Abandoned Mine Exploration

Abandoned mine exploration is a regular endeavor at BFE Labs – Its enjoyable for several reasons, but primarily for the challenges to the mind and physical body, and opportunities to test and refine skills and gear, that this type of exploration presents. I’ve received a few questions about exactly what this entails, and how it contributes significantly to any of the reviews conducted and the experience behind our work – I think the best way t o explore that question is to explore the activity.
Before continuing, a safety note – Abandoned mines are dangerous places. Operational mines are dangerous enough, but once a mine has been abandoned, and stops receiving upkeep and maintenance from trained engineers, it becomes much more so. With time support beams and ladders rot, bolts and cables rust, and natural processes of water erosion and tectonic activity take their toll. Abandoned mines are not places to play, party, or screw.
Abandoned mine exploration is a dangerous activity. It should only be undertaken by those who have the proper technical equipment, and who have a good knowledge of the mine they are entering, the geology of the area, and the risks of abandoned mines.
Mine exploration can be as technical an endeavor as formal caving, or rock climbing. Safety equipment and protection (pro) aren’t friendly suggestions, they are musts. Helmets, harnesses and ropes (if doing any climbing or descending at all), durable long-burning headlamps and secondary (even tertiary) backup lights, solid footwear, tough clothing, dust masks, gloves and prior planning are essential for entering any mine! Anyone who refuses to heed these warnings is taking their life in their hands.
Neither BFE Labs, nor Morgan Atwood, nor any associates there-of who are mentioned or depicted in this article, or other BFE Labs writings, are responsible for you or your well-being if you undertake abandoned mine exploration. No part of this writing is intended to be an endorsement of this activity, or any equipment, as safe, sane, or appropriate. Abandoned mine exploration may be illegal in your area as well. Once again, we are not responsible if you are a jackass and get arrested, injured or killed. In the case of death resulting from undertaking abandoned mine exploration because of this or any other writing, we will send flowers, and a thank you card for removing yourself from the gene pool.
There are a vast amount of abandoned mines in New Mexico, particularly in our immediate area. They range from simple shafts dug straight down by small groups of dedicated hard men, to extremely complex tunnel systems, running deep into the earth for 30 or more miles. Exploring these abandoned tunnels is an extremely unique experience, and environment for testing skills, mindset and equipment.
The demand on men and equipment of this type of exploration is high – Traversing tunnels and stopes requires not just walking but crawling, climbing, and squeezing. A high level of physical ability is nearly essential in this environment, and is taxed heavily by some of the subterranean demands. Beyond the body, anything and everything carried into the mines is heavily tested. Dust, abrasive rock, tight spaces and the incomprehensible blackness combined put a strain on everything from footwear, clothing and packs to flashlights, harnesses and ropes. The mines are a heavily demanding environment, in which a misstep or failed equipment could easily cost a life.
Going into the mines we (and I will continue to speak primarily of we, as this is never an activity to undertake alone, or with untrusted partners) have specific requirements and demands for ourselves and our gear.

Primarily, gear has to be tough, and without sacrificing security, minimalist. Shoes/boots must provide secure, solid grip on a variety of terrain, and good support for the foot and ankle. Pants, shirts and jackets (average mine temperature is around 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit though some are colder) must be made of tough, puncture and abrasion resistant materials. Packs must be equally abrasion resistant, and slim; contouring to the body well, and maintaining a low profile along the back for fitting through narrow tunnels and stopes, while still carrying all necessary secondary equipment. Gloves must be abrasion resistant, but cannot be too thick or limiting in dexterity or grip, allowing maximum purchase and sensation. Helmets must provide adequate bump shielding against both unexpected intersections with the ceiling or walls, and against falling debris, without being so large as to increase unwanted ceiling contacts. Lights must be secure in their mounting to the helmets, provide a high level of light for an extended period of time and be relatively tough to resist bumps, jogs and shocks. All this gear has to work together, as one functional package. Like anything else, this is not multiple elements of gear used independently in the same environment, it is a functionally seamless whole.

Basic Considerations:
As said before, abandoned mines can be dangerous places. However, the danger is not that different from any other outdoor pursuit – It is seriously mitigated if you are not a jackoff.

Mines Often Harbor Phenomenal Mineral Samples, such as this Angelhair Selenite crystal formation.

