Avalanches have long threatened lives in Colorado

Editors note: Avalanche danger is high across much of Colorado’s mountain country now, and the southwestern mountains have been innudated with heavy snow. So a look at an earlier avalanche seems appropriate.

The February blizzard had lasted six days when the avalanche cut loose, cascading down the west side of the La Plata Mountains sweeping everything in its path. Five miners and the female camp cook disappeared into the White Death as the snowslide’s roar destroyed the Doyle-Hesperus Mine.

The dozen survivors and two injured men were cut off from the outside world and without food. The avalanche claimed not only six lives but very ski and snowshoe in camp except one broken pair. At dawn the next day, amid deep, dangerous white powder, zero-degree weather and intermittent smaller slides, Ben Hartley set out for a grueling 10 hour, 16-mile race to Mancos to get help.

I was recently in the living room of 79-year-old Homer Hartley in Cortez to learn more about his father and the tragic 1936 avalanche. He showed me yellowed front-page editions of the Denver Post and faded family photos in black and white taken with a Kodak box camera.

Seven decades ago, during the depths of the Great Depression, working men and women were glad to have a job, any job, even if it was in dangerous conditions at 11,000 feet in the La Platas below Hesperus and Gibbs Peaks.

Near the Doyle-Hesperus Mine, the Red Arrow gold mine had produced wealth. Drilling only nine feet into a vein 16 to 30 inches wide resulted in almost pure gold worth $100,000. In the summer of 1935, carpenter Ben Hartley and his crew worked at the Doyle Mine to get a mill up and running and to build tram lines to it. On that Sunday afternoon in February, they hadn’t completed the mill, but the miners had finished lunch and were playing poker.

Above them, old snow evaporated into small round ice crystals, which acted like tiny roller bearings, creating a dry slide that brought tons of snow off Jackson Ridge crashing down on the mining camp. The avalanche swept buildings away, demolishing the bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, half the cook shack, and twisting the mill’s stout timbers.

Homer Hartley remembers, “It was on a Sunday and they weren’t working. My dad and George Allen were down in the concrete foundation of the mill. All of a sudden they heard a big roar and everything was wiped out down the canyon.”

Within 24 hours, the cook died from being crushed by snow but her helper climbed out through the cook shack’s shattered roof.

The next day, Ben Hartley skied for help, wearing leather lace-up boots and using broken wooden skis with a long wooden pole for balance.

Two stories ran in The Denver Post on Feb. 18 and Feb. 22, and the Post named Benjamin Hartley to its “Gallery of Fame.”

Seventy years after an event, it’s rare to find witnesses who remember details and it’s exciting to see original photographs. But the real treasure came after two hours of talking when Homer gave me a journal his father had kept. The penciled lines provided insight into this careful carpenter with only a sixth-grade education, upon whose shoulders an immense task had fallen.

He wrote his entries at night after exhausting hours working a scoop shovel. On March 5 Hartley wrote, “Gosh this camp is a sad looking wreck. One feels kind of queer knowing there are four men just outside buried in the snowslide some place. I will be glad when they are all found, and their bodies taken out.” Depressed, deeply tired, he continued to probe and dig with a small crew. He wrote, “It is an awful job.”

The next night he penciled, “It sure is lonesome up here these evenings, it is not so bad when we all can be working. I hate to go to bed as I cannot sleep, and I believe I have smoked 20 cigarettes since supper.” He added, “Will sure be glad when the whole thing is cleaned up and spring comes for if it keeps snowing it will not be safe here as the big snow cone on top of the ridge above camp is still hanging and is liable to break anytime.”

Living in the wreckage of the mining camp, scrounging food buried in the snow, Ben Hartley and his men performed their humanitarian task. He kept careful records for his boss of all the canned goods, cases of dynamite, engines, tools, and sacks of flour they recovered.  In his 37-page journal, he names all the Mancos volunteers who helped, and when a body was found it was Hartley’s carpentry that fashioned toboggans to take the victim down.

The snow did not give up the last man, Parley Jensen, until April 30th. This summer I plan to hike to the Doyle-Hesperus Mine. I will pay my respects to the dead, but I also want to remember local heroes, the Mancos volunteers who risked their lives to dig for friends and relatives, and Ben Hartley, who stayed at that broken and lonely mine until the last body was found.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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