Monday, March 2, 2015

Underneath the Wasatch

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity  -ostensibly as a function of my membership on the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and on the Mountain Accord committee - to get a tour of the tunnels that web the hills that we recreate on.  As almost anyone who has been to this area knows, the Cottonwood Canyons and the Park City side were basically developed not for the snow and hiking that people appreciate today but for the ore that lay(s) underground.  There's a reason that there's not one but two Silver Lakes as well as a Silver Fork, a Mineral Fork and a Mineral Basin, features like Pittsburg lake, Michigan City, and Montreal Hill weren't named after ski bums from those places, and Mary/ Catherine/Martha and Black Bess and Emma of lakes, hill, and ridge fame were not freeride ski hotties.  Mining was the deal, and as such there are 1200 miles of tunnels between Little Cottonwood Canyon and Park City!  So even as the Mountain Accord process discusses a fully interconnected canyon system, it actually already is!

Our tour started at the new water treatment center near the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird.  This is the place that treats all the water that bubbles up out of the ground that Alta and Snowbird uses, and the water district used this site to create a new onsite office for the whole system.  Part of the office is devoted to some fun local history:
Eagle's Nest, after being denuded and then re-forested as it is today.  Upper LCC was pretty much strip-logged for lumber for the tunnels and to build the town.  

wow, I hope that someday I could be honored with my own memorial sewer system!  A civil engineer's highest honor...
And then we went into the local treatment plant; a tunnel angling downward towards where it felt like Little Cottonwood creek was.  Our Tour Guide was the affable Keith Hanson, who has worked for the water district since the beginning of time, is clearly so smart that he's got the confidence to be very humble, and has a deep appreciation for not only the rich history of Alta but also the responsibility he has to deliver "good" water for hundreds of thousands of people.

This was a huge plug that they had to put in to keep the water funneled into the pipes on the sides
In addition to silver, there's also iron in them thar hills.  
a pretty big system to keep that water nice for Alta and Snowbird

and clearly well-controlled.  Note that they got the "Silver Bullet" brand of gizmo; only appropriate for silver mines? 

lemme see, "approved drinking water, Backwash Tank"?  clearly good engineers, not as good at marketing.
Noah trying some of said backwash drinking water.  Looks like it's going quickly to his head!
And then we headed up to Alta for the "real" tunnel.  The portal is the Bay City Mine, which is the little concrete building just up from Alta Central.  I was glad we had Keith as our guide, because it's clearly quite a maze:
this is just the system under the Emma ridges
the first part of the mine is well-lit, and used a fair bit with a steel grating walkway, but it's still low enough that everyone has to hunch over and the provided hardhats come in handy.  They were doing some work at the end of that section:

but then Keith took us to The Goods.

It's quite the maze, and there are interesting relics everywhere:
old ore carts

Noah checking out some various goods
Silver miner or Dork?
The miners used tar/tallow headlamps, and used the resulting grease to create graffiti:
they were still mining in the 20's

I think that's a canary?

Is that Emma?  or Black Bess?  
We wandered down some corridors that were in pretty good shape:

And some that got a little tight:

This crawl was a bit of a test for us for Keith, as he wanted to make sure that no one in our crew would freak at the claustrophobic nature of being deep, dark, and tight, because he wanted to take us to his special spot, that was only accessed by a bit of a sketchy climb:
We apparently passed the test, because he led us high into a cool room that he said he figured only about 50 people had been in over the last 30 years.  
Powderwhore or Silverminer?  
Using the fixed line to get down.  I guess you don't have to worry about UV degradation of the ropes!
Nearby is also the impromptu grave of a miner who was killed in a collapse; he resides there still.
A portrait of the boss. 
One of my fundamental questions about the tunnels was relevant to what's happening to the Mountain Accord:  could existing tunnels be used as conduits to what UTA is proposing as the LCC/BCc connecting tunnel?  Very simply: no.  The rock we were in was a mix of limestone and quartzite (hard to believe they were able to blast through that in the 1800's; we saw a lot of old fuses and such) but the granite that is so obvious down at the mouth of Little Cottonwood is the layer that's tunnelable by today's standards, and that was a couple/few hundred feet up from where we were.  So the tunnel would somehow have to get up the hill a ways in order to go through.  

I asked Keith about the proposed trans tunnel, and he was mixed; there was no doubt that it could be done, but was it really worth all the effort, and who would benefit?  (a question we share!)

I asked him about the train up LCC, and he was cautiously in favor of it; he thinks that it "could" be done so that the precious LCC water was not compromised, and he said that the worst thing for that creek are the 2.3 gazillion tons of salt poured on the road all winter, so if a train could help alleviate that, then that's a good thing.  But at what cost?  

I went into this tour thinking that I'd need about an hour to get the gist of what went on under the Little Cottonwood ridgeline, but when we popped back out into the sunlight almost 4 hours had flown by!  It was intended to be a fact-finding mission to learn more about the potential interconnection the canyons, but the truth is that it was just a rare opportunity to go deep into the running historical narrative by our great guide Keith and the minor thrill of stepping back into a pretty hardscrabble time. 

Thanks to Todd for the (actually good, as opposed to my very mediocre) pics, to Newell Jensen of SLC for setting up the tour, and to Keith, who is probably not that far from retirement and definitely needs to figure out how to privatize his little chunk of underground paradise and guide other folks through his beloved maze!  

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