For the better part of a year, I’ve found myself essentially semi-retired from urban exploring. The trappings of a renewed social life, a (mostly) full time job, and a number of other projects kept me out of the loop. However, sometimes life throws you a little curveball that makes you realize what’s still out there. In this case, that curveball came in the form of two French documentary filmmakers: Mélanie de Groot van Embden and David de Rueda, referred to me by a colleague from the west coast. The target for the crew: an abandoned nuclear missile launch complex we refer to as the Titan. It’s nothing less than a Cold War castle, a huge, decaying underground relic of a time when air raid sirens meant nuclear war rather than tornadoes.
It’s been about six years since my first expedition to this relic of the Cold War, situated about an hour or so from Denver on Colorado’s eastern plains. For this reason, I contacted another local explorer, Micah, who, along with his roommate Ashley, had recently been inside the silo and could give us valuable information as to its condition – and the hazards we would face inside. The recent wet weather meant that the complex could be a muddy quagmire or partially flooded, new developments in the area posed a risk, and decay had doubtless taken its toll on the structure since my last visit.
Our meetup point was none other than Pete’s Kitchen on Colfax, a late-night Denver institution. Its glowing ’40s neon signs cast a bright glare into the night, beckoning our French comrades inside. Over cups of coffee, Mél and David told us stories from the road, tales of climbing bridges in New York and abandoned roller coasters in New Orleans. After crossing half of America, their cross-country road trip had led them here, to the edge of the Rockies. After spending a chilly night high in the Sawatch Range to the west, the two explorers descended on Denver in their fabulously painted van.
The night’s plan was simple: take our team of five and our gear out to the silo, stash Micah’s minivan nearby at a spot he had in mind, and sneak overland under a nearly full moon over to the silo entrance. Subtlety is key to the Titan – it would only take one rifle-toting rancher to mistake us for a varmint in the murk and really ruin our night. Once inside, all we’d have to do is try not to fall in a missile hole and be out by sunrise. Nice and easy.
We headed out of Denver at around 11 p.m., and settled in for the hour’s ride out east. The road was nearly empty, with all the traffic of the day fast asleep. David fired up his camera and our idle chatter became a candid interview. As we drove east, the glow from the city receded until the sky outside the van was an inky black; this is the edge of the Great Plains, and from out here, the relative isolation of Denver was apparent. Once upon a time, the Air Force had the idea that this would be an ideal place to situate the first generation of American ICBMs – the Titan I. The reasons for this move were multifaceted. Lowry Air Force Base was nearby, along with the garrisons of Colorado Springs, providing ready manpower. Denver’s mining history had bestowed some of the most gifted underground engineers in the world, perfect for creating a small, self-sufficient town 40-50 feet below the surface. Even the missiles themselves had only a short distance to travel – they were developed and tested at Martin Marietta‘s Waterton Canyon facility just south of Denver, and their 3.8 Mt thermonuclear warheads were assembled just north of the city at Rocky Flats.
Eventually, we hit our exit, and as we headed away from the highway, the darkness of the plains enveloped us. Our two lane road turned into dirt, then the dirt turned into little more than two ruts in the prairie. With nothing in front of us but headlights, Micah finally said “OK, I think this is it.”, and we disembarked. Outside the van, we gathered our kit: cameras, tripods, respirators in case of airborne nastiness. When we finally looked up, the view was astounding. With no light pollution from the city and a clear night, a seemingly infinite number of stars were visible. Only a few hundred feet away was our quarry. We slipped over to the site and down into the crater holding our entry point. The mission was on; the only hazard we faced on the way in was a lone skunk, stubbornly guarding the path down the crater wall. Lights unpacked and masks on, into the beast we went.
The Titan I’s power dome from the second floor mezzanine. When it was in operation, this room would have been cramped with ventilation equipment, water filtration gear, and 4 huge diesel generators to provide everything the 14 man crew would need. Click to view this image larger.
Our entry portal let us into the complex’s power dome. David and I busted out our photo rigs and began to get to work. This room was huge; 130 feet (40m) across and 60 feet (18m) high. In operation, it would have been an incredibly noisy place, with four enormous diesel generators running all the time, and right next door, the immense fans that vented the diesel exhaust and moved breathing air in and out of the complex. As David and Mél shot some footage near the mezzanine ladder, I noticed the large slab of concrete I had just jumped onto had moved! I bounced my knees slightly, and sure enough, it seemed that the whole slab was mounted on springs. This made perfect sense; almost everything in the complex was mounted on springs to prevent damage when the missiles were fired – or when a Soviet nuclear warhead hit nearby. The generators themselves were no exception, and even after fifty years underground, the huge springs holding up their foundations still had plenty of bounce left. Maybe not quite a Cold War bouncy castle, but close.
Let there be light!
From the expansive confines of the generator dome, we headed through the complex’s main tunnel junction and into the control dome. It’s exactly what it says on the tin – this part of the facility held the computers and men that could actually fire the nuclear missiles within. Slightly smaller than the power dome, this space was divided into two levels. In operation, a crew of 14 would keep watch upstairs in rotating shifts until relief came. Instead of bunks, the airmen got a ready room/lounge on the lower level of the dome for their downtime.
