A fortuitous discovery in La Plata Canyon three weeks ago has led four mineral hounds to dream of having come across a source of gem-quality stones.
“I found what I thought was a quartz vein,” Mark Olsen said recently, pointing to a 40-pound chunk of skarn, a combination of minerals. “It turned out I had beryl crystals.”
It’s the first time that beryl, a super-hard combination of beryllium and aluminum, has been found on the Western Slope. Beryl is prevalent around Mount Antero south of Buena Vista, where it’s found in granite.
Olsen, a first-year geology student at Fort Lewis College, confirmed his find – discovered at about 12,000 feet on undisclosed private land in the La Plata Mountains – with Bob Ross. Ross is a veteran coal miner and purveyor of gold samples from the historic Bessie G Mine, in Columbus Basin in upper La Plata Canyon; he supplies samples for scientific endeavors and for hobbyists.
“I started looking for minerals in 1996 when the price of gold fell to $254 an ounce,” Ross said.
Ross and Olsen since have formed a loose partnership with retired businessman Joe Goodwin and Jacob Eiskant, a farmhand. They plan to scour the float – the term for rock fragments that have fallen from the steep hillsides.
Beryl and garnet, another mineral, never have been found together, and beryl never has been seen on the Western Slope until now, Ross said.
“They’re going to have to rewrite the books,” Ross said.
David Gonzales, chairman of the geology department at Fort Lewis College, has seen the skarn that Ross and Olsen found.
“Ross knows his minerals,” Gonzales said. “He may be onto something if he finds crystals big enough to be of economic value. But still it’s interesting just to find the minerals.”
To be absolutely certain of their find, Gonzalez said the men might want to order a chemical analysis of the stones.
The chunk of skarn, in addition to beryl and garnet, has traces of phenakite, epidite, quartz, tourmaline, chalcopyrite, hematite, calcite, fushalite, gneiss and xenomorph pyrite.
The first six elements can be used in jewelry if they can be found in gem quality and size, Ross said.
The gem stones are metamorphic creations – combinations of minerals formed about 35 million years ago by heat and pressure on earlier rock formations.
In contrast to metamorphic are igneous and sedimentary rocks, formed, respectively, by volcanic action and decomposition of surface material in bodies of water.
The igneous rock of the San Juan and La Plata mountains was formed about 72 million years ago by volcanic activity that pushed the mountains from a shallow sea.
Ross is gathering rocks on private holdings. On U.S. Forest Service land, hobbyists can collect up to 250 pounds of rocks a year for personal use. Collecting rock specimens to sell requires a commercial permit.
The Ross team plans to explore the canyon walls in search of the lode from which their specimens fell. Time is short, Ross said, because the first snow will halt the operation.
If they find a source of riches, they will name their enterprise the XII Mine, Ross said.
“There are not going to be many more discoveries like this in the 21st century,” Ross said. “But maybe folks can look at earlier garnet deposits of this nature and find gem stones also.”
Ross will spend the winter in his home in Pagosa Springs. But after the snow melts in the high country, he’ll be back in La Plata Canyon, where he’s spent much of 22 years.
Ross will be on the prowl again for elusive gem stones. He encourages other mineral fanatics to do the same.
“Don’t stop turning over those stones,” Ross said. “If you don’t look, you won’t find gems.”
The name was written for us as Olson, but we should have checked. No excuse.