Inside the Cerro Rico Mine

We were up before the sun, bumping through the empty streets of Potosi, which seemed much bleaker without people in them. Looming over us and the city: the scarred pink hulk of the fabled Cerro Rico, or "Rich Mountain," the source of Potosi's silver.

Julio Cesar, the 15-year-old boy who would take us into the mine, lives with his family on the top floor of a very simple two-story building on the edge of the poorest section of Potosi. The walls of the house are made of large red clay bricks, like cinder block. There are three or four rooms for the family on the top floor, each with three or four beds. Everything speaks of poverty.

When we arrived, the family was in a hurry to get to the mines and get to work. Julio Cesar's mother, Doña Alejandra, makes a few extra Bolivianos — the local currency — selling prepared lunches to miners early in the morning, and she was concerned that she would be too late to make any sales. Julio Cesar, his 23-year-old brother, and his mother walked down the steep dusty hill, past stray dogs and withered plants, to a paved road two blocks away. There they'd catch a "micro" (a taxi-van) to the Miner's Market.

Tiny shops selling or renting gear lined the streets at the Miner's Market. The pavement ended, and the bus we were following strained up the steep dirt track. Somewhere along the journey, Alejandra disappeared and headed to her destination. We were now at more than 15,000 feet above sea level. I joined the boys as they walked up the rocky red hillside to a mine entrance a few hundred yards above. Around us was a bleak, lifeless landscape.

We headed for a cluster of broken buildings on a sloping man-made plateau. Despite the rush, we were among the first to arrive. It was barely 8 a.m. To our left, was the mine entrance. A rickety narrow-gauge railway, lined with small cars for hauling rocks, led to a locked grate and into the darkness of the mountain's insides. I took several deep breaths, not just because of the strain of the altitude, but because I was dwelling too long on what lay ahead for us inside that dark tunnel.

Gradually, more and more miners began to arrive: each one of them carrying a clear green-colored plastic bag. Coca leaves. They sat together and talked or stared into the distance as their morning ritual began: They put a leaf between their teeth and pulled off the green, tossing away the spine and the stem. They repeated this constantly for more than an hour until each one had a bulge the size of a golf ball inside his cheek. The coca leaf, I learned, is indispensable for miners here. It does three things: suppresses hunger, suppresses fear, and gives the miners increased stamina to endure a long, hard day in the hellish insides of the mountain.

I interviewed Julio Cesar outside the mine entrance. He told me how much he feared the mine, how much he loathed going inside each day, how much he hated the work. But he also told me his family needed the money he earned. With his father — too ill from miner's lung disease to go inside — the three sons were left to support the family. Julio Cesar is still a boy, so he doesn't even get the meager wage men get here. Depending on his productivity, he might earn 30 or 40 Bolivianos each day. After expenses, he's left with 15 to 25 Bolivianos. Two or three dollars. That's all.

About 100 miners had gathered. By 9:30 a.m. they were still stuffing their cheeks with coca leaves. They seemed in no hurry to begin the day. A union boss with rotting teeth and a wizened face began talking to the men about preparations for the Miners' Carnival. They would all wear brightly-colored costumes and dance a traditional native Quechua dance that would require weeks of rehearsal. Something for everyone to look forward to. One day of brightness in the grim yearly calendar.

We were told that we should enter before the other miners. Julio Cesar, his brother and three other miners would be our guides. And so, with a camera rolling, we walked down those rail tracks, through the iron gate and into the darkness.

The ground was wet and muddy and hard to navigate. With no lights but those on our helmets, we could see only a few yards in front us. The first stretch was easy: all six feet of my frame could stand upright. But it was hard to be an observer navigating the mud and uneven ground and watching warily for broken beams that could hit your head.

The entire passageway was held up with wooden beams, one on each side, and one above. Some were snapped and broken, others tilted and unconnected. There was nothing about these surroundings to inspire confidence. I looked back and there was no sign of daylight. We were inside the Cerro Rico.

The shaft sloped downwards into the mountain. As we proceeded, the ceiling got lower and lower and we had to crouch, and at times, crawl. I could feel my lungs gasping for more oxygen than the thin air was prepared to yield. The temperature began to rise. Our plastic pants and jackets were like ovens, keeping in the sweat and intensifying the heat.

With Julio Cesar's older brother and several other miners who were a few years older than he in our posse, he willingly ceded the spotlight to his elders. The candor he spoke with an hour or so earlier was replaced by a team spirit that seemed to tolerate no place for fear or doubts. One of the guys motioned for us to turn into a narrow rocky tunnel to the right. We followed for a hundred yards or so, and they came to stop at a hole. Above it sat an old hand winch.

"We'll go down here," one of the guys said casually.

I looked down. All I could see was a narrow, dirt-lined shaft that disappeared into the darkness below. There was no ladder, no steps.

"How far down are we going?" I asked.

"Not far, 15 meters [45 feet]," he said. He explained that we would be lowered down one at a time by rope. He said it was the only way to get to the next level of the mine below us.

And then I asked a sensible question that elicited an answer I did not want to hear.

"How many exits are there to this particular mine?" I asked.

"Solo uno," came the chorus of answers. Just one.

