”
Frank’s head was swimming. He felt as cold as he could ever remember.  He
did not know a person could feel this cold, even as his body began to 
slowly warm back up.  He realized that he would have to find the strength
to restart the generator and the boiler, or the crew would have to abandon the
camp.  But at the moment he could barely think or move.   He was
still thawing out and shivering. His thinking did not seem right. 
“Help me up to the table.  I need to think.”  
Frank’s wet clothes were hanging up near the large coal cook stove.  Frank 
grabbed the two blankets which had been placed over him,  then he grabbed
Sato’s arm, who pulled him to his feet and guided him over to his normal spot at
the table.  It was still warm in the kitchen and mess hall thanks to the
stove, but it wouldn’t be for long if the situation persisted.  At least it
felt warmer now that he was sitting up instead of on that cold, breezy floor.
“Sato, I need something warm.”
Jim had anticipated this and rushed Frank some coffee.  There was a look of
alarm in the two Japanese. They were beginning to sense the seriousness of the
“I’m going to try to get Eldon  on the phone, Sato.  This is very
serious. We need help.  We may have to flee the camp.”
Frank sipped some of the coffee. 
This will be a day to remember, if ever there was one.  I should have been a Wyoming rancher instead of an engineer up here in the middle of nowhere with Ellen. Ellen?  Where am I?

Frank was beginning to regret that Jim Tanaka was stuck in this camp under these
circumstances.  He looked too young to be there.

Why do I still have this ominous feeling we may all die out here? What’s going on?  Am I out of my mind?  I wish I could send that kid home now. He’s too young todie with us and Ellen.  Ellen?

“I have warmer blankets on my bed upstairs.  You need them.  I’ll get
them for you,” he said, showing his genuine concern for Frank as he started to
take off up the stairs.
“Hey, kid!  Just how old are you anyway?”
Jim Tanaka stopped in this tracks as he hit the first step.  He thought for
a moment before answering.  Something inside told him to give Frank the
right response.
“I’m seventeen, sir.”
Frank looked at the kid.
“Oh, God, you’re only a boy!  What on earth are you doing over here! 
Don’t you know being in places like this can get you killed?”
“I know, sir. I’m with you. I didn’t want it at first, but now I know this is
where I belong.  I have to go now and get you something warmer.”
Jim Tanaka ran up the narrow L-shaped stairs to the cooks quarters up above.

