Silverton saw 2,000 prospectors that first year, and the town soon boasted 40 saloons. But life was tough even when things were good. Cemetery records from that era paint a bleak picture of mining camp life: 117 deaths from snowslides, 143 from miner’s consumption, 161 from pneumonia, 202 from mine accidents, 138 from flu.
Silver prices soared again in 1890, when the Sherman Act doubled government purchases. Just as quickly, though, Congress repealed the law, resulting in massive sell-offs and the Silver Panic of 1893. Overnight, most camps turned to ghost towns. To this day, minefields of abandoned tunnels sit throughout the San Juans, many of them dangerously unstable, others leaching toxic drainage.
It’s no coincidence that deep veins of metal ore and high, steep slopes are found together here. The combination resulted from an intense volcanic period 20 to 40 million years ago, when this region became a moonscape of lava flows, ash falls, and collapsing magma craters 20 miles wide. The La Garita volcano had one of the most violent eruptions ever known, with a blast-kill zone that extended to present-day Kansas. The crater, though well-hidden by subsequent erosion, is now believed to be earth’s largest known caldera.
But it was ice, not fire, that shaped the Needles and Grenadiers into their dizzying current form. When vast glacial plateaus melted off the ranges 15,000 years ago, they were left with “over-steepened” slopes, more precipitous than the angle of repose (that is, the angle at which loose objects begin to tumble). The result: dizzying climbs and legendary winter avalanches.
We get some drama of our own that afternoon in Spencer Basin. Cowering beneath our tarp, we watch a lightning show worthy of Zeus pound the ridges above us. Then, emerging into a wet, cleansed world, we cross our highest passes yet, sucking deep lungfuls of rain-washed air. An airy goat traverse leads to our final camp, high above Arrastra Basin. Below, a ghost town sits perched on a peninsula of tailings that juts into Silver Lake. According to my GPS, my head passes the 13,000-foot level whenever I stand up.
From the downy comfort of our sleeping bags, we admire the artillery flash of distant thunderstorms and toast our success, assuming it’s just a downhill cruise to Silverton, where we’re anxious to wallow in all sorts of boomtown corruption. The last day, however, finds us struggling on vanished trail, through rib-high thickets of bluebells, fragrant but slick as grease, then long slopes of loose, tippy boulders, and one final bushwhack.