Yet, these mine explorers are not to be put off by hazards that might discourage less intrepid – or foolhardy – folk. And the physical barrier of a steel stopper certainly doesn’t deter them. The team has a blowtorch that makes quick work of the metal seal, sparks flying down into the darkness below. A few minutes’ work and they’re in – descending into a mine whose maximum depth is 880 meters (2,887 feet) beneath the surface.
The explorers don’t even know in what condition they will find the abandoned mine: if it is flooded or whether there is enough air. They begin their journey into the depths regardless. Climbing down a vertical shaft, there is already danger. A carelessly placed foot or overly corroded rung could mean a plunge of 200 meters (656 feet) straight down – the end before they have even begun.
Moving downwards, the explorers can feel the humidity rising. Torrents of groundwater appear, soaking the members of the team to their skin. The water ensures rust appears around the ladder, and the metal crumbles in their hands. What’s more, as noted, the ventilation shafts which once kept fresh air circulating through the mine have long since been plugged. Without them, the air is stale and heavy.
Still, if the worst these explorers encounter is unpleasant air, they can consider themselves lucky. One of the biggest hazards in abandoned mines is the accumulation of toxic gasses, or simply air that does not contain enough oxygen. Building up over time, these odorless vapors are liable to bring death without the victim ever realizing anything is wrong. At least, not until is too late.
Reaching solid ground, the adventurers are relieved and somewhat surprised to discover that the first tunnel in which they find themselves is dry. It is not unusual for abandoned mines to gradually fill up with seeping groundwater – although in this particular mine, it still appears to be being pumped out somehow. A stroke of good fortune – but how much more luck can they count on?
Concealed shafts that are all too easy to fall down and other perilous obstacles like rocks that can trap people are the more obvious dangers for anyone who ventures into an abandoned mine. However, while it may seem more innocuous, superficially at least, the standing water found in mines can absorb poisonous gases – only to release them when the unsuspecting explorer splashes through.
Although there is no apparent flooding in this Russian mine, the effects of the damp are everywhere. The tracks for the trolleys – once used to transport the extracted iron ore through the tunnels – now lie rusted and crumbling to dust. No rust-prone metal can last long in such a humid environment. It is a place of danger and decay.
In the next tunnel the evidence of falling rocks and cave-ins is everywhere. The explorers are painfully aware that only a few ancient and creaking timber poles stand between them and either a sudden death, due to being crushed, or a slow demise – from being trapped and essentially buried alive. As they negotiate the rubble, the members of the team can’t help but think of the huge weight of earth and rocks barely suspended over their heads.
Yet, the mine explorers cannot rely on past cave-ins or rickety looking supports as signs of danger. Even a seemingly sound passage might be fraught with peril. Fractures may be hidden in the rocks above, with even the slightest vibration enough to trigger a deadly collapse. It’s best to keep one’s footsteps light and careful down here – and keep talking to a minimum – so as to cause as little disturbance as possible.
Not all the dangers lie overhead either. Tunnels can contain ventilation shafts in the ground capable of sending the unwary tumbling down to unknown depths. Many such shafts are covered by wooden boards, but these boards can themselves become hidden beneath piles of rubble. It can be all too easy for an unsuspecting explorer to crash through such a flimsy barrier – with fatal consequences.
Among the debris, the members of the group find occasional pieces of rubbish left behind by the miners. The dates on discarded packaging show that no one has worked down here for a number of years. Seeing the mine in this empty and derelict state, it seems hard to imagine the hundreds who must have once toiled in these tunnels day in and day out.
There is yet another risk to consider in an abandoned mine such as this: departing miners sometimes leave far more dangerous objects lying around than mere trash. Explosives like dynamite – previously used to blast away rock – may also be hidden among the debris. One more reason, if it were needed, to tread very, very carefully.
The explorers have walked deep into the mine now, down tunnel after tunnel, many of them seemingly identical. Even with bright torches, it’s easy to get confused down here. Of course, without this source of light, these people would have no hope of ever finding their way out again. And since the mine is abandoned, it is extremely unlikely that anyone would ever find them. Not alive, anyway.
Down in the depths of the mine, the adventurers happen upon an emergency room. In the event of a fire, or in case of an accident such as an explosion or cave-in, the miners would have taken refuge behind the thick metal doors. If they were lucky enough to make it there in time. Mines are clearly hazardous places to be even when they are fully operational. Abandoned, the dangers are only amplified.
The fact that so many men once labored down in these tunnels in such difficult conditions is testament to the value of the substance they excavated. Iron ore is considered one of the most vital commodities in the global economy, with only oil, perhaps, more important. Moreover, mines such as this one have helped make Russia the world’s fifth largest producer of iron ore.
The explorers at last arrive at a part of the mine that is flooded. The water has reacted with the metal to bring out the stunning colors, but the bright tones may well conceal countless dangers – be it more tangible hazards beneath the surface, or noxious gases that could be released to deadly effect. This is as far as the team can go in this mine. Time to begin the long trek back up.
Toward the end of their journey, the adventurers encounter a relic from the mine’s working days – a trolley used to transport the ore to the main shaft, from where the mined product could be hauled up to the surface. Like the rails it sits on, and almost everything else down here, the trolley is rusted and beyond use. Meanwhile, the passage ahead is blocked, preventing further exploration.
As they begin their ascent, up out of the mine, the group of explorers is still far from safe. The exertion of climbing causes them to take deeper breaths of the stagnant air. If there are any toxic gases present, this is when people are most likely to be affected by them. Fainting or even just falling victim to a dizzy spell on the way up a ladder could lead to a dangerous fall.
After a long climb, the explorers are out. To their surprise, an entire night has gone by while they were in the mine. There is nothing down in the tunnels to indicate the passage of time.