Quick question: What business in the Pikes Peak region, valued at nearly $1 billion, would give any interested person an escorted tour of its property and facilities, lasting two and a half hours and including a thorough, fascinating education provided by a knowledgeable guide?
Along with four other couples, my wife and I discovered the answer on a personal level during the Labor Day weekend.
For a fee of $7.50 per person, we spent much of our Sunday afternoon learning more than we dreamed possible about the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co.
The enormous Teller County mine, which just changed hands this summer with Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. paying $820 million (plus a percentage of royalties on future gold production) to AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. of South Africa, has been providing public tours during summer months for years, and they’re not affected by the sale. Twice on most days from Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors can sign up for an experience they won’t soon, if ever, forget.
Each morning and afternoon, 12 to 15 people watch a safety video, sign releases, put on colorful safety vests and hard hats, and step onto a van in downtown Victor, the small town southeast of Cripple Creek that has been around since the 1890s.
The tour begins and ends outside the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum, named for the world-renowned broadcaster and writer (1892-1981) who grew up in Victor. For the record, the modest museum gets to keep the $7.50 charge.
You might think you’re somewhat knowledgeable about the Cripple Creek Mining District, which thrived for several decades during Colorado’s Gold Rush and has revived thanks to modern technology in the past two decades. But then you take the tour and realize how little most folks understand about the CC&V business and its scope.
Until you see it in person, you can’t grasp what’s involved in the massive, nonstop operation, two 12-hour shifts each day, 24/7, 365 days a year, with more than 550 sturdy employees who come from as far away as Cañon City, Pueblo and Colorado Springs, earning an average of nearly $80,000 a year. You hear the simple numbers — how the mine spends $825-$850 for each ounce of gold it extracts, now totaling roughly $1 million in gold each day, but that still doesn’t sound so intimidating.
In person, it’s gargantuan. They give you the first idea with a view from the top of the sprawling main open pit, several miles across and now more than 1,000 feet deep (still being drilled and mined deeper). Looking down, you see the “haul trucks” that bring unprocessed rock out from the bottom, and they appear toy-sized. Then the van takes you to a vantage point where a “retired” haul truck sits on display, all 300 tons of it — for the mathematically challenged, that computes to 600,000 pounds. It’s as big as a house, and you can climb on it.
Most of the several dozen haul trucks in use now cost $5 million each and are “just” 250 tons, or 500,000 pounds each, with monstrous tires that stand 12 feet high and cost $34,000 apiece.
Around the clock, the trucks are filled with tons of rocks and boulders, blasted from the inside of what was once a volcano, then they go to the crusher machine. The goal is to crush 70,000 tons (that’s 140 million pounds) a day, rain or snow, stopping only when lightning strikes the area. Most days, they hit or surpass that goal.
The tour van drives toward the crusher, and we assume we’ll watch from a distance. Instead, our guide parks the van just steps away. We walk upstairs and enter the actual control room, where we watch through a window as the haul truck dumps more than 100 tons of ore into the crusher. Within a few minutes, another truck backs into position and drops its load, followed by more, meticulously choreographed. Conveyors, crushers and magnets break down the huge chunks until the rocks are no more than 3/4-inch across.
We don’t have room (and the tour didn’t show it, beyond verbal descriptions) to address the final processes of extracting what becomes the gold that can be sold on the market. But seeing that much of the elaborate procedure, along with the immense equipment, gave us a glimpse that photos couldn’t provide.
Newmont, by the way, is completing an expansion started by AngloGold Ashanti that, according to the purchaser’s forecast, will produce “between 350,000 and 400,000 ounces of gold per year in 2016 and 2017.” That will mean new jobs, up to more than 600 at the mine.
As of now, plans call for at least another decade of open-pit mining, but ever-advancing technology and new possibilities underground likely will extend that time frame. Not bad for a Colorado mine, owned by a Colorado company, with demanding but high-paying work for Colorado residents.
Fascinated? Then take the tour yourself, starting next May. It might be the best $7.50 you’ll ever spend.