MOUNT ANTERO • The road is even worse than before, steep and slim and boulder-strewn as always, but now with avalanche debris adding an extra crunch and rivers running wider and deeper.
Sandra Gonzales slams on the accelerator. The Jeep blasts through the water, and her mom in the passenger seat, 83-year-old Viola Padilla, lets out a loud “whoo!” like a child.
And the ascent continues on one of Colorado’s most notorious roads — the jagged, bone-rattling, white-knuckling, heart- pounding track toward Antero’s 14,269-foot summit. The switchbacks start on the tundra, skirting sheer drop-offs. Dead Man’s Curve is named for obvious reasons.
“See,” Padilla says here, “this tells you how crazy we are.”
“Rock crazy,” the duo calls themselves, along with other pilgrims drawn by the talisman locked in this granite.
The mountain boasts North America’s highest gem field, as the nation learned in “Prospectors,” the reality TV show of 2013. Though brief in its run on The Weather Channel, the show has had a lasting impact. More seekers have come for the ultimate prize: aquamarine crystals considered world-class.
“It’s definitely a movement we’re witnessing,” says Craig Cardwell, a “Prospectors” subject and one of the mountain’s preeminent claim-holders based in Buena Vista.
Gonzales and Padilla were here before this pop-culture wave, every summer of the 12 years since they staked their first claim. They scour mountains elsewhere, but Antero poses their ultimate treasure hunt.
That’s what drives them. “The treasure hunt,” says Gonzales, who had a successful career as a therapist before retiring to pursue her childhood hobby of scrounging in the dirt. For Padilla, the mountain makes her feel young, “rejuvenated.”
The Colorado natives figure prominently in the state’s rockhound scene. Come Sept. 6, they’ll greet dealers at Denver’s Mineral & Fossil Show, among the biggest of its kind in the country and owned by Gonzales.
She’s been a mentor for newcomers to the field, including Jason Roys and Ian Schimpfle — “the rising stars” on Antero, she calls them.
She guided them here five years ago, watched them straddle a ridge amid fierce, blistering wind to stake their claim. On the rough road now, the guys are ahead in their Toyota truck, getting amped as they do on electronic music.
They’re friends going back to sixth grade. Now Roys is 40, Schimpfle 39, but their looks belie their age. They both wear flat-brim caps, Schimpfle with a cherubic face and soft-spoken, analytical tone that contrasts the bearded, tattooed Roys’ straight talk — get on the former boxer’s bad side, and he’ll let you know.
But get Roys laughing, and he dissolves, as if a boy. So he did alongside Schimpfle on their first Antero dig of the season a few weeks ago. They came away with aquamarine they later measured to be 831 carats, estimating the worth between $20,000 and $60,000. The stash is kept in a Ziploc bag.
And they show it to Gonzales now during a stop at their mosquito-infested home for the summer, the forest above 11,000 feet where several other tents have been pitched — a modern day mining camp.
They keep the bag close to the chest.
“Flash things for people,” Gonzales says, “and they go crazy.”
“Money signs in their eyes,” Schimpfle says.
“Blue fever,” says Roys, a pistol on his belt. “That’s what we call it.”
It could only be called mild then, as aquamarine was more of a curiosity than a market force, but blue fever might’ve been detected as early as 1885. Mark Jacobson, a geologist and author of “Antero Aquamarines,” traces pioneer awareness to that year, when a letter of discovery was penned.
Access to the gem field was hard-earned on foot. Then, following his World War II service, Grady Cardwell and a rugged bunch got the idea to carve a road, their interest being the beryllium up high that had some demand at the time.
“How did you get it done, granddad?” Craig Cardwell recalls asking the old man. The response: “Lots of whiskey, lots of dynamite, lots of fortitude.”
Grady Cardwell’s beryllium venture was short-lived. But the road was blazed for the next generation of rockhounds, including his grandson. Craig and his wife oversee Mount Antero Treasures, where they craft jewelry from their finds above timberline.
Aquamarine has been Craig’s focus since the new century, as it has for many dreamers — some with ill intent.
Robert Spomer, the owner of Buena Vista Gem Works whose Antero interest dates to the ‘70s, has observed a cultural shift. Once, “no one much cared if you went up there and prospected around, unless you went poaching directly in the active hole they were working in,” he writes on his website. Now, “claim holders tend to be much more ‘in your face’ and confrontational.”
