Doug Ammons, ranked in the 1990s by Outside Magazine as one of the world’s Ten Great Adventurers, has lived by this standard: “I tried to do the hardest thing I could conceive of, in the purest style possible.”
What he’d done was become the first to kayak solo one of the world’s most ferocious stretches of whitewater, a 60 mile-run on the Sitkine River in British Columbia. He’d challenged fearsome rivers before, in the Himalayas and South America. But the Sitkine was a river that gave kayakers nightmares.
“An overwhelmingly powerful and dangerous place; a deep, foreboding canyon in a huge wilderness, with no chance of anybody helping or saving you," he recalled to New Bay Books.
Besides a kayaker of renown, Ammons, 65, is: a Phd in psychology; a philosopher; a classical guitarist; and a black-belt martial artist.
And this: He’s the prize-winning author of A Darkness Lit By Heroes: The Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine Disaster of 1917, an account of what happened inside the Speculator Mine Fire in Montana, in which 168 miners died. Only a handful of American mine disasters have been worse.
Some places on the map define more than themselves; they define America. One of them is Butte, Montana which, like Silicon Valley in the computer era, was a seminal place in an earlier time of profound change: the birth of electricity and telephones. It was the tail end of the 19th century and early into the 20th, and the world needed wiring, a life-changing transformation. Much of the copper for that wire came from Butte, known as The Richest Hill on Earth, with flamboyant Copper Kings, 24-hour saloons and bawdy houses, and Wild West shoot-em-ups.
It was also the venue for bravery and indomitability, both present in great measures in Ammons’ book.
Near midnight deep in the mine's Granite Mountain shaft, a carbide lamp sparked a fire in fallen timbers and oil-soaked insulation. Flames sped through a ventilated, underground web of shafts and tunnels, trapping some 400 men.
Death descended intermittently as miners fled noxious gasses through the world’s deepest, most spider-webbed mine in search of daylight and breathable air. Some huddled naked behind barricades fashioned from their own clothes in frantic efforts to hold back the heat and poison.
What happened deep in the earth could not truly be fathomed until A Darkness Lit By Heroes, published by Water Nymph Press 100 years after the disaster. The book was the winner of the 2018 High Plains Book Award.
Relying on a newly discovered 600-page coroner’s report, old proprietary maps and all the mining experts he could muster, Ammons takes readers through the agonizing hours of the spreading death and the search for survivors. As the book’s title suggests, there were heroes amid tragedy, not all of whom survived.
Conquering angry rivers was a feat, and so for Ammons was producing a narrative from conflicting sources, incomplete records and the absence of folks who lived through the disaster.
Recreating the Speculator-Granite Mountain story was akin to writing about his outdoor expeditions, Ammons said. “I worked very hard to write history as adventure. All the techniques I developed in the last 30 years to tell true stories of extreme adventure in my kayaking and climbing, I apply in the context of these miners and this disaster.”
Joseph Conrad is among Ammons’ influences, and in A Darkness Lit By Heroes, he follows Conrad’s avowed mission of making his readers see and feel the action.
"As if you were one of the underground miners,” is how Ammons puts it.
He succeeds, deploying creative nonfiction to tell intimate stories of victims and heroes. Most compelling are the missions by anguished rescuers as a makeshift morgue swelled with corpses and hope faded.
Accounts of human tragedy can seem laden with officialdom, but in Ammons’ book, the miners are the characters around whom everything swirls.
“I immersed myself in the humanity and grit and broken rock to try to reach the place where I could do justice to the men and women in the real story, feel what they felt, capture their humanity and fear, their terror and bravery,” he said.
A Darkness Lit By Heroes:
The Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine Disaster of 1917