The Day I Got Trapped Down A Mine

Whenever I see TV coverage of recovery missions, I can't help think about the horribly claustrophobic time I spent down a Bolivian mine with a a nervous German and several sticks of dynamite.
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I, too, have been stuck down a mine. I survived cramped, uncomfortable conditions with just a ball of coca leaves and a Davy lamp. For company, I had a claustrophobic Californian, a nervous German carrying several sticks of dynamite and a Bolivian miner called Roberto. We eventually got out after an epic struggle up rope ladders and through a tiny chute drilled several hundred feet into the mountainside.

Admittedly, I was only down there for about three hours. But listening to the Californian moaning about how uncomfortable he was and watching the German’s every move in case he accidentally blew us all up, it felt like weeks. When we arrived back safely at the surface, there were no TV crews or journalists waiting to record our relief. Just a bloke from the tour agency wanting his helmets, rubber boots and overalls back.

This was Potosi in the Bolivian Andes back in the 90s. You can still take guided tours of the mines in the famed Cerro Rico – “Rich Hill” – today, though health and safety rules and the depletion of most of the silver ore means you are unlikely to go as deep as we did. And the current warning in the pages of Lonely Planet is probably enough to put even Indiana Jones off:

“These are working mines and conditions are harsh. Visitors may be exposed to a range of harmful substances including silica dust (the cause of silicosis), arsenic gas, acetylene vapors and asbestos. Anyone with medical conditions such as claustrophobia, asthma or other respiratory conditions should not enter the mines. Serious accidents can also occur…”

I’d arrived in Potosi on the overnight bus from La Paz. At an altitude of 13,357 feet, it’s the highest city of its size in the world. At six in the morning, it also felt like the coldest. I’d barely started unpacking when a tout was knocking at my hotel room door selling a guided tour to one of the mines on Cerro Rico. Still befuddled from my sleepless journey and breathless from the cold and altitude, I signed up. A few hours later, I found myself in the company of Californian Randy and German Helmut on the local bus to the miners’ market with our irritatingly wide-awake and garrulous guide Jorge.

On the way, Jorge explained to us how Cerro Rico - a bare, pink pyramid that had once been the greatest natural deposit of silver on earth and made Potosi the largest town in the New World - was now a honeycomb of mineshafts. Some of these were operated by the state mining company, others were owned by private concerns. But the vast majority of tunnels and holes that had been burrowed and drilled into the hill belonged to the hundreds of independent co-operatives, often one-man operations. The mine we were to visit - "Rosario" - was one of these.

"I was down there for three hours. But listening to the Californian moan about how uncomfortable he was and watching the German’s every move in case he blew us all up, it felt like weeks."

The miners’ market was where the co-op workers bought their primitive equipment and supplies. Fancy stuff like protective helmets and respirators, safety lamps and labour-saving drills were the preserve of the lucky few employed by the private or state companies. The co-op workers had to rely on hammers and chisels and, if they could afford it, either bagfuls of nitro-glycerine or sticks of dynamite. The shop also sold fuses, detonators, candles for Davy lamps, rolled cigarette papers bulging with cheap, coarse tobacco, unlabelled bottles of neat alcohol and bags of coca leaves.

The alcohol was drunk once a week in homage to El Tio – The Devil – who owned the silver and other minerals, explained Jorge. The coca leaves were chewed to ward off fatigue and hunger - the miners didn't eat during their normal eight hour shift.

"You should buy some gifts to give to the miners we meet,” said Jorge. “It is a tradition. If you buy some dynamite, buy the Argentine brand. It is slightly more expensive, but much better quality."

I bought some cigarettes and a bag of leaves. Helmut bought some sticks of dynamite. When we caught another bus the rest of the way to Cerro Rico, I couldn't bear to look in Helmut's direction as we bounced over potholes and deep ruts in the road.

At the entrance to the mine, Jorge unlocked the door to a small cabin. On the floor inside was a pile of rags encrusted in dried mud and other stains. "Please change into these overalls. It is very dirty in the mine," he instructed us.

We were also given rubber boots, open-flame lamps that were blown out by the slightest breath of air, and ill-fitting hard hats that fell off every time we made contact with a wooden beam or rocky overhang (which was often). Before walking through the wooden gateway into the shaft, Jorge pointed out the bloodstains on the rock, the remnants of llama sacrifices to keep Pachamama - Mother Earth - happy. I think this was supposed to be reassuring.

