Monday, September 21, 2015

Leadville Excursion Plus Some Research

Thursday morning Bob and I woke up pretty early (still on eastern time!), so we worked out in the (predictably) very nice fitness room before showering and eating a delicious breakfast buffet with the other employees.  (The cinnamon rolls were amazing--flaky like croissants!)  Then while they had meetings, I went hiking with 4 other wives.  This is again where you can tell the fanciness of the hotel--they drove us in a hotel SUV to the trailhead, and then picked us back up when we called at the end of our hike.  It was so good to get out in the fresh Colorado air and sunshine!

After the meetings were over, Bob and I hopped in the car and drove down Rt. 24 to Leadville.  When we were stationed in Colorado Springs before, back in 1995-2001, I became very interested in Colorado history, especially of all the mining towns and colorful characters.  We made a trip to Telluride not long before we PCS'd, which was a real highlight of our time in CO for me, but we never made it out to Leadville.  It seemed overwhelming to plan a bunch of trips with (gasp) 2 little kids.  Haha!  In fairness, it was before the internet, and it was a lot harder to plan out trips.  But anyway, when I knew how close we would be this time, I for sure wanted to visit!
On our way over the mountains from Vail, we passed this big flat plain.  It dawned on me that this must be the place where Camp Hale used to be, where the 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II.  I have always been fascinated with that story too, so I bought a $3.00 booklet about them in one of the stores and spent a happy evening reading up on the unit.  Here is an account of their most famous battle to take Riva Ridge in Italy:
While the major elements of our attacking force were engaged in the darkness and bitter cold below Monte Belvedere, teams of picked rock climbers of the 1st Battalion of the 86th were assembling coils of ropes over their shoulders and clusters of pitons and other rock-climbing gear on their belts.
All the years of alpine training on Mount Rainier and Camp Hale, so publicized in newsreels and Hollywood movies, were now about to be tested. In fact, what developed was to be the only significant action in which the 10th had to use this most specialized kind of training. Nevertheless, no one in the War Department or in the 10th could later deny that this single exploit on Riva Ridge justified all the demanding training that had gone before.
A dusting of new snow covered the rock face and upper slopes of the mountains. The valley floor was a quagmire of freezing mud. Searchlights behind the combat area scanned the low—hanging wall of clouds and reflected a scattered, shadowy light over the terrain below. But the valley itself and the ridges were dark.
Climbing in the dead of night, members of the teams hammered steel pitons into the cracks in the rock, attached snap links to them, and then fastened ropes to the links which, hanging down, offered lines which those who followed could use to pull themselves up the vertical face of the ridge.
When the advance teams reached the top at approximately midnight, they signaled to the 1st Battalion units below that they could begin the ascent in force. These units advanced in a column of companies toward the foot of Riva Ridge and then split up, each taking a different route up the face of the cliff.
Fortunately, the haze which hung over the lower elevations of the ridge continued to help conceal the attacking mountaineers. With a biting and wet wind whipping them about, the climbers clambered cautiously up the wet rocks with the aid of the preset ropes, fearful that any dislodged rock that clattered down the cliff face would be followed by bursts of enemy machine guns and grenades.
Inevitably some rocks did fall, causing the climbers to halt in dread anticipation of the hail of death to follow. “Perfect fear casteth out love,” joked the Briton Cyril Connolly in his travesty of I John 4:18, and members of the 10th came to fully appreciate that remark in this introduction to combat.
By 4 A.M. on February 19, all three companies of the 1st Battalion, 86th, and Co. F of the 2nd had reached their separate objectives on top of the ridge unseen and had charged the holding units of the German 1044th Infantry Regiment with rifles and grenades. Surprise was complete.
“I don’t see how you did it,” one German defender stated. “We thought it was impossible for anyone to climb that cliff”
With the coming of daylight, the Germans began to launch the expected counterattack after counterattack, accompanied by heavy artillery fire on the ridge.
When accurate counterartillery bursts repulsed one attack, the Germans came back with their hands up, feigning surrender. After nearing the 1st Battalion positions, they dropped and began firing again, but were finally driven off with heavy casualties. One platoon alone, with the help of our supporting artillery, accounted for 26 Germans killed, 7 captured, and countless wounded.