There are basic precautions to take inside the mines that reduce the risks of accident, and make the experience more enjoyable. Our standard approach incorporates the following considerations:
Be Safe – This is simple, be safe and don’t do things stupidly. Do not enter mines under the influence of anything that can impair judgment, thinking or motor skill. Don’t go it alone. Always use the appropriate safety gear, and only depend on redundant systems (i.e. backup lights and spare batteries). Carry water, or use a hydration pack. Carry food, necessary medication and first aid supplies. As you would with any other activity, apply the standard safety precautions.
Respect the Structure – Mines are unnatural invasions, and can be unstable as the rock tries to settle back into a natural alignment. The shoring (framing, support timbers, etc.) placed along mine tunnels is there for a reason. When moving through a mine, you must avoid contact with the ceiling, framing and supports as much as possible. Harsh jarring or bumping of ceilings, timbers and framework can cause cave-ins, and simply weaken the structure around and above you, making it dangerous for the next party in the mine. Some contact with the surrounds is inevitable, but you must try your best to avoid it. Prying, hitting, or actively exerting force against mine structures is an absolute no-go – You must not do this. If you need to catch yourself, or stabilize, do it on solid walls, not ceilings or supports.
Observe the Environment – Observation is key inside the mines. You cannot move through a mine as haphazardly and carelessly as you walk down the sidewalk. Mine’s are not hiking trails, their mere existence is not proof of their safety. Move slowly, enjoy your surroundings, and take in all environmental factors – Be watchful for potential cave-ins, bad air (poisonous gas pockets), and false floors. Potential cave in areas are rich with debris on the floor, broken rocks and dust from loose ceilings. Take note and reconsider entering any area with more debris than that from which you just came. Broken, collapsed, timbers are also a sign of cave-in potential. These factors together are strong indicators that you may need to turn back. Bad smelling, stale, air can be a sign of bad air – Mines can trap gases, and un-breathable air mixes. The smell of rotten eggs or photo fixer is an indicator of Sulphur Hydroxide gas, which can develop in pockets which have killed explorers and miners – Return to fresh air immediately if encountering these smells. Carbon dioxide can also be trapped in pockets below ground, reducing breathable oxygen – If the air smells stale, it’s a sign that oxygen levels are low and you need to turn back. A healthy mine should have a certain amount of airflow, which is easy to keep track of. And the closer you are to an adit (entrance) or breather hole, the more active and fresh that flow should be. Lastly, watch where you walk before you put a foot down – You should be visually tracking several paces ahead of yourself, and watching for debris, jagged rocks and metal scraps and similar hazards. Primarily you should be watching for false floors – Sections of the floor which have caved out, or been dug out, and had boards laid across them. Many times these boards will have accumulated dust and debris and look no different from the rock floor. However they present an extreme danger, as they may have dry rotted or cracked, and will break when walked upon, dropping the explorer into whatever is below. Floor holes are often natural cracks that opened up into chasms tens, or hundreds, of feet deep. Use caution and observation when moving forward. If you step on a false floor (wooden or hollow sounding), immediately move back to solid ground, and reexamine the floor ahead of you. You may need to turn back. One additional environmental concern, is water in the floor of mines. Use extreme caution, and proper protective gear (waders, etc.) when moving through water. Unseen dangers beneath the surface can be fatal. The water itself can also present a danger in the form of acid mine water. Use caution when near, or in, water in mines.
Be Aware and Communicate – Mine tunnels are often convoluted and complex. Mile upon mile, and level upon level, of tunnel can exist in what seems to be a very small geographic area on the surface. In the complete darkness, surrounded by rock and ore, it can very easily become impossible to maintain a sense of direction. When moving forward, make note of turns and landmarks in the tunnels, and from time to time look over your shoulder taking note of what the tunnel, and particularly land marks, look like on the reverse. You may want to make only right hand turns on the way in, so that on the way out you only need make left hand turns and vice verse, but not all mines allow this if you want to see everything they offer. Primarily, take note of where you are and where you’ve been, and communicate these details to your teammates. Designate a lead and a follow for each leg of your exploration, and maintain that structure, passing information up and down the line as you go. If necessary, use trail markers dropped on the floor behind you as you enter, or mark your progress with flagging (use a unique color, or uniquely marked, as you wont be the first to have done this in all likelihood). When communicating, be sure to speak lowly, and softly, without using deeper tones. Strong vibrations from yelling or deeper tones can cause cave-ins.
Plan, Prepare and Execute, as a Team – Prior to entering an abandoned mine, you need to create a plan with your teammates. The rough outline of this plan should be left with someone who isn’t accompanying you, in case of an emergency – When are you going, where is the adit or other entrance you are using, when do you expect to return. Your plan with your teammates should include what gear you are using, what route you want to take (if exploring a previously entered, or mapped, tunnel system), and what is known about the mine. Details on the structure, age, geography, ore type, and related information can be obtained on a great many old mines by doing a little bit of historical research online, or with your local mine bureau or authority. This information is useful for determining potential dangers, and identifying things you want to look for inside the mine, such as particular mineral deposits (this is about having fun, remember?). Once your plan is set, prepare as necessary, and don’t compromise on your preparations – If something doesn’t work out, or is unavailable, don’t make do without, wait until you’ve got it. The mine will still be there. Once you’ve created a plan, and prepared for it properly, execute it as planned. Communicate with your teammates, don’t make rash changes in the plan, and always act as a group, never leaving anyone, or letting anyone go off alone.

