Telescope Peak Photo provided by Tom Schweich

Telescope Peak In A Snowstorm

Death Valley National Monument has the lowest elevation of any site in the United States. On its west side, rising over 11,000 feet into the sky, Telescope Peak is the highest point in the monument. The mountain sits on the north end of the Panamint Range.

It was early winter. The weather was cold, the sky dull gray. My 14-year-old son, Ross, and I were at 6000 feet on a mountain next to Telescope, working underground in our Christmas Silver Mine. We had repaired a broken section of mine rail for the ore car and sampled a portion of the rich silver vein showing 400 ounces per ton by our last sample assay.

"We're done here for today. You want to eat lunch and go up Telescope or head for home?" I asked my son.


"Could be cold."

"Okay with me."

We'd talked about it before, wondering if there were any interesting rock outcrops between the mine and Telescope Peak. Ross, from the age of eight, was a better surface prospector than I. His head was closer to the ground, and he had eagle eyes.

We started up our mountain and contoured around it to hit the back side of Telescope. We both picked up "float," rock lying loose on the surface, for close examination. These pieces, broken off of outcrops by weathering, were checked for density by hefting in the hand, and for base metal oxides by close visual analysis. We had an eye out for the tell-tale colors of lead oxide, in which our rich silver was hidden, and for the extra weight lead would give such a rock.

The sky darkened and a drizzle began. As we worked our way up between glistening, wet creosote bushes and small pines, Ross asked, "Dad, when's the first time you came to Death Valley?"

"A few years ago. I did an examination of the old underground Cashier Mine for the Aguereberry family. There was no ore left in the mine. Pete Aguereberry, in the 1930s, had mined everything except the support pillars."

"What about the Christmas Mine? When did you get here?" "Right after the Cashier job. When I heard about the trouble." "Did the Christmas owners really get killed?"

"So they say. I didn't know the owners. Buck Johnson and Omar Heironimous were trying to get the mine going. The National Park Service (NPS) wanted all the miners out of Death Valley. They gave Buck and Omar so much trouble, the two of them up and died. Omar's widow says the park service killed her husband, harassed him to death."

"Wow! Weren't you afraid the park service would come after you?"

"Never thought of it until it happened. I got a summons the same day I staked the claims left by the dead men. A month later I was in federal court in Bishop for 'possession of natural features,' my ore samples."

"If it's your mine, how could they do that?"

"They have regulations and one or two nasty people. Hey, it's getting really dark. Look at the clouds we're walking into." A mist surrounded us. Visibility was about one hundred feet. A light snowfall began and the wind picked up. We couldn't see enough of the ground at our feet to tell one rock from another; the prospecting part of the walk seemed about over.

"Dad, why is the government so mean? What did you do to them?" "Good questions. The government isn't mean. But there are mean people on the payroll. What I did was open a mine at the same time the park service was trying to close down all the mine activity." "How'd you find out about the miners who died?" "There was a newspaper called the Death Valley Bulletin. The editor wrote about the mine and about the owners getting put in jail by the park service. He wrote about Buck and Omar dying because of the NPS. I read the paper. Everybody out here did."

"Were you upset?"

"Yeah, I was. That's when I first came up here, to see what all the fuss was about, to learn if the park service was really so bad and the mine was actually so good."

"Boy, it's cold. I'm puttin' my face mask on. What did the park service say to you?"

"Not much at first. You want to head back?"

"Heck no, Dad. It might clear up when we get above the clouds. Did they give you a hard time?"

"They said there wasn't any silver in the mine. Their mining engineer said that in the Bishop District Court in front of the judge."

"That's dumb. How could he do that when Asarco smelter paid you for silver you shipped from the mine?"

"Our smelter shipment came later. Before my first trip out here, Omar's widow got snookered out of the mine by the NPS mining engineer. He took samples of barren rock, had them assayed, and used the fake sample assays to in-validate her rights. Then I came along and staked the same claims. The NPS hated that and told me there was no silver. "I remember a couple times you came home pretty up-set over what was going on here."

"Once I got in the mine I couldn't quit. The silver looked so good I decided to fight the Feds. I bought a few law books. The case went to the Federal Building in L.A., with a judge and all kinds of government lawyers and geologists.

I was my own lawyer."

We stood for a minute, shielded from the wind by a natural rock wall. I took my pack off and got my camera out. Ross asked, "How can one guy stand up against the government? Aren't the odds stacked against you?"

We went on without taking pictures. "There's more than one way to look at the odds. Sure, the numbers were against me, an infinite number against one. But I knew a little about the mining law. I ] was in the right, and I knew NPS was brutalizing all the mine ]owners in Death Valley. There were 114 of us. I wrote to all the others."

"That's when you wrote to the President, right?"

"Right. I petitioned President Ford and members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives for help. Things began to change. The mining press championed my cause."

"What happened?"

"I guess you could say fate took a hand. One Death Valley NPS mining engineer had a serious heart problem hours after visiting the mine. The top Senior NPS Mining Engineer shot his head off, and yet another high Washing-ton official wrote an apology to me and took early retirement." "I guess you got your satisfaction."

"No, I just made sure not to make any mistakes, and not to quit. You never heard about the rest of it." "What else happened?" "The Government Accounting Office investigated the NPS mineral policy. The GAO lawyers from Washington and San Francisco came to me in my lab to get my testimony. NPS got called for improper procedures."

"Dad, is this little mine worth all that trouble?"

"I think so. It isn't just the mine. You get to a place where you just can't quit. There was some dirty business out here. I never knew Buck or Omar, but they can rest easier now that all the dust is settled."

Now it was snowing. We used our big Zeiss camera to take a self-photo standing next to a gnarled bristlecone pine. The wind came up a bit as we got near 9000 feet. The going was slow. I changed the easy contour walk and turned almost straight up the mountain to get the job done, Ross close behind.

Minutes later the weather got really bad, with blowing snow and poor visibility. The cold cut through my Levis. I slowed the pace and worried about my youngest son. This miserable venture was no place for him. But he was just two steps behind me. What to do? Maybe test him, let him see how tough it could get, how his dad faced Adversity. A good lesson, maybe.

Now the wind came right at us, filled with dry snow and bitter cold. I had to lean forward to make progress. Ross was a few steps back, sheltered by my body. I didn't see how we could go much farther.

Bent almost double against the fierce wind, eyes blinking at the ground below me, I slowed once more. Talking was out. It was a struggle to go on. My blind stare at my feet was suddenly distracted by a shadow. Then the wind, thankfully, diminished. I looked up. My young son was in front, leading the way.

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Published in The California Explorer, 2001.

Reprinted with permission of the author.
Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy
805 S Shamrock Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
Telephone: 626-357-6511
Fax: 626-358-8386

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