Written by: Aaron Witt

Unrestricted access to a massive open pit copper mine! Finally!

Mining is an elusive world. Thanks to extreme remoteness, massive mines are rarely ever thought about in the US. That is, unless you’re a dirt nerd like me. I’ve dreamed of access to America’s mining for years… The holy grail of dirt if you will.

Before I get into my visit to Pinto Valley Mine in AZ, some background on my experience with mines is worthwhile. I began investigating mines when I lived in Texas last year. I spent hours on Google Earth, spying on lignite mines in central Texas. After finding where all the best vantage points were, I’d drive a few hours on a Sunday morning to catch a glimpse. It took barreling down quiet dirt roads and long hikes through the woods to find points where launching a drone was possible. I’d never see the mining for myself but my drone was capable of catching some wild photos. I had a blast!

Upon moving back to Phoenix earlier this year, I used my mine espionage expertise to photograph AZ copper mines. AZ mining is much different than Texas mining – deeper pits nestled into more rugged terrain. I found a spot about a mile outside of Pinto Valley Mine and drove two hours with no guarantee of any photos whatsoever. It was glorious… perfect drone access to a Hitachi 5600 shovel loading 789D trucks. I was beside myself.

I hurriedly published the photos on Instagram. They were my best performing photos ever. I was thrilled until someone started frantically commenting on the posts… Someone from the mine happened to follow me and had no idea how the photos ended up in my posession. Mining is somewhat secretive (for archaic reasons) and people approach any photos in the outside world with the utmost suspicion.

Long story short, after months of emails with corporate, I amazingly had approval to visit and photograph the pit.

I arrived at 5AM so I could photograph as the sun rose over the pit. I parked outside the mine gates and spent a few minutes with security officers to gain access to the complex. Once inside, I was scooped up by my contact at the mine and we immediately drove toward the pit. I wish I could describe the magnitude of the pit but it’s not worthwhile to try. The size is unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Trucks the size of multistory townhomes look like ants crawling up and out of the pit to the crusher.

We descended to the bottom of the pit where two 994H loaders gnawing away at the ore body. Shift change is at 6AM, so we caught the end of the night shift. I’ll never forget the sight of two 994 loaders working side by side, filling trucks with 200 tons of ore grade rock at once. After taking the experience in, I fortunately remembered to snap a few photos of the machines working in the dark as their headlights illuminated the freshly blasted rock.

Before long, both loaders came to a hault and quieted down. End of shift. Both operators exited their comically tiny looking cabs atop the beastly loaders and climbed down multiple flights of stairs to the muddy pit floor below. They were swept away in a van that looked like a toy car beside each of the loaders and suddenly the once busy pit was still. The only sound was from water pouring off the pit walls, creating a strange sense of tranquility given where we were.

For the next thirty minutes, I walked around the 994’s doing my best to grasp and photograph the scale of the machines. I alternated between frantically pressing the shutter and drooling all over myself. I certainly won’t ever forget the experience.

I’m lucky enough to visit a lot of projects these days but a pit this large is still hard to wrap my mind around. That’s why I love big equipment and mining. Everything about it captures the imagination if presented correctly regardless of whether or not you’re familiar the industry!

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