continued 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."