I could feel my heart racing. I looked at my cameraman Al Durruthy and my producer Roxanna Sherwood. We were already half a mile inside. The heat was oppressive. The air was stale and foul smelling. And now, with just one exit, we were being asked to plunge 45 feet into a hole that had no exit except the way we entered. It looked to me like a vertical tomb. If something went terribly wrong, there was no way we'd get out.

I've taken a lot of risks in this job before: Iraq, Pakistan, Haiti, the guerilla-infested jungles of Colombia. I've seen bombs go off, I've had guns pointed in my face. This seemed to rival the worst of them.

"No podemos," I said after consulting Al and Roxanna. We can't.

No doubt if we had cheeks stuffed with coca leaves we'd have found it easier, but we didn't.

The boys offered to take us to a different area.

We retraced our steps to the main shaft and continued the downward descent on foot. At times we could stand tall, at others times we had to crouch and crawl. The heat and humidity intensified. Once again we veered to the right, through a low narrow tunnel where the ground was a wet sloppy mud. The stench became more and more pronounced. At another fork we stopped. The boys had some tools stashed behind beams. There was another rusting hand winch above another dark cavern.

They explained this was a new area they were mining, too small for more than one person. One of the guys hooked up and was lowered down. Roxanna leaned over the edge and reached down with her camera to shoot him from above. In a minute or two the winch was cranked up, attached to it a frayed canvas bag filled with rocks. Julio Cesar took the bag and awkwardly lifted it to a wheelbarrow he brought nearby. He repeated this until the wheelbarrow was full. He pushed with all the might of his small frame and disappeared down the tunnel, dumping the rocks.

This went on for some time. "We got a problem," Al said.

His camera had suddenly stopped working. It was easy to see why. The stifling heat and humidity were hard for all of us to tolerate. The sensitive electronics of the video camera simply couldn't cope. With just one camera left, Roxanna handed hers to Al.

We asked the guys to stop mining and I did a quick interview. All of them professed love for their work; none of them would admit fear. It was very clear that an unwritten macho code of conduct was in play. And perhaps it's the only option when the inside of these grim mines is your daily fate.

When I asked them if they had seen bad things happen like injuries or death, the veterans, especially Julio Cesar's 23-year-old brother, Luis Alberto, related tales of horror; like the time not so long ago that five men died breathing poisonous gas in the mine. I had noticed earlier that none of the men wear any face protection at all.

The next morning when we were at the Miner's Market, I asked a miner who was looking for a new head lamp if he wore a mask. He said no, he couldn't afford one. When I asked how much a mask would cost, he told me about 150 B's, or $20. I considered buying him one, but when I asked him, if he had such a mask, would he wear it, he shook his head and smiled. "No," he said. Macho rules.

There is no culture of safety here. There are no posters at the mine entrance warning people about the hazards within. There is so much toxic dust inside the Cerro Rico that they say that a boy like Julio Cesar — if he continues to work in the mine — will have lung disease by his late 20s, will be too sick to work by his late 30s, and will die in his 40s.

With our camera soldiering on in the humidity, we decided it was time to record some of my on-camera commentary (a.k.a. "standup"). Al lit it beautifully and I crouched in the tunnel, talking about the illustrious and awful history of this place I have come to [know] as "the most important place in the history of the modern world that most people have never heard of."

I also talked about the oppressive atmosphere in the mine and our decision not to proceed deeper. The mine is said to have 400 levels, some of them reaching miles underground. There are no elevators, there is no piped-in air.

And then, the second camera started sputtering and showing signs of imminent death. We had been inside a few hours, clearly the cameras were even less resilient than we were. Not that that says much.

Al, who had brought along a heart rate monitor that he wore for much of our high-altitude assignment through Bolivia, confessed his heart was racing at an alarming rate, peaking at a staggering 176 beats per minute. I was worried it might explode. At 15,000 feet above sea level inside this airless, dusty mine, this was no small concern. I checked my own heart rate, it was just 110 bpm. But I was worried about Al.

We headed for the exit. Al grabbed shots as best he could as we slowly trudged up the muddy incline — gasping for air much of the way.

Deep in the darkness behind us, we heard a distant rumble. There was yelling.

"Careful, get off the tracks," said one of the guys.

As we stood at the entrance to a side tunnel, a faint light began to grow from the darkness below. So did the rumbling sound. Two men — one at each end — were pushing one of the small bucket cars, loaded with minerals, at an incredibly high speed along the tracks.

They rumbled by and disappeared up the hill.

We followed but there was no way we could keep up. Eventually, I spotted a shaft of daylight piercing the darkness. The tunnel opening. I could feel myself smiling inside. I could feel the tension escaping through that bright distant opening. I couldn't have run if I had wanted to. The ground was thick with mud, it took fierce concentration to place each step and move forward. But it didn't matter.

As we exited, my head was muddled. Roxanna and Al were dripping in sweat and suddenly chilled by the cool mountain air.

I thanked the guys who had taken us in. I gave them energy bars that I'd stuffed in my pockets just in case of an emergency. They devoured them.

"That wasn't even a quarter of what our life is like in there," said Luis Alberto, Julio Cesar's older brother.

I believed him. And I couldn't begin to imagine how he could do this every day. With the group out of earshot and the second camera now dead, he confessed he, too, was desperate to get out of the mine. He dreams of being a doctor, he told me. But at 23, he still is two courses short of his high school diploma. And his family needs the five or six dollars he makes each day to put food on the table.