Hell Holes

— Before tourism, before apples, Julian's reason for being was gold. The town would still be a mountain plateau had it not been for a minor gold rush in the 1870s. When what gold there was had been found and the prospectors moved on, they left mines. Many are now on public lands managed by Anza-Borrego and Cuyamaca State Parks, the federal Bureau of Land Management, and the United States Forest Service and are open to public exploration. And as old mining claims expire and the state parks continue to grow, more mines are becoming open to the public. But amateur explorers should be warned: mines are a dangerous environment, and should you get hurt or lost inside one, San Diego County search-and-rescue teams will not go in to help you.

That's not to say that they won't help you, says search-and-rescue coordinator Sergeant Christine Robbins. "Currently, in San Diego, we don't have anybody that is mine certified. But the State of California does. And if somebody were to be lost or hurt inside the mine, we would respond and evaluate the situation -- look at what the terrain is and what the situation is -- then request the necessary resources through the state OES, then just wait."

OES stands for Office of Emergency Services. "We're under the governor's office," says Deputy Chief Matt Scharper from his office in Fresno. "I'm with the law-enforcement branch. I'm the state search-and-rescue coordinator. So I maintain the state search-and-rescue mutual-aid system."

Search-and-rescue operations in California are run by the sheriffs of each county. Hence Robbins's rank of sergeant. "If a 911 call comes into the sheriff's dispatch center here in San Diego," Robbins explains, "they call the on-duty coordinator, which would be me. We would go respond to the area, set up a command post, evaluate the situation, and see what resources we're going to need. Even before that, if I had a mine situation, I would call state and give them a heads up because I don't have any mine-certified people. 'This is what we're going to, I'll be giving you a callback shortly to let you know what resources I'm going to need.' Then I'll take a core group of volunteers with me to set up my base camp, set up a perimeter, assess the situation. It's in our county, so we're in charge of the operation. If we need other resources, I call state, and they send someone in to work for us."

When Scharper gets the call from Robbins, he alerts the nearest mine-certified rescue team, which is run by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's office. "And if they weren't available," Scharper says, "we'd get the next-closest team. There's one in Kern County, there's one in Tuolumne County, and one, I believe, in Lassen County. We would get a team to San Diego one way or the other."

Scharper, once Robbins has explained the situation to him, will call Lieutenant Mike Tuttle, Robbins's counterpart in San Bernardino County. Or, Robbins can call Tuttle directly. "The reason for that is we coordinate for our region, which is region six" -- the Office of Emergency Services divides the state into six regions for law-enforcement purposes -- "which includes Inyo, Mono, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, and Imperial Counties. So if the search-and-rescue coordinators in San Diego know we have that type of resource, they can call us direct and we can respond."

Either way, once Tuttle knows the situation, he contacts his mine-rescue team coordinator, Deputy Albert Ramos, who is stationed in Barstow. The mine team, part of San Bernardino County's desert rescue team, is made up of 12 volunteers. They aren't mine enthusiasts, Ramos says. "Believe me, they would rather not go in if they didn't have to. No, it's not a hobby, by no means. They don't go do this on their off time other than for training purposes."

The team is certified for mine-rescue operations, Ramos explains, "by MSHA, Mine Safety Health Administration, which is a federal agency. There is some major red tape to getting certification. You have to have so many hours on the breathing apparatus, you have to have gas-detector training, you have to have some rope-skill training. There's a lot involved."

Asked what makes mine certification such an extensive process, Tuttle answers, "Well, the potential for bad air, for one. That's probably the biggest concern for me, putting people down a hole that's full of bad air, which could kill them. The second aspect is that most of the mines are old and not maintained. So you could go down and the shoring will fall and break because it's rotted, or the ladders going down shafts will rot away and break. That's how a lot of the accidents that we go to happen. Either that or people will be walking along a horizontal shaft and the floor will give away, so you end up with a collapse. It's really a dangerous environment. I know a lot of people go in them, but, boy, they're crazy for doing it."