Sato ?
Sato grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down on the facing end of the table. 
He was really becoming alarmed now.  The gravity of the deadly situation
was sinking in.  But at the moment he was mainly concerned with keeping
Frank alive.  Sato  knew he could survive this, though he wasn’t so
sure about the young kid.  It was time to think about escaping toward the
tunnel.  Frank was trying to work the phone as he began the slow and
painful process of thawing out.
“Get me a pan of warm water for my feet, would you, Sato?”
Hundreds of feet above Eldon Johnson’s men had finished drilling the twelve
holes and had set the sequential charges.    Each of the twelve
would have to be counted as they went off before the men could safely return. 
The two Norwegians ran the wire down to the 100 level where it should be safe.  
The six miners and Eldon were in position for the blast.
“Wait a moment. I need to alert the others.”
He phoned his assistant. 
“Scottie! We’re about ready to blast.  Let’s play it safe.  Have your
men move away from the raise and take cover until I call back.  By the way,
have you heard from Frank? No?  He must be eating lunch down there with
Melvin, having a great time while we’re up here freezing! Darn engineers,
anyway.  Take cover!”
Eldon gave the honors to Johnny.  The Indian waited for Eldon’s signal,
then  pushed the plunger.  The blast sequence began.  The series
of twelve began taking off.  Cap counted eleven.  He wasn’t sure about
that last one.  There was an unusually loud noise somewhere up there. Eldon
looked up alarmed.   It sounded like the entire mine was collapsing
all the way to the surface.  The two Montana miners, Darrell and Jeff, paid
no attention to Eldon.  They felt confidence in themselves as experienced
miners from Anaconda’s great copper mine.  The two both rushed in the
direction of the blast to see what had happened to cause all that noise above.
 Eldon yelled out a warning to stop as loudly as he could, but they either could
not hear him or just plain ignored him.  Several seconds later the twelfth
and final blast hit.  A frightening sound of  something from Hell
seemed to come from somewhere overhead.   The dust blasted back to the
100 level, nearly choking the five men who were still in the tunnel taking
cover.   Somewhere ahead two brash Montana men were immediately
asphyxiated as they rushed headlong toward the blast area.  Then the two
were buried as the workings collapsed from somewhere at the surface of Marvelous
Ridge, sending tons of rock crashing all the way down through the fifty, the 100
and then the 200level.  Had the men taken cover at the upper level as Eldon
had suggested, none of them would have survived the blast.
Down below in the camp, Frank suddenly stopped shivering.  He listened with
a confused look on his face.  Then it hit him.  The men at the 100
level must have set off the blast he had authorized earlier today.  Except
something was wrong.  It was so loud that it must have blasted through to
the top.  Frank’s mind moved into high gear.  He knew what had
happened.  They had blasted too close to the top, and the explosion 
must have caved to the surface--the very top of the ridge, a thousand feet
overhead.    Then there was a final, much louder blast, 
followed by a roar no one could ever remember hearing before,  and then a
loud whistling sound.
“What the hell was that?”
Frank’s thoughts were racing even faster as he ran the possibilities through his
mind. He knew.  It meant that all that snow up there had just bounced
loose.  Yes, he could hear it quite distinctly,  a loud rushing sound
which was intensifying as something very large and heavy began to overtake them.  
Then it hit him what was really happening.  He saw his own rising alarm
mirrored in  Sato’s face across the table as he  Sato began to stand
up.   In an instinctive reaction, both men started to push themselves
up from the table, as if they could still escape.
The winter buildup of snow in the cornices along the top of Marvelous Ridge came
down simultaneously, striking the talus slides hundreds of feet below. 
Those heavy snows met the enormous accummulation of snow which had been pushed
in high drifts to the top of the talus deposits.  The beginnings of the
avalanche continued in  a massive sweep downward in the direction of the
portal camp and beyond.  When the heavy load of snow hit the upper reaches
of the talus slide, it caused the ground to tremble from the crashing down of
all that weight.  This set off a second avalanche from the cirque at the
head of the gulch.  The second avalanche began roaring down the Mother Lode
Gulch slide zone  as the first wave of heavy snow approached the rear of
the Mother Lode camp. 
The heavy snows reached the adit snowshed first, crushing and then burying it.
Then the snows struck the boiler room, crumbling the building before engulfing
the office just beyond, burying the office completely and pushing the building
off its foundation away from the tram terminal.  The avalanche crunched the
rear of the tram terminal but stopped short of burying the huge structure
totally.   These building remains were now locked in place, anchored
by the compressed wet snow which engulfed them.  Frank and Sato heard the
loud crash in the brief second before the avalanche reached the mess hall
The base of the gulch  was built up so heavily with snow drifts that the
larger avalanche rushing headlong down the middle of the gulch  expanded to
engulf the entire mess and barracks building, much like a flooded river sweeps
beyond its normal banks to take in everything which is normally safely out of
the way.
The heavily-timbered jig-back tram base  swept into the rear of the
bunkhouse, puncturing the upper mess hall wall just as the larger avalanche
joined the first one, slamming into the rear of the mess hall building,
exploding the  wall as it rushed to envelop the remainder of the 
barracks, mess and amusement hall, exploding and then crushing the building
complex before sweeping every piece of it down the hill.  
As Frank started to stand  up in those final moments he saw the wall
bulging in as if in slow motion, pushing first  from the bottom, the
exploding walls reaching  toward Sato and he.  Frank felt that first
blast of cold air as the wall split apart.   Neither man had finished
rising from the table when the avalanche reached them.

ML Scarborough
Mother Lode camp detail
from the Scarborough panorama --UAF Alaska & Polar Regions archives
Frank froze, looking  directly into Sato’s eyes, whose recognition of
impending death caused him to freeze in place.  The jig-back tram bents
punctured the area where Sato had stood a moment before, ramming the 54 year old
chef and everything around him through the south wall  as Frank watched in
complete disbelief.
No, no, no! What have I done?

