On July 11, 16-year-old John Mazuran and two friends were hiking in the old Max-field Mine in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The trio had ventured almost a half mile into the tunnel when they decided to explore a vertical shaft that descended to a lower level.
About 60 feet down, Mazuran lost his footing and slid 100 feet to the bottom of the shaft. He tried to climb back up, but the wet rock provided no footing. His friends had no rope to pull him out.Mazuran was lucky. He was hiking with friends who were able to climb out of the shaft and summon deputy sheriffs to rescue him.
But others who have ventured into the Maxfield Mine have not been as lucky. In 1985, two brothers spent two days lost in the mine, which consists of a virtual maze of tunnels and shafts.
The men survived by drinking water off the floor and exercising to keep their body temperatures up. They were found by search and rescue officers acting on a hunch the missing men might be in the mine.
The mine has been particularly troublesome to state and county officials over the years, and the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining is now taking steps to close the Maxfield Mine, as well as dozens of other abandoned mines, before someone is killed or seriously injured.
The division has just begun work on a $384,000 federally funded project to close off all abandoned mines in Millcreek, Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons.
"We've identified more than 300 openings in those canyons alone," said Mary Ann Wright, administrator of the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. "We've got more than 30 openings within one 150-acre area alone."
The Division of Oil, Gas and Mining is in the process of identifying which mines have active claims and which mines are abandoned. "We legally can't do anything about the active claims, but we want to go after the most troublesome abandoned mines."
Because of the extreme danger associated with abandoned mines, the state will seal the abandoned mines with concrete.
"We've got lots of kids going into those mines to drink beer and party," said Wright, "and we've got a lot of curious explorers. There are more than 2 million people a year traipsing around those mountains, and there is a lot of risk when inexperienced people venture into those shafts."
In fact, several adventurers have died in various Utah mines.
Wright said there are literally hundreds of miles of underground tunnels through the Wasatch Mountains, many of which form a labyrinth extending miles into the depths of the mountains. Once in the maze, it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find the way back out.
And that's if the person survives falls into vertical shafts and bites from venomous snakes and insects.
The closing of old silver and gold mines along the Wasatch Front is one of five mine reclamation projects in Utah being funded by a federal coal tax. About $127,000 will be spent on the Rilda Mine in Emery County, $173,000 on the Meetinghouse Mine in Emery County, $42,017 to clean up mine tailings in Price City and $872,241 for the Standardville mines in Carbon County.
While the Wasatch project involves gold and silver mines, the other four projects all involve coal mines. The coal projects involve the closing of shafts (vertical tunnels) and adits (horizontal tunnels), the taking down of dilapidated structures and environmental cleanup.
The Wasatch project involves just the closing of shafts and adits.
State officials have been canvassing the Wasatch Mountains the past two summers to identify openings.
But officials must sift through claims to determine which are legitimate and active and which are not. In many cases, claims overlap one another, and the state must decide who has the most legitimate claim.
"Once we determine who owns what, we can go in and start closing the inactive ones," Wright said.
The active claims will undoubtedly continue to pose a safety problem for the state. The state has no control over what safety procedures are implemented to keep hikers out of the shafts.
"The law enables anyone who wants to make a claim," she said. "All they have to do is file it with the county assessor and the Bureau of Land Management. And they must do at least $100 a year in site development to keep their claim active."
Site development can be anything from building an access road to digging a shaft or clearing the land. "It's not hard to spend $100, especially if you claim your own labor," Wright said.
Wright said there are still a lot of active claims in the Wasatch Mountains, even though most yield no return to the claim holder.
"Even though they may go there only once or twice a year, people are filing on them every year," Wright said. "They are not abandoned mines per se, but they are a hazard just the same."