I recently heard a great story about the safety culture that has permeated the mining industry over the past decade, with probably a bit of overkill within the major miners. At an alleged meeting between 50+ mining execs from each side of Newmont and Barrick in New York City, discussing a possible business combo, the Newmont chair of the meeting started it off with a safety share: “when walking the streets of New York, make sure you put your blackberries away, since you might step in to the street and get hit by a car”. Getting struck and killed while walking and trolling Facebook is a risk that transects all industries, but particular to the mining industry, there are no shortage of ways to meet your maker in mining or exploration. Oh, and the Newmont-Barrick merger didn’t happen!
A short list of hazards, in no particular order, include: helicopter or fixed wing crashes, rolling ATV’s, getting shot, avalanches, kidnapping, malaria and all manner of tropical diseases, freezing to death, boiling to death, mauled by a large carnivore, bitten by a small, poisonous critter, falling, or drowning. I have many friends and acquaintances where all of the above has happened, unfortunately with a few fatalities. And like most veteran geologists, a few of these incidents happened to me. And of course there is risk of getting whacked by a disgruntled investor in this type of market; that fortunately hasn’t happened…yet.
Almost all geologists that have worked in the north have a whole series of helicopter stories. I have done, and worked with plenty of pilots that did risky things with choppers. (See photo below, dangling on a longline while surveying in the mountains). These workhorses for remote mineral exploration are probably the biggest risk in my business. My first (and hopefully only) helicopter crash happened in Alaska in 1995. I was alone in a Hughes 500D with my pilot, a Vietnam vet, flying out of the mountains to some low hills when our engine flamed out. It was a windy day, and we were flying downwind when it happened; Ken let out a mayday and turned into the wind. This resulted in losing rotor speed; when helicopter blades are turning above 90%, they become ridged like an airplane wing. At slower speeds, they are flexible. Additionally, you can’t autorotate, which is a process where you use the gravitational energy in the helicopter to ‘flare’ before you set the helicopter down; this is a process that all mountain pilots practice regularly. So we hit the ground hard but stayed upright. Dust from under the footrests filled the bubble; the main blades sagged back and cut off the tail boom, and I watched the horizontal stabilizer go bouncing by. We were ok, but I may have pooped myself a little. It was crash lucky number 13 for my pilot, 11 of which were in Vietnam, so I was crashing with one of the best in the business.
My friend and geologist Peter Daubeny had his own, more significant crash in Alaska one year later. This time there were three geologists on board, plus the pilot in another Hughes 500D. Flying over a ridge, they were shocked to see a small Cessna 206 plane flying low, right in front of them. Both pilots tried to evade, but the main rotor clipped and cut off the tail wheel of the plane, losing the tip of one of the five blades. The main rotors were obviously out of balance; as the chopper pilot slowed the machine, once again, the blades slowed and cut off the tail boom. The helicopter rapidly spiraled down towards the ground. Peter’s door popped open, and his seatbelt was loose, so he found himself hanging outside as the machine whipped around. They hit the ground hard, smashing the machine. Fortunately all four walked away with minor injuries; Peter tells me that he couldn’t talk after since he lost his voice from screaming! I think we all would.
All geologists have helicopter stores, and they also have bear stories. Working with many Alaskan’s over the years, their joke is to ‘look for bells and pepper spray in bear scat if a Canadian goes missing’. Of course, my gun-loving American friends protect themselves by packing all sorts of heavy weaponry in the very rare chance that you get attacked. But attacks do happen. When dealing with grizzlies, thick hides and skulls necessitate heavy weaponry; another joke goes: ‘if you are packing a pistol smaller than a .45 in grizzly country, make sure you file the gunsite off, that way it doesn’t hurt as much when the bear shoves it up your ass!’
Robert Miller, a geologist who once worked for me at Full Metal Minerals, was cutting a landing pad while working for Millrock resources in south-central Alaska. He was ambushed by a black bear, but had enough time to get his .357 out. He got one shot off after the first attack, and turtled while the bear bit and gnawed at him. The bear backed away, and Rob managed to get two more shots off; he said he remembers fur flying off of it. After another mauling, he was too injured to move, and thankfully the bear took off. He was shortly spotted by the helicopter and rescued.