No sooner had we left the blazing morning sunshine than we were shivering next to dripping stalactites. An icy breeze from somewhere within buffeted our faces as we followed a disused rail track deeper into the darkness. Then the rail track and tunnel came to an abrupt end, and Jorge pointed his lamp at a hole in the ground: this was the entrance to the primero piso, first floor of the mine. We found ourselves in a passage which had been hewn out of the solid rock by various means ranging from chisel and hammer to drills and explosives. At points, it was barely three feet high. The rest our our time below ground was to be spent in a stooped position.

Along the way, our lamps picked out veins of tin and zinc, and great green, red and blue splashes of copper sulphate. Jorge told us how the copper sulphate and asbestos in the mine left many workers disabled with severe pulmonary problems. The life expectancy of the miners in the co-ops was 40. For enduring a death sentence like that over their heads every day for six or seven days a week - with one day consisting of a 24-hour shift - they'd earn an average of $100 a month.

"The Spaniards forced Indian slaves to dig these mines. If they didn't, they'd starve. Not much has changed in 400 years," observed Jorge sombrely.

By now, it was getting distinctly warmer. Sweat was streaming from my brow. It felt like we were appraching the fiery bowels of hell. Occassionally we’d skirt past gaping holes in the ground where blasts of cool air whooshed up from other, distant entrances to the mine, momentarily reviving us. At other times, we'd find ourselves gasping for breath in narrow, slit-like corridors where Jorge would urge us to keep moving with the ominous warning: "There isn't much oxygen in this part of the mine."

Often the passageway was reduced to a narrow, slippery chute and we'd be forced down onto our hands, knees and stomachs to crawl and slide our way along. The deeper we plunged, the more painful it became. The flames in our Davy lamps were continually being blown out. It was at about this point that Randy revealed his fear of confined spaces. And the dark. My first thought was: if he has a panic attack and grabs hold of Helmut’s dynamite, we’re fucked. Jorge managed to calm him with a ball of coca leaves. And the promise of a Pisco Sour in town that night.

When we arrived back safely at the surface, there were no TV crews or journalists waiting to record our relief. Just a bloke from the tour agency wanting his helmets, rubber boots and overalls back.

To descend to the second and third pisos, we had to shin down wooden ladders and wriggle through tiny holes. At one point we had to lower ourselves 20 feet down a sheer rock face by means of a knotted piece of rope suspended from a crossbeam. At the back of our minds was the realisation that we’d have to all this in reverse on the return journey.

After all this effort, the very least I expected was that we’d eventually emerge into some giant, subterranean chamber where armies of miners would be toiling at the rockface or pushing cartloads of precious minerals between stations. What we actually got was a solitary, grunting, middle-aged figure rhythmically hammering a two-ft long chisel into the ceiling of the passage which came to an abrupt end behind him.

We had taken more than an hour, descended about 500 feet and walked or crawled nearly two miles to reach the heart of the "Rosario" mine and our goal. And here it was: father-of-nine and 30-year mining veteran Senor Roberto Mendez sweating it out at the end of a passageway barely high or wide enough to accommodate one malnourished Bolivian, never mind a lanky, corn-fed Californian.

Once we'd got our breath back, we handed over our dynamite, cigarettes and coca leaves to a grateful Roberto and were invited to ask him questions. Was the job as tough as it looked? He told us he never thought about how hard it was, only if he was extracting enough minerals.

The amount he was paid depended on how much he found. Had he ever been injured? Yes, many times, the worst being when he slipped 20-feet down a hole he hadn't seen lurking in the shadows. He'd fractured his skull and broken an arm, and was in hospital for three months. Without pay. Would he be encouraging any of his sons to follow in his footsteps? Not likely. It was too dangerous and not rewarding enough. All his children were students. They could get better work than this, and when they did, he would at last be able to retire.

By the time we emerged back out into the blinding sunlight of the world above, it had been three hours since we had gone in. We were filthy, bruised, exhausted and incredibly stiff from having been bent practically double for such long periods. While we peeled off our overalls, Jorge set about preparing the final feature of our tour – the dynamite demonstration.

He went around warning all the groups of miners who were sitting smoking and chewing coca leaves nearby. When he had found his spot, he painstakingly removed as many of the loose stones as possible. With all this fuss, we though Jorge must be about to impress us with a whole bundle of dynamite sticks. In fact, he lit just one. The fuse wire hissed and sparked as Jorge came sprinting towards us, shouting for us to get down. We felt the ground jolt beneath us and heard a dull boom as a couple of loose rocks went flying overhead. When we went over to inspect the damage, a thin film of smoke hung over a crater nearly 10 feet across.

It had been one of the Argentine sticks. Exactly the same Argentine sticks nervous, twitchy Helmut had been carrying as he squeezed through holes, bumped against walls and shinned down ropes on his way to meet Senor Roberto Mendez 500 feet and two miles into the depths of Cerro Rico.

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