 Frank’s thoughts had time to turn toward  the young kid who should never
have been there, who was somewhere out of sight  where the upstairs had
been moments before,  but now everything ripped away before his eyes, 
gone while he stood still alive long enough to watch it all happen.

Oh my God, the kid . . .
The entire building exploded from stress, then collapsed and  broke apart
as the shattered  pieces  entered the main slide zone, bypassing the
badly damaged  tram terminal, which still stood in a kind of unearthly,
ghastly salute, holding its ground while the rest of the camp which a moment
before had been solidly in place up the hill began to slide on by.  The
crushed building remains rushed in an unreconizable snow-flooded mass toward the
creek.  A brief distance below the tram terminal  the large drop off
waited to swallow the first  of the building remains and other debris,
including the body of the young engineer who would be deposited there, 
buried in a deep snow pocket which would then completely fill in as the
avalanche continued its mad rush down the steep canyon slopes. 
As the torrent of wet snow continued to expand, ultimately sucking in all of 
the remaining barracks, it finally broke into the rec hall and clutched the
billiards table where it had stood waiting for a  last game which would
never be played  between Frank Buckner  and the Indian known as Johnny
Gakona.  The heavy broken billiards table rushed  towards  the
edge of the dropoff, pursuing the body of the young engineer.   
Frank dimly sensed himself  being pushed  over the drop-off.  
He could sense a huge dark object following him as he fell down deep into the
blackness below. 
Then the rest of the now unrecognizable mass of debris which temporarily
clutched the crushed bodies of the two Japanese  broke loose from the perch
just above the L-deal-brand  boiler, which was securely anchored in
concrete.   The anchor had held back part of the building complex
remains while the rest was torn loose to lead the charge of rubble down the
hill.   When the remaining section of the ripped up barracks finally
broke away from its boiler anchor.  It rushed  right over the top of
the  filled-in drop-off area,  heading toward the creek bed, taking
out one tram tower after another like a long line of bowling pins all the way to
the bottom of the steep, natural slide.  As the avalanche began to wane, it 
deposited the crushed bodies of Sato and then Tanaka along the way amidst the
widely  scattered remnants of the entire mess hall, kitchen, barracks and
recreation hall.   Included in this strewn-out pile were the  
stoves, utensils, chairs, tables and bunk beds which had once served
seventy-five men only a few years before.   Some of these pieces and
structural remains, including the last three tram towers, piled up into McCarthy
Creek.  The immense pile of debris temporarily blocked the flow of water 
until the creek finally backed up enough to push its way through, forcing 
part of the Mother Lode exploded remains down the channel in  the direction
of McCarthy.  For several hours, an odd assortment of the remains of
Mother Lode passed on by  the darkened town, unnoticed as the last of a demolished camp
headed in the direction of the Pacific Ocean.
As the force of the combined avalanches finally subsided, the large tram
terminal remains stood in a weird ghostly silence, the roof split wide open.   
The  tram lines and  towers  below it had been ripped away.
Nothing at all stood where the barracks complex had existed only minutes before,
except the encased boiler with a lone stack still sticking above the mass of
snow,  and the buried office.  At the base of Marvelous Ridge, the
snow shed adit and blacksmith shop lay under tons of snow,  pulverized and
useless.  From the 600 level portal shed which overlooked the ghastly
remains below, the jig back lines dangled uselessly, twisting hauntingly in the
The drifting action almost immediately resumed, pushing powdery snow all the way
up the gulch, burying much of the debris so that only a few large timbers stuck
out to mark the mile-long graveyard.  Soon only the twisted remnants of the
jig-back tram, the badly split roof of the terminal and the tall boiler stack
would rise above a layer of fresh soft drifts which  serenely masked all
other evidence of the natural rampage.    

Marvelous Gulch
The avalanche slide zone:
Mother Lode Gulch. The upper camp is visible here, but can be better
seen by clicking this image to arrive at the larger one.  
--Cap Hubrick photo


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