One of the most amazing stories is of USGS geologist Cynthia Dusel-Bacon. She was attacked and had both arms ripped off by a bear, and managed to survive until help arrive. As a testament to the incredible will and strength of this woman, she continued to work for another three decades in the field using prosthetics, studying the regional tectonics and metallogeny of Alaska; I worked with her in the Bonnifield and Fortymile districts where she performed excellent research.
Bears are a common sighting on exploration projects almost anywhere in the north. I never cease to be amazed at their beauty and strength; even a small black bear would crush Mike Tyson in his prime. I have photos of my father and uncle Don in Stewart with their orphaned pet grizzly cub “Grumpy” that they adopted in Stewart BC in the 1940’s. After he bit my grandfather, Grumpy ended up in a neighbour’s stew pot! Growing up in Stewart and regular run ins with bears fortunately taught me cautious respect of these creatures; I find it ironic that certain Aussie’s are terrified of working in bear country, coming from a region with deadly poisonous snakes, crocs and spiders the size of dinner plates!
The rampant safety culture in mining and exploration is a good thing. Through the 80’s and 90’s accidental injury and death was a lot more common. For some major mining companies, some consider the safety aspects overdone. I once had a joint venture program with one of the world’s largest miners. I received a four-pack of DVDs full of pdf manuals that covered everything from Alligators to Zulu’s. There were no local helicopter companies that had twin engine helicopters and enough safety/insurance coverage to fly this major’s geologists, so they had to work the several million acre target area from the only road. This made my crew feel a bit ‘disposable’!
Many past employers implemented excellent safety training programs. When I worked at the Hope Bay Project in the high arctic, risk of death during the -40C blizzards common during out winter drill programs was pretty obvious. We were trained how to survive in snow shelters or igloos by a retired Canadian Armed Forces colonel. We had a D8 fall through the ice on the ocean, and I got nailed with frostbite a few times, as did everyone else in crew, but am grateful to my old employers at Hope Bay Gold and Miramar for their attention to safety.
All of us in the industry have lost friends and acquaintances, including: geologists, diamond drillers, miners and pilots; fortunately at an ever decreasing rate. Most exploration camps forbid alcohol, as opposed to the booze drenched camps that were common in the start of my career. ‘Diamond driller’ and ‘haywire’ were synonymous terms, and who wants to go flying with a pilot nursing a crushing hangover?
Nerveless, accidents and incidents still happen that are difficult to predict. At our Red Mountain property, the first Project manager in the early 90’s passed away due to a bee sting on the Property; subsequently, all staff were required to carry epi-pens. One of my classmates from UBC contracted a sudden and fatal disease, apparently through wildlife scat in the Yukon. There are happier endings though; my friend and geologist Gernot Wober was kidnapped and held in the jungles of Colombia by leftist rebels but was fortunately released. Gernot, an avid outdoorsman, tells me that he had plenty of opportunities to shoot his captors using their unattended machine guns. But then what would he do?
I was chuckling recently at a photo from 1993 of some my buddies working underground at Red Mountain, and impressed at the number of safety violations in one photo! Here are two miners, one without hardhat, riding in a scoop bucket in the winter, packing unsecured explosives, smoking, wearing avalanche transponders that were undoubtedly on, and definitely nursing serious hangovers!
There are riskier professions out there. Nonetheless, my regular trips in helicopters into steep and remote, bear-infested avalanche country still keeps my elderly mother awake at night. The best piece of safety advice I ever received was from Bruce Anderson, a prospector from Smithers who past away from cancer a few years back. He said, ‘never risk your life…for a rock’! I try to pass that advice down to my field crews. But like most of my brothers and sisters in exploration, it is that gold fever and wonderment of the natural world that keeps me going back to the field, and maybe to avoid that potential disgruntled investor who recently filed the gunsite off of his pistol!
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— Rob McLeod (@goldfinder12) June 10, 2015