Ramos says that his mine team averages two rescues per year, almost all within San Bernardino County. "The desert is just full of holes, full of mines from years and years back, the old prospectors and stuff. All of these mines have since been abandoned. They're not kept up, so they deteriorate. But they seem to be a magnet for curious people. The last big mine that we participated in was in the Calico Mountain area, which is about 15 miles northeast of Barstow, off Interstate 15. There was a big group of off-roaders that had come out for the day to go four-wheeling. They had gotten out in back of the mountains, and they came to one area where there was a nice, big opening to a mine, and a bunch of them decided to go in and explore the mine on foot. They parked quite a ways away, and they hiked up to the opening. They were kind of following one another inside, they had some flashlights. This one kid was walking along, and for some reason, he either turned his light off, didn't have a light, or something, but he ended up going off a horizontal shaft and falling down a vertical shaft. He fell about 40 feet and broke his leg and something else. We got called to that and went in and got him. That was the last big mine rescue that we had."

Though his is the closest mine-rescue team to San Diego, Ramos can't remember his team ever responding to a mine situation in this county, even though the Julian area is pocked with mines. Eagle and High Peak mine owner Mr. Nelson -- "I don't like to give people my first name" -- says there are hundreds. But, he adds, "The number left open to be the kind of nuisance that you're talking about is very minute. What happens is just like a wound on a body; the earth heals itself. The hole will stay where it is inside because nothing's going on in there -- there's no temperature change, no weather, no rain -- so it stays fine. But the erosion on the outside seals the opening up."

Still, Nelson is aware that some mines are still open, and people are exploring them. "The Warlock mine," he says, "which is halfway down the Banner grade, everybody and their brother has been stealing so much from there that there's nothing left but the hole in the ground, and it's not maintained. So you can probably go in there 1800 feet at one time, but it's dangerous as hell."

What makes it so dangerous?

"The timber rotting, having not been looked at and maintained. Some of them, when they have water in them, the floor is wet, and you can't tell a puddle from a shaft that goes down 300 feet, because it's all the same water level. Then, when you go up the ladders, maybe you get up so far, and then one rung breaks.

"People can easily go down a hole and get lost and disoriented," Nelson continues. "It's like getting lost in the desert. You walk back and forth until you die, and all the while Las Vegas is just over the hill. Hell, people can't even go hiking these days without getting lost, let alone going into a mine. Every other weekend up here some hiker gets lost."

Poisonous gasses in the mines aren't a problem in Julian-area mines, Nelson says. "We don't have any to speak of because we don't have the kinds of rocks and stuff that create gas." But he warns that oxygen, as you travel farther from the opening of a mine tunnel or shaft, gets thinner and thinner.

As far as the risk of cave-ins goes, Nelson says, "If you have a small tunnel, it's a mere gopher hole to the mountain. But when you have a big room, like they do in some mines, then it's dangerous because you do not have the structural support. So you might go in there and start screwing around and...all it takes is for you to remove one rock. That loosens two more rocks. Two rocks double and go to four, and before you know it, you're in trouble."

Nelson gives guided tours through the parts of the mine he owns near downtown Julian. Some sections of the mine he deems too dangerous, and he has them sealed up. Yet even though in the open section of his mine, "Everything in there is taken care of, the wood is new, it's not the old rotten wood," he says he takes no chances. "When I'm in the mine, if I feel a slight amount of dust fall and tickle my ear, you get out of my way, or I'm going to pick you up and carry you to get you out my way if I have to. Because when I feel that warning, I'm gone. I've done that before, picked up a guy and he said, 'What the hell are you doing?' I said, 'Getting the hell out of here.'

"The other thing [about exploring mines]," Nelson adds, "is you can run into some unfriendlies. Now, most of these old-timers are gone. But a few are still around, and they can be pretty threatening, carrying a .44 about a foot and a half long and a double-barreled 12-gauge. You think you're on public land, but you're on his claim, and he don't like it. But all those old-timers, all the guys that I like to talk to, are pretty well gone now."

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