This sounds like a lot, but it is realistically a no more exhaustive, or demanding, checklist than for any other arduous outdoor activity, be it canyoneering, rock climbing or hiking. The potential dangers may be different, and you may be watching for things you’d never need to consider exploring a canyon system, but the task demand is no higher.
Mojave Underground, a dedicated mine exploration group, has a more condensed version of these safety precautions here: http://mojaveunderground.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4 – Mojave Underground are leaders in this field, and their entire website is an invaluable resource.

As noted before, there are particular demands for equipment and gear for abandoned mine exploration. We will be using this pursuit to test and review individual pieces of gear over time, as we have in the past, and providing greater detail on individual equipment therein. I’ll attempt to sum up our general approach, based on our experiences, and some of the lessons we’ve learned below.

We’ve been using a fairly standard approach to apparel: Hiking/mountaineering boots, long-sleeve shirts, fleece or soft-shell jackets, heavy pants (at minimum heavy weight blue jeans). Boots and shoes from Asolo, Garmont, Patagonia, Bates and Rocky have all been used with varying degrees of success in this environment. Shirts seem to take less of a beating, and a good long-sleeve tee, or sweat-shirt has proven to be more than adequate. However, performance shirts from UnderArmor, Sportif, and Ibex have been worn by various members of the crew during these explorations. Jackets from Mountain Hardwear and Outdoor Research have performed well for us, as have additional wool layers from Ibex and Patagonia. Abrasion resistant pants from Sportif USA, 5.11 and Mountain Hardware have performed favorably on multiple occasions, and seem to be a more ideal solution than simply heavy weight blue jeans. Heavy canvas work pants, particularly those from Arborwear and Carharrt also appear to offer a lot for this environment, but we’ve yet to get an opportunity to test them.
Use of good base layers, particularly good wool socks and lightly insulating layers such as UnderArmor has proven to be a good solution for the temperature of the mines, and regulating body temperature between activity and moments of stillness. Good layering reduces the need for a jacket, and also for taking on and putting off a jacket repeatedly (always good, as extraneous movement is to be minimized in this environment).

