Jeremy MacLee explores an abandoned mine near Eureka, Utah. (AP)

Jeremy MacLee explores an abandoned mine near Eureka, Utah. (AP)

What’s the thrill of exploring old mines?

What’s the thrill of exploring old mines? "Nobody has walked the path you're walking for 100 years," says Jeremy MacLee. (AP)

Heavy equipment is used to cover a mine shaft, one of about 6,000 that have been sealed in the U.S. so far. (AP)

Heavy equipment is used to cover a mine shaft, one of about 6,000 that have been sealed in the U.S. so far. (AP)

This gaping mine shaft leads to one of the thousands of abandoned mine shafts in the U.S. (AP)

This gaping mine shaft leads to one of the thousands of abandoned mine shafts in the U.S. (AP)

Old mines are sealed using earthmoving equipment, cinderblock, or metal grates. (AP)

Old mines are sealed using earthmoving equipment, cinderblock, or metal grates. (AP)

Explorers crawl into tunnels lined with sparkling quartz, century-old rail cars, and caverns that seem like buried ballrooms. (AP)

Explorers crawl into tunnels lined with sparkling quartz, century-old rail cars, and caverns that seem like buried ballrooms. (AP)

Into the Mines

Posted: December 31, 2018

Switch on your head lamp. You’re about to enter a world underground!

Jeremy MacLee is a spelunker, or cave explorer. He checks old documents to find forgotten mines in Utah. He steps onto abandoned paths. He is the first person to walk on them in 100 years!

Mr. MacLee and a group of friends meet in front of a cave opening near Eureka, Utah. They wear helmets, oxygen meters, and strong lights—and they don’t forget a stash of extra batteries. Cool air blasts from the cave opening, cutting through the desert heat. Inside the cave, they walk between metal tracks that once carried carts used in mining. They move through a tunnel. After nearly a mile, the metal tracks suddenly stop. The group stands at an abyss. The tunnel opens wide into a huge cavern.

Rewind. A hundred years ago, the cave was a bustling scene lit with candles and gas lamps. Miners climbed scaffolding as tall as a seven-story building. The cave was filled with the sounds of workers digging out lead and silver.

But today it is pitch-black and silent. The spelunkers’ searching headlight beams add the only light.

Thousands of abandoned mines like this one hide buried in the American West under mountains and deserts. Spelunkers slip underground. They find tunnels lined with sparkling quartz stone, caverns like buried ballrooms, and relics like old rail cars. The spelunkers can only say, “WOW!”

But Utah officials have something else to say: “WHOA!” And they mean “whoa” as in, “hold your horses!” Spelunking in abandoned mines is dangerous. Eleven people have died in the caves since 1982. More than 40 have been injured. Some were exploring. Others just fell into the hidden holes. Some mines are filled with toxic water that can harm people. Abandoned explosives can go off. Low-oxygen air (called “black damp” by miners) can harm spelunkers without the right equipment. And don’t forget snakes, spiders, bats, mountain lions, and bobcats!

The world of hidden mines is still the Wild West. If people disobey a sign warning them not to enter a mine, they are breaking the law. But people are rarely punished for such trespassing. And spelunkers have an argument of their own. “Spelunking can be risky,” they say. “But it’s no more dangerous than hiking or skiing!”