Pushing through the dense forest, the world was pitch black except for whatever the lights on top of our heads could light up. The dawn of super efficient LED lights had not yet arrived, so our world shrank to a rather small and isolated orb. When the only photons that your eyes are capable of working with, have to jump off of a tiny tungsten resistor, heated to four thousand degrees Fahrenheit, the number of useful photons per the amount of electrical energy required are not so many. We couldn’t see the mountains around us, only knew that they were there because of some squiggly brown lines printed on a giant sheet of paper. We had to trust them. Each line represents an imaginary bathtub ring, or an imaginary lake shore. When the faint, brown lines are printed very far apart, the ground under your feet is flat. When they start crowding together, you’re standing on the side of a hill. When they really stacked up together, prompting the foreman at the printing company to yell, “Order more brown ink!”, and then mumble, “damn orienteers”, you are clinging to the side of a mountain.
In the Ozark Mountains of Southeast Missouri, you can find yourself climbing almost a thousand vertical feet in the matter of a fraction of a mile. Though not big by real mountain standards, the Ozarks feel big and rugged.
The reason that my friend, Gary Thompson and I were out in the middle of the night in this middle of nowhere, over twenty years ago, was that we were competing in a twenty-four hour long ROGAINE. Perhaps the best way to describe a ROGAINE, might be, ‘It’s one damn long orienteering meet.’
While traversing sideways along a steep hillside, in the dark, we came along a fast, rushing stream, which was big enough to be a bit of a pain to cross. ‘What a peculiar thing’, was written on our faces as we glanced at each other, for we both knew that we were on the side of a singular mountain. There wasn’t anything above us except mountain top. Where could a significant stream of this size be flowing from?
We weren’t completely clueless, for we also knew that there was a lake perched on the peak above our heads. This giant body of water, yodeling from the top of one of the highest peaks, was ‘on belay’, by a dam, huddling it in on all sides. Apparently, it had a leak. This particular leak, or collection of leaks, never caused any significant problems and was eliminated a couple of years later, with the addition of a membrane inside the lake.
“Practice makes perfect” (or, well, practice hopefully makes you just a little better than the others)
A few years after the ROGAINE with Gary Thompson and myself, the relatively newly formed adventure race team, “Alpine Shop”, returned to this area for a long practice in both navigation and moving through difficult terrain. The core of the team at this time was Jeff Sona, Carrie Sona and myself, with many others; previous, joining, adding to and filling in through the many years.
This training session, done in December of 2005, just so happened to be about the time of a massive breach of the Taum Sauk pumped storage lake.
So, Just How Big is 1.4 Billion?
This brings me to the true point of this story: Perspective… The difference between a leaky faucet and a Japanese zen fountain, is just a matter of perspective. Before the breach, there used to be stairs up to a viewing platform over the upper reservoir. When the utility was running the electric generating turbans at full bore, which was the actual purpose for this feat of engineering, I could actually see the water going down. In a lake big enough for power boats and water skiing, my thoughts were, ‘how could anything possibly be drawing this much water? It’s inconceivable!’ Then I would cruise my bike back down to the bottom, eight hundred and sixty feet below. The weight of the water plowing through the turbines, shoving the blades out of the way, sending 585,000 horsepower down the wires and making the ground under my feet shake. As I watched the roiling discharge and felt my feet tingling, I thought, ‘how could anything possibly be feeding this much water, it’s inconceivable!’
Well, the short story is that it broke. The massive pumps that fill the lake back up at night failed to turn off when it was full. Water spilled over top for six minutes until the backside got washed out to the point of collapse. (big ass pumps) One point four billion gallons of water hustled their butts from their lofty perch, down the steep, forested mountain side in one big damn hurry.
This felt like one of those times where you had to see to believe. As one traversed sideways across the hillside, the oak forest, with the dead leaves newly dropped from the recent fall, laying undisturbed as is so familiar, and then in the matter of a few feet, nothing. Not only were the trees gone, but all the dirt that the trees were growing in was gone, the boulders that frequented the area were gone, anything that wasn’t bedrock, anchored to these hills, which actually used to be true mountains, some 300 million years ago, was gone.
In an effort to wrap my mind around something truly mind blowing, the only tools are math and comparisons. It dawned on me, there’s about 1.4 billion humans living in China. If every person in China poured out just one gallon milk jug, at the top of the hill, all at about the same time, the results would be the same. “Every answer leads to more questions,” they say, and I can now see how this might be true. Getting this many people from China to this remote location would be a logistical nightmare, and how could you sell it? Distribute 1.4 billion pamphlets? ‘Visit Proffit Mountain (the actual name of that particular mountain), in beautiful Missouri! Choose from these dates and times: December 14th 2005, 5:09 AM… THAT’S IT!… Oh, and bring a gallon jug of milk, or four one quart cartons, it’s up to you.”
What this mental experiment taught me was; One: “There’s a heck of a lot of people in China; and nearly the same massive number in India. Woe, dude!”
Two: This numbers comparison of mine was actually to fathom the number of humans on this planet. As it turns out, it’s completely worthless in the evaluation of mountain top dam breaches.
Three: It would probably solve a lot of headaches to specify, “Milk ‘containers’, filled with water, not milk.”
I’ve always feared the power of water. 1.4 billion gallons is definitely mind boggling.
Have you ever read about the Buffalo Creek flood in West Virginia? A coal mining sludge pond dam broke and pretty much wiped out the town downstream.
I have not! But now I will.
It was in the early 1970s. So tragic. The mining company was eventually held to some responsibility, but not enough.