In the world of exploring abandoned places, there is nothing quite as thrilling as venturing deep underground into a deserted mine. It takes a special type of explorer who goes beyond the abandoned factories, asylums, hospitals and mansions, where you can find traces of recent visitors – vandals and their graffiti – to descend deep into the blackness of an abandoned mine, where no one has set foot since the pit-heads closed, and the clanking machinery fell silent decades ago.
Even more adventurous are the intrepid few who go diving into flooded mine shafts. In this edition of the Fellow Explorers Club, we caught up with the Swedish explorer and photographer behind Miss Cave Photography, Angelica Bergman, who fearlessly does both.
Picture an old coal, iron or copper mine, and it conjures images of industrial soot, filthy workers and dank conditions: the naturalist Carl Linnaeus described the Great Pit of the Falun Mine as, “One of the great wonders of Sweden, but horrible as hell itself.” But Angelica’s photographs somehow transform these abandoned, industrial underground sites, into places of forgotten beauty.
We are in Sweden, a country with a rich mining heritage that goes back a thousand years. Still today, Sweden produces over 90% of Europe’s iron, hewing deep into the Baltic Shield and some of the oldest rock in Europe. But whilst there are still thriving mines in Sweden, there are many old copper and iron mines that have closed, their mine shafts sealed up, leaving a lost world preserved underneath and ready to be explored.
“I love the feeling of history in these places. It is like a museum but it is for real,” explains Angelica Bergman, who lives in Eskilstuna, an hour’s drive from Stockholm. “We have a lot of abandoned mines in Sweden, especially around Dalarna, which is about 2 to 3 hours by car from my home. There are a lot of old iron mines and some copper mines. Most of them were closed to due to a strike in the 1960s. Because of the strike, the mine workers just left their gear in the mines and thought they were coming back one day. Those things are what I love to find and photograph.”
It was in the winter of 1969, that the great miner’s strike started in the ore fields of Norrbotten in the far north of Sweden. Ingela Johansson writes of how 4,800 miners in Svappavaara, Kiruna and Malmberget halted work for 57 days, many of whom never returned to work, leaving mines abandoned.
Society for Gentlemen Explorers (SGE): What is it you especially love about exploring underground?
Angelica Bergman (AB) : “To imagine how it was to be a mine worker, how their lives could have been and so on. And you have to agree, these old mines are really beautiful places with colours and formations. It is fascinating that it has been done by mankind. When you explore a new place and you realise that no one has been there in decades, there are no footprints in the mud. The feeling of not knowing what’s waiting around the corner.”
Exploring abandoned mines and caves requires a different mindset and greater bravery than normal urbexing. Aside from the ever present risks and dangers involved, it takes a steely reserve to venture down into the darkness. In his excellent book on subterranean exploring, ‘Underground, A Human History of the World Beneath Our Feet’, Will Hunt writes that, “We are typically describing not a place but a feeling: something forbidden, unspoken or otherwise beyond the known and ordinary.”
“I have always been interested in history, since I was a child,” explains Angelica. “So when I started to dive, I first grew an interest in wreck diving rather than corals and colourful fishes. But wreck diving is very dependent on weather in Sweden and I have several friends who were diving in mines and caves.”
After visiting the old remnants of the Sala Silvermine and Tuna Hästberg mines, Angelica was struck with the thrill of scuba diving into abandoned mines. “I went from Tech1 diver to NAUI Cave 2 in a year. And it was there my nickname Miss Cave was born. I dove in mines for 2-3 years but finally the diving was replaced with climbing and now I only explore the dry areas of old mines. I first started with my iPhone but when I replaced it with my Canon 6D I went from Miss Cave to Miss Cave Photography.”
SGE: What are the particular challenges when exploring caves and mines as to above ground places? Are there any safety routines you follow?
AB: “We climb using the single rope technique, sometimes kayak or crawl to get to every part of a mine. You never know what’s waiting. We always have to bring several head lamps. Without any light it can get really dangerous. A good helmet of course. I always bring my first aid kit and have an education in first aid in the wilderness (NOLS) We always tell someone else where we go and when we plan to get up, especially if we’re exploring a new place since we can’t communicate with anyone one on the surface. Those of us who are SRT 2 educated have learned to save someone on a rope for example but its still tricky and very heavy.”
The further you explore deeper underground, the greater the perils: from rock falls, to collapsing a mineshaft that may have been built a century ago, to simply getting lost. “I haven’t been involved in any serious accidents or even heard of any in exploring dry areas in the mines,” says Angelica. “There seems to be more accidents in cave diving, even fatal. I have experienced some total silt outs but they all ended up well, even though I was left all alone.”
Nothing quite heightens the senses than stepping down into an abandoned mine: Hunt tells a story of Leonardo Da Vinci coming across an old cave whilst walking in Tuscany, where he noted that, “Two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire — fear of the threatening, dark cavern, desire to see if there were any marvellous things in it.” For Angelica, these marvellous things often take the form of old artifacts miners have left behind. “We often find things like wheelbarrows, pick and hoe, drills, gloves, jackets, shoes or a hip flask,” she explains. “I’m working on a project where I have only photos of those things. In some mines there are old calendars, angry notes from bosses to workers, I just love those small things.”
Look at Angelica’s photographs, and aside from the rusting relics of the old mines, what strikes you is the beautiful colours and light patterns that she magically captures in places where there is little if no natural light. “One of the challenges is the equipment,” Angelica explains. “You can’t bring too much stuff since you are climbing and walking around a lot. I only use my headlamp as the only light in most of my pictures and together with long exposures I paint with light. And I only photograph in RAW so I have to edit the photos like I remember the places and the feeling it gave me. A teacher in Gothenburg University once called my style ‘fine art documentary’ because of that kind of edit.”
SGE: Is there somewhere you’re dying to get to?
AB: Pripyat of course. I would love to visit an abandoned amusement park or something like that, an abandoned city or any abandoned old mines in any corner of the world. There are so many cool abandoned places in the world, so many places to go, so little time.