I've never told anybody this until now.
It was in the summer of 1994, and Butch Carrigan and I were backpacking in the San Juans southwest of Ouray, Colorado. We had spent the first night in Yankee Boy Basin near Engineer Pass, and then had a hard, full-day hike, continuing southwest. I thought the few bears we saw, and my sprained ankle, would be the high points of our second full day on the trail.
But around 6:00 PM, after a little thunder shower earlier in the afternoon that had kept us hunkered down because of the threat of lightning, Butch hollered at me to come up the trail where he was. He had tripped over a big iron grate on the ground, and in the process had dropped his compass down the grate. Large rusted metal objects were not unusual in those mountains, because of all the mining activity a century ago. But this darned thing was a protective grating of some sort, with only a black void beneath it.
Probably wanting his compass back more than being urged on by curiosity, he managed to pry the grate open, and proceeded to climb down the gray metal ladder into the darkness. He had a good flashlight, and I had my old Canon A1 film camera, so down we went.
It was musty smelling, but not uncomfortable, because we could feel a slight circulation of the air. There were probably other vents somewhere. Butch's light showed us a long, metal corridor, with high ceilings and lots of old instrumentation and gadgets on the walls. The floor was flat and unencumbered. Large pipes ran along the entire length of the ceiling, and in the dim light, it looked like the corridor made a right turn on up ahead.
Butch said that his father, who had hiked all these mountains before being killed in a rock slide in 1967 near Silverton, had occasionally told Butch that he'd heard stories of a big military construction project somewhere in the San Juans in the early-mid '50's, just as the Cold War was heating up. Rumor had it that wherever it was, it was designed to hold the majority of our nuclear warheads, and that even old Robert Oppenheimer himself had overseen the design and construction. Butch said that his father never new exactly where it was, but that he probably would've visited it only briefly had he known, because there had been some kind of accident that had spilled a bunch of radioactive material around, and the place had been abandoned after that. And even if there had not been that accident, the advent of the nuclear sub and the ICBM had pretty much sealed the place's doom.
With Butch's flashlight beam leading the way, but with Butch always behind me (he claimed he wanted me to get good camera shots, but I think I was his test canary as we walked into possible radioactivity!), we made our way down toward the right bend, taking pictures as I went. As luck would have it, I only had a 24-shot roll of film, and had already taken some shots of the bears, so I wanted every picture to count. And since we were going to be outdoors, I had left my flash attachment on the table back at our room at the Twin Peaks Motel in Ouray. After examining the old gauges and fans and the like, we made it to the bend, and could see around the corner that a similar corridor extended well beyond the flashlight's beam. We figured we had pressed our luck enough, and that if there was in fact radioactivity around, we had our pictures and had better get out, which we did.
When I took the film in to the developer's in Montrose, I stayed and watched him the whole time, because I didn't want any copies of those prints floating around. At one point he asked me what the "tunnel" in the pictures was, and I said we had visited a movie set in California. That seemed to satisfy him, and I left with the developed film and the single set of prints.
Butch and I never told anyone about our find. Butch got married a couple of years later, and told me he wanted to take Kathy up there and show her, but I don't know if he ever did. I doubt it. Anyway, he died in 1998 in a helicopter accident outside of Albuquerque, and I lost contact with her after that. This is the first time I've emailed these pictures around, but I figure I'm not going down in that thing again, and others might as well see it.
Come to think about it, I don't think Butch ever got his compass.