The Mountain That Eats Men: A descent into Bolivia’s dark heart
(Page 3 of 8)
Above, at what would normally be shoulder level, a vein of zinc runs along the ceiling, a glimmering trail crisscrossed by supporting timbers and studded with luminous beauty marks. “The mountain is like my hand,” says our guide. “Its veins are my veins.”
By the mid-1800s, miners were sweeping the last breath of silver from these tunnels with brooms, turning their attention to secondary minerals such as zinc and tin. After the Bolivian Revolution in 1952, the government nationalized the tin mines. Then, in October 1985, global prices collapsed and the mine closed, leaving 23,000 unemployed. The face of Potosí became even more worn as the young fled and older miners, many of whom had spent their entire lives working the Cerro, remained in its shadow.
As necessity—or, more accurately, poverty—is the mother of invention, the veterans quickly banded together to form mining cooperatives. The state, still the legal owner of the Cerro, agreed to lease concessions, and the miners returned to the mountain as their own bosses. Today more than 15,000 destitute mestizo, Quechua, and Aymara Indians scrape a living from the sparse deposits of lead, zinc, and tin still embedded in the Cerro’s warren of exhausted halls. Most are members of one of several dozen co-ops; collectively, they operate more than 300 active mines, many of which date back to the Spanish conquest.
We begin our descent. Visceral images of disaster flood my mind as I pick my way down the rickety ladder. Every year, dozens of miners are crushed, suffocated, or blown to pieces inside the Cerro. Cave-ins occur almost weekly, and lethal pockets of carbon monoxide and sulfurous gases lurk behind every wall. Winches fail, cables snap, trolleys run out of control, blasting caps are fumbled to the ground—and, yes, old ladders routinely snap.
On the next level down, we turn acrobatics through the gloom, across the shaky, mud-slick timbers that lie between us and a 30-foot plummet. As we go deeper, the walls begin to play tricks, supporting me until I lose my footing, then backing off and leaving me dangling, scrambling for purchase. At level three, crawling on hands and knees toward the next ladder, I become lodged in a narrow section. For a short, terrifying moment, I am trapped. I can’t move my arms or draw a proper breath. I curse the backpack that, ludicrously, I hadn’t thought to remove. The more I struggle, the more wedged I become.
Julio pokes his head up from the vertical shaft just ahead. “No force,” he says into the dark. “No muscle.” I stop wriggling, close my eyes, try to relax into the mountain. My breath reluctantly returns. I slither forward cautiously, reverently. Somehow my arms come free, and I’m able to pull myself through. My panic subsides. The Cerro has released me.
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