In terms of gear we run a pretty piecemeal operation. We use what each of us has found to work, or what we’re evaluating at the time. For an average walking, non-climbing/descending trip into the mines,
my preferred pack is an older style Lowe-Alpine Contour Mountain 35. Others in the group have used packs from Haglofs, Camelbak and Osprey with success. The basic requirements being a fairly slim fitting pack which doesn’t stand off from the body or above the shoulders too greatly, allowing easy passage through tight confines. Personally, I have come to vastly prefer an adjustable pack with decent compression straps, i.e. the Contour Mountain – This allows me to cinch my pack up, with a good deal of gear compressed into an ideal slim, back hugging, package. The Lowe-Alpine has served me quite well for a couple of years, but I’m keeping my eyes open to something new as well. Watching a teammate with an Osprey pack, their frame design seems to really pull the pack into the body and make for a well contoured package when adjusted properly.
Hydration is a must, as with any other physical activity. Water bottles and canteens work, but they tend to become covered in mine dust in short order, and its not exactly tasty, or healthy to ingest. Hydration bladders carried internally to a pack work much better. Must-haves for hydration bladders in mines are tube covers, and mouthpiece covers. Protecting the tube from sharp jags can be essentially, particularly when you’ve taken your pack off and are pushing it ahead of you through a narrow space. Same for the mouthpiece, plus the cover will keep it clean and dust free between sips. CamelBak is an obvious choice for quality bladders, and they offer designs with tube covers, and covered mouthpieces. However, I’ve got my eye on replacing my CamelBak set-up with one from Source Hydration. Ian Wendt, of Special Circumstances, turned me onto them after I’d seen some SHOT Show news regarding their provision of hydration bladders and components to Eagle. Source bladders have a “glass-like” inner surface that’s easier to clean and more resistant to bacteria than the micro-porous surfaces inside many other offerings. Source also has a very unique open-ended design, allowing the entire top of the bladder to be opened via a clip for easily cleaning and rapid filling. They also use a woven material for tube covering that appears much tougher and more abrasion resistant than CamelBak’s. Ian has had good luck with his on a couple of mine explorations, and I’ve been suitably impressed enough to plan to make the switch.
Dust in mines can be overwhelming at times, and will get everywhere. Along with dust, there can be sharp snags, wood splinters, and general nastiness to contend with. Personal protective equipment is a must to counter these hazards. Simple face masks do wonders to keep dust out of the nose and mouth. N95 type masks and respirators are an excellent piece of kit to include for any mine outing. Although we don’t always wear them, for ease of communication and hydration, we probably should be better about it. For those particularly sensitive to dust, or planning an exploration where nastiness like lead carbonate may be encountered, a full-on respirator may be considered. A simple 3M respirator with replaceable filters runs around $30 from Home Depot. I’ve use one as a shop respirator, and maintain one as part of my disaster response gear as well. In addition to face masks, your personal protective equipment (PPE) should include gloves. They don’t need to be sealed, i.e. medical gloves, simply snug fitting, slim, and protective. Too thick of a glove will hinder your ability to climb and safely hold rock or rope on ascents or descents. I’ve had good luck with simple lightweight stretch gloves with Nitrile coated palms and fingers. No thicker than a glove liner, with the addition of the Nitrile for abrasion resistance and grip, I’ve found this type of glove ideal for the environment. We’ve also used lightweight leather gloves from Damascus, leather over synthetic gloves and straight synthetic gloves from Outdoor Research. OR’s Government Products Division (their military line) produces some very nice gloves, that have performed well and fit the thin, but durable, demand.
Another must have piece of PPE is a helmet. Mine tunnels are rarely of a height a grown man will find comfortable, and you will spend a lot of time hunched over with your head moving just below the ceiling and jags. To prevent nasty bumps and scrapes, and also to protect your grape at least a little from falling debris, or taking a fall, a solid helmet is a necessity. A simple climbing, or multi-sport, bump-shell will suffice. We’ve used a combination of ProTec and Bell helmets previously, with vary good results. My current helmet is a Bell multi-sport. I am probably going to replace the Bell with a ProTec at some point, as their offerings are slightly slimmer and lighter, while offering similar protection. The ideal helmet for this type of exploration is slim fitting, and doesn’t stand off from the head a great deal – Minimizing accidental ceiling contact is critical, and an overly large, or standing off, helmet design makes that difficult.
I’ve mentioned redundant lighting above, and cannot stress show vital light, and having multiple sources of it is. An average trip into the mine for us has seen no fewer than two lights per person, sometimes three or more. Ian Wendt, of Special Circumstances, has taken a variety of lights from Surefire, LumaPower, ZebraLight and others into the mines, and has reported on them at his blog – I cannot recommend a better source for honest, end-user, reviews of flashlights, particularly for this environment. My take on lights is based a great deal on Ian’s experiences and input. I’ve run headlamps from Pelican, Rayovac, and others – I’ll be running a Zebralight in the future, based on seeing Ian’s in action, and his review. I’m backing up my primary with a cheap Rayovac headlamp, and my standard daily carry hand-held, a VitalGear body with a Cree LED drop-in.
On the technical front, this is an area which probably deserves its own article. It’s also an area that we’ve spent more time scouting and planning than actually doing. There’s lot of mine to see in any given system, and not all of it is accessible by simply walking. Some of the most interesting areas are up, or down, shafts with rotten ladders, or which have caved out to reveal tunnels below – The only (safe) way to access these areas is setting protection, affixing line, and either climbing or descending on a harness. These methods must be performed with great care – Setting pro and climbing can both damage the structure of the rock, and obviously cannot be performed just anywhere without risking failure of the rock, or entire collapse. Advance scouting and proper preparation is essential. As we do more of this type of technical exploration, more will be posted. In short, my favored equipment for this type of work comes from a few companies. Petzl and Black Diamond harnesses are excellent, and they offer a diverse selection to meet individual needs – I have, and will continue, to trust my life to them. Similarly, their pro; My rack is filled with Petzl and Black Diamond quickdraws and carabiners, along with a Black Diamond ATC belay device, and a Petzl Grigri. The next rope I buy will probably be a Blue Water, although Petzl (again), Mammut and others also make good ropes. As a guideline, any quality rock, big wall or mountain climbing equipment maker will be a good source of gear for this endeavor. There is really not the room in this article to go into detail on methods and tools for this type of mine exploration. Adding a technical element to abandoned mine exploration does add another layer of danger, and you need to know what you are doing. This is a sub-set of mine exploration that truly deserves its own article, with detailed attention to safety and technique and what type of gear is required, before what brands of gear are used. That is forthcoming, all things in due time.

Abandoned mine exploration is one of the most unique, challenging and enjoyable adventures possible. It is an amazing experience, and presents unique, diverse, challenges mentally and physically. It’s also a very accessible pursuit, as abandoned mines can be found almost anywhere. A great challenge, a great deal of fun, and a unique experience all in driving distance of home – What more could anyone ask for?

Abandoned Mine Exploration Links:





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