The ready room on the lower level of the control dome was used as a venue for a small illegal rave back in 2003.
Before we proceeded upstairs, something caught Ashley’s attention. The floor of the lower level was littered with bullet casings, a testament to the years of locals who came down into the silo for shooting practice. Ashley proved to be an expert in firearms forensics; over there was a 9mm, here a .45 ACP, even a few 12 gauge shotshells. Also present were a few 7.62mm cartridges – spent ammunition for the notorious AK-47. Our French comrades seemed surprised, even slightly taken aback at the knowledge that these casings were not relics, but left here after the fact. This is Colorado, however, and guns in rural parts of the state are about as common as dish soap. Tonight, though, no armed resistance was encountered, and with souvenirs of middle America in our pockets, we headed up the stairs to the heart of the beast: the control room.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, this room was at the flashpoint of the Cold War. On 26 October 1962, at 8 P.M. local time, the United States raised its strategic readiness level – also known as DEFCON – to level 2 for the first (and still only) time. This move put US nuclear forces on high alert – and as a result, the men in this room actually raised the nuclear missiles from their silos, ready to fire in minutes if the order was given. I can only imagine what must have passed through their minds, waiting sixty feet below the Colorado plains for orders to obliterate millions upon millions of people and begin nuclear Armageddon. The stress must have been unbearable.
This is the heart – this room once held the control panels and computers for the site’s three thermonuclear ballistic missiles. The drop ceiling has long since given way, collapsing into the floor of the space.
We left the control dome for our next objective, the silos themselves. Down the tunnel lay the moats, deeply dug junctions between the connecting tunnels that served to join the various pipes and control lines strung throughout the complex. Their depth (about 15 ft.) means that they are now flooded with murky ‘water’ – a potentially toxic witch’s brew of chemicals and runoff dissolved in groundwater. We’d have no choice but to cross these pits in order to access the launchers. Micah and Ashley set across first to the right, while David, Mél, and I kept to the left side with our photo gear. There are no more floors in the complex tunnels, as these were some of the first metal parts to be scrapped. There was no easy way across the first junction; the thick steel support beams we had to balance on were spaced far enough apart that shuffling over them was a delicate task.
The junction room was filled with all sorts of exposed pipework and conduit, and while some of this metal made great handholds, some was so rusty and rotten it could easily give way. About halfway across I heard Mélanie suddenly yelp “Help me! I’m falling!” from behind me. I spun around just in time to see her wobbling precariously above the moat! Her gear had shifted ever so slightly and thrown her off balance, and David was already out of reach. I had only a moment to flip my tripod over my shoulder and reach out to keep her from falling into the murk. Once safely across, we caught our breath and ventured deeper into the tunnels.
This tunnel junction further into the complex remains high and dry. The tunnels tend to get quite wet during the rainy season, but the sturdy engineering means some parts remain remarkably dry after 60 years.
Mél traverses a tunnel junction near a propellant terminal. There were separate storage facilities for missiles, fuel, and the equipment to handle both. The beams were covered with plate steel floors, long since removed for their scrap value. Plumbing and control lines for the missiles ran underneath.
After another half hour of monkey business, we found our target. Through a pair of blast doors at the end of a tunnel was Silo #2. Water had long since replaced the Titan I missile that was once here, and over the years the water level had risen to only ten feet below our tunnel. With the silos reaching 160 feet in depth from the surface, it’s easy to see why some enterprising people have made indoor SCUBA an adaptive reuse of a few similar sites. A sobering silence took over us as we realized what had once been in here, the magnitude of the space we had come all this way to see. The weapons once stored in here could have killed millions at the turn of two keys. At the end of the access tunnel, only a flimsy wire rope strung as a makeshift guard across the opening stood between us and the abyss.
Mél, David, and I look for a stable shooting position at the silo entrance. Beyond us, in the blackness, is the pit of the silo. Photo courtesy of Micah.
Silo number 2 from the personnel tunnel level. This composite image only captures the top forty feet or so!
A check on our watches revealed that 4 A.M. had come and gone. All that remained now was the long walk back to the power dome and our exit. We packed up everything but our cameras as we began back through the jungle gym, clambering over pipes and ducking underneath low hanging beams. Farther down, once the tunnels became mercifully dry, we simply walked on the packed earth at the bottom.
We emerged from the Earth after four and a half hours, physically tired but totally awake from the adrenaline. If we could only get past our last barrier – that skunk – we’d be home free. Under the abundant starlight, we could see surprisingly clearly. A quick check revealed no marauding wildlife, so up the side of the hole we went. Almost there. Fifty yards away was the van, and a beacon pointed us towards it. Silhouetting our ride were the 139 turbines of the Cedar Point Wind Farm, all flashing on and off in unison, forming a long, red glow across the horizon. It was a fitting end to a surreal night.
Back on I-70, the highway noise took over as the crew snoozed on and off. Micah turned off the road once or twice, seeking the towering lights of an open gas station. Mél and David slept through all of it, getting a head start on an early morning. Their plan was to head out just after sunrise, aiming west for the Rockies and eventually California. They would be missed. Personally, I hope to have the good fortune to meet more people like them in my life. Sometimes, all it takes is a little positive influence to get motivated.