Yes, it seems the Wild West has caught up to Antero.
“Some of these guys in the business, man, they’re pretty sketchy,” Cardwell says. “They catch you on their claims, we’ve heard horrific stories of gunfights, people being beat up pretty bad.”
Tents have been seen ripped by apparent rivals. Some lose sleep at camp, fearing a “high grader” above, a thief in the night snatching riches from half-dug pockets. On the road, claimants look for friends and possible foes, strangers with picks and shovels in tow.
Amy Titterington, a U.S. Forest Service geologist assigned to Antero, has seen the shouting matches, the tense standoffs. She’s seen more miners daring the extreme elements and more flights for life. Other conflicts have come from an increased number of fortune-seeking vagrants, she writes in an email.
“An increased Forest Service or law enforcement presence would help alleviate some of these issues, but ultimately it’s up to the claimant to protect their claim.”
To an extent, under the terms of “casual use” defined by law, outsiders can scavenge federal ground without a permit. But land managers warn of intruding, especially with Antero’s slopes proliferated with claims, some marked, some not. To be sure of their locations, one is directed to the county courthouse to pull records and maps.
Or, one can try for a claim. It’s a fairly straightforward process through the Bureau of Land Management, which handles applications for Antero and charges $225 for plots up to 20 acres. But in the wake of “Prospectors,” regulators deem space on the mountain extremely limited. The BLM counts about 180 claims across Antero and neighboring Mount White.
From Spomer’s view, the show caused “a mineral claiming frenzy ... blanketing the area with claims of unknown, uncertain and erroneous validity.”
And the show struck fear in conservationists watching along, including Loretta McEllhiney, the Forest Service’s fourteeners program manager. She watched rocks moved over slopes, sent crashing down to potentially unsuspecting travelers. “It makes me crazy to think they’re doing that,” she says.
The job hasn’t taken her to Antero lately, but she wonders about widespread digging. “Anytime we do anything that makes the land less stable,” she says, “it has the potential for impacting the waterways below, it has the potential for impacting wildlife.”
She wonders, too, about the General Mining Law of 1872 that still largely dictates regulation — or lack thereof. “I think it’s worth another look.”
Cardwell hears the critics of “Prospectors.” On the issue of the environment, “I embrace that conversation,” he says, “because one of the things we’ve taken pride in for many years is being good stewards.”
He wants to demonstrate that in the show he’s trying to bankroll himself. While his production company shops the concept around, the first episode of “Mount Antero Treasures” dropped on YouTube this year.
It features Schimpfle and Roys, who on their packs carry the principles of Leave No Trace.
“Some people think we’re destroying the land out of greed, but that’s definitely not the case for me or Jason or the majority of people we know up here,” Schimpfle says atop the mountain. “You know, when I’m up here, I think about Chief Antero. He was known as a peacemaker between his people and outsiders, and I still think his spirit lives here.
“And yeah, some people think this mountain causes people to go crazy. Blue fever. And that’s definitely true to an extent, I’ve seen it. But for the majority of us, I think this brings us together more than anything. Like a family.”
So it appears at the end of the road, where the group finds a pair of hairy, dirt-stained rockhounds named Billy and Greg, who wears a cap proclaiming “THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, THIS LAND IS MY LAND.”
He shares his collection so far.
“Ooh, big phenakite,” Schimpfle says.
“That is a big one,” Gonzales says.
“Double terminated, too,” Roys adds.
They geek out like this for a minute. Then they part ways to dig — only for so long, with dark clouds rolling in.
Gonzales and her mom start down the road, following the other two in their truck, which soon hits a rock and stalls dangerously above 13,500 feet.
“This is all part of Antero,” Gonzales says, stuck behind the bickering boys.
They swear in the mud, toiling under the truck for the problem. Almost a half-hour passes. It might be time for Plan B, time for a long slog down for help.
But then they’re on their feet, rejoicing with greasy high-fives. They rumble down, almost out of the woods.
Then Roys realizes he’s lost a pin from his hat. Lost in the river, he suspects.
He looks defeated when he tells Gonzales to go ahead. He’s going back, and his partner and friend is going back with him, despite Gonzales’ advice. “Jason, it’s gone,” she tries telling him.
But the pin is precious to him, and he won’t be stopped, no matter the cold, rushing water. He’ll keep his eyes peeled, as he always does, for that glimmer in the muck.