Fascinating stuff!  Saturday night Bob and I watched a documentary on the history of Vail as we packed up.  Pete Seifert, one of the 10th Mountain veterans, was the one who bought the land and established the resort, which opened back in 1962.

In Leadville, we ate lunch at Subway and then we ended up just wandering through the little downtown shops, instead of going through the mining museum.  It was really fun.  We found a fascinating rock shop.  If I was teaching geology for my unit in the elementary co-op this year, I'm sure I would have spent all my money there!  We spent a good deal of time browsing through the whole shop.  It was so full of interesting rock and mineral samples.  It almost tempted me to start a rock collection!

As we drove back home, I totally missed the turn-off for Rt. 24, so we ended up going on 91 instead.  I realized my mistake a few miles down the road, but since we didn't have to be anywhere at any particular time, we decided to go this way anyway and see what there was to see.  What we found was the Climax Mine, at the top of Fremont Pass, which also had always interested me.  One of my chemistry professors in college had done a lot of research work with molybdenum, which is what is mined at the Climax.  It used to be huge, providing 3/4 of the world's molybdenum supply.  (Molybdenum is used to harden steel, among other things.)  It shut down for awhile, because molybdenum prices dropped, but it reopened in 2012, although not on such a grand scale as it used to be.  It used to be a regular underground mine, but at some point, they decided to convert to open-pit mining, so they blew up the mountain.  Now the pit is 1,000 feet deep.
As we continued on the drive, we saw this weird meadow with little ponds scattered throughout, and then further down, bigger bodies of water with a lot of weird crystallization in it.  When we got back to the hotel, I did some more research to figure out exactly what was going on there.  It turns out the whole area used to be tailing ponds for the Climax waste.  After the Climax stopped production, the few remaining employees turned their attention to reclamation of the ponds, because they sit at the headwaters of 3 major rivers, and because they receive about 25 inches of "surface water" a year, which is a lot of water in Colorado, where people are always fighting over water rights.  As this article from 2004 says, Climax spends millions of dollars a year to treat the water coming through the mine.  They were also able to transform one tailing pond into a small reservoir that meets drinking quality standards.
The picture above shows an even more interesting area.  It all used to be tailing ponds, which were capped by rock and soil to stabilize the surface.  Then a layer of topsoil was supposed to be added so that vegetation would grow, but since the area is at about 11,000 feet altitude, there's not much topsoil around.  So they contracted with the waste-water treatment plants to get their "sludge" (what is left after the water is treated), to which they add wood chips.  That lovely mixture is composted for a year, generating enough heat to kill off any pathological organisms, and then spread over the rocks.  The program used 5,000 tons of sludge a year back in 2004 when the article was written, and as you can see in the picture, most of the area has vegetation growing on it, so the program has been a huge success.  Climax has even won a bunch of awards for their reclamation efforts.
Here you can (barely) see some of the ponds that haven't been reclaimed yet.  They were the ones we originally noticed, since they look really mineral-y and weird.  Unfortunately there wasn't a pull-out closer to them, so there's no better picture.  I guess it wasn't considered a "scenic view", LOL.

So it was fun to fill my mind with something other than Latin and AP biology--and remember that I once had other interests, like the mining history of Colorado.  Maybe when I have time someday, I'l reread my stories of Baby Doe Tabor, et al.  One of my all-time favorite gifts was from my brother one Christmas when we lived in Colorado Springs--a book called Colorado 1870-2000, where a modern photographer, John Fielder, stood in the exact same places that a photographer named William Jackson stood in 1870, and you can compare the pictures side-by-side.  I thought it was fascinating back when Dan gave it to me, and now I can't wait to go through it again, especially now that I've been to more of the places in it!

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