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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Mt. Antero, Colo.

Maverick Colorado prospectors have aquamarine fever

Prospectors on Colorado's Mt. Antero brave lightning, altitude and even gunfire to dig out chunks of luminous aquamarine.

August 31, 2013|By David Kelly
  • Steve Brancato, the self-described King of Antero, pauses on his way to his claim on Mt. Antero, Colo., where he prospects for aquamarine.
Steve Brancato, the self-described King of Antero, pauses on his way to… (David Kelly / For the Los…)

Steve Brancato scampered like a mountain goat down the rugged slopes in this forbidding wilderness of stone and sky.

"Rock!' he shouted as his foot sent boulders thundering past fellow prospector Clay Hudson. A string of profanities rose from the speck below.

"Sorry, dude!" Brancato shouted.

The self-professed King of Antero paused to survey his airy realm.

"This mountain is like coming back to an old girlfriend," he said. "You get angry with her, then lock eyes across the room and you get that old feeling again. I'm still in love."

Loving 14,269-foot Mt. Antero is fraught with the risk of heartache, rejection and even death. Yet every summer, North America's highest gem field attracts a small band of prospectors who brave altitude, lightning and armed claim jumpers in search of luminous blue aquamarine.

"Antero aquamarine has been mined since the 1880s and is one of the finest, most beautiful gemstones on earth," said Paul Martin, owner of the Crystal Shop in nearby Salida.

And those who seek it can be as mercurial as Antero itself.

"They are iconoclasts — wild beasts who like to raise hell," Martin said. "But when you hear a prospector talk about his stones, man, it's a thing of beauty."

Aquamarine, related to emerald, is worth $175 to $600 a carat depending on color and clarity. Tectonic forces unleashed more than 60 million years ago endowed Antero, part of the San Isabel National Forest, with the largest aquamarine hoard in North America.

But getting it isn't easy.

"These boulders are like pick-up sticks," said Scott Yoder, 28, digging below a wall of loose rock on Antero. "Pull one out and the whole thing comes down."

Yoder makes high-end jewelry from his finds.

"I'd love to be the next Carl Faberge," he said, referring to the famed jeweler known for his gem-encrusted eggs. "He put such artistry and craftsmanship into his work."

Unlike Yoder, Faberge probably never ate fried squirrel or evicted a marmot from his sleeping bag. And he probably never shot it out with a claim jumper.

"This guy tried to scare me off my claim by taking potshots at me," said Yoder, who, like many prospectors, carries a gun. "I kept his head down with my P90 [assault rifle] and he fled. It's easy to get dead up here."

Yet interest in the mountain appears to be growing, partly because of "Prospectors," a year-old reality show on the Weather Channel chronicling the exploits of local miners, including Brancato.

The Bureau of Land Management reports that new claims have more than doubled in the last year, from 15 to 31. Bureau officials "highly recommend" that even amateur rockhounds stake claims — which cost about $189 — to avoid trespassing.

"I've now got people coming up the mountain just to meet me," Brancato said.

Lean, funny and lyrically profane, Brancato, 42, is arguably the most successful prospector on Antero today. A chain-smoking high school dropout from Long Island, N.Y., he speaks with authority on such diverse subjects as the 1872 Mining Act, Carlos Castaneda and mind-altering drugs.

Prospecting, he says, is all about instinct.

"Tell me you have a degree in geology, and that's like saying you're blind, deaf and dumb," he said. "All that book learning kills your instinct. You need to be open to the place. Louis Pasteur said, 'Chance favors the prepared mind.'"

Brancato, unmarried with two children, began prospecting on Antero in 2002 and quickly located major aquamarine and topaz deposits. In 2004, he discovered Diane's Pocket — named after his mother — which held a 37-by-25-inch chunk of aquamarine, one of the largest ever found.

"It was the longest sustained buzz I ever had," he recalled. "It was like being on coke."

But Antero is fickle. Last year Brancato found nothing and spent the winter digging for amazonite, a green crystal, near Pike's Peak.

One day this summer, Brancato and three other prospectors bumped up a narrow dirt road in a battered Jeep Cherokee toward towering, gray Antero. Mountains appeared to ripple like the sea in every direction, dwarfing everything beneath them.

Jeff Butterfield squeezed the Jeep around a tight curve, halting when he spied Jim Grika reading in his truck.

Grika, 64, is an Antero legend, famed not only for 40 years of finding the bluest aquamarine but for an uncanny ability to cheat death. Like when lightning struck his truck.

"It blew a hole the size of my fist in the back," he said. "It vaporized my beer — the cans had burn marks on the edges and the beer was gone. The propane exploded under the truck and sent it five feet in the air."

"The lightning drank your beer?" Brancato asked.

Grika produced photographs of the burned cans.

"I couldn't hear for six hours, had no peripheral vision for eight hours," he said. "That was about it. Hell, I thought I was dead."

By now, it was 1 p.m. and growing cloudy.

"We should have come up earlier," fretted Ted Butterfield, 16, who accompanied his father, Jeff, on the trip.

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