Things are different above 10,000 feet.

Visitors to Leadville, Colorado learn that lesson quickly, huffing and puffing while climbing a single flight of stairs, withering under the harsh glare of the sun or succumbing quickly to a drink in one of the many saloons along Harrison Avenue, which doesn't seem to have changed since the nation's highest settlement was incorporated in 1878.

Despite the challenges presented by life at 10,200-feet, Leadville embodies human stubbornness in the face of natural elements and the town's stalemate with thin air remains a tremendous source of local pride. A bumpersticker testifies to this bullheadedness: "We're here because we're not all there."

The current population may be a modest 2,643, but in the roaring 1880s, as many as 15,185 residents called Leadville home. One travel guide published in 1885 reported that widespread rumors that "Leadville is dead" were greatly exaggerated.

The real downturn didn't come until 1893, when the price of silver, Leadville's leading commodity, well and truly cratered. Since then, the town has turned to adventure tourism as an economic way forward, with hotels, restaurants and shops catering to visitors, not to mention a very popular century-race series.

But Leadville's cyclic victories have come at great cost to its mountain-top environment. As precious silver, gold and zinc were hewn from the range, miners pushed further and further up the Rockies, at times even above the timber line. Without regulations, there was little incentive to properly dispose of mine tailings or old equipment much less headframes or ore bins.

Today, the relics of those mines are both monuments to booms past and, as tourist destinations in their own rights, the hope for booms to come.

On a recent visit, I toured many of the mine sites with author and local historian Roger Pretti. While the tunnels have been largely backfilled -- no sensible person would attempt to enter the area's dilapidated structures -- there was still a whiff of danger to the expedition, which by its very nature involved trekking on and around the private lands just off the county roads wending through the backcountry.

Official tours of the district are still in the works. Gail Dunning, owner of the historic Delaware Hotel downtown, says she's hoping to have guided tours ready by next spring, when the summer season gears up.

Until then, pack plenty of water, some sunscreen and a steely resolve.

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  • The mines of Leadville

  • Looking uphill

    From the Mini Pump Shaft mine.

  • A headframe

    Original timbers still stand at the Mini Pump Shaft mine.

  • Ore carts and a metal concentrator

    Material from the Mini Pump Shaft mining operation still litters the ground.

  • Ore carts and timbers

    Above the Mini Pump Shaft.

  • An ore concentrator

    Sits to the right of this headframe.

  • Headframe and ruins

    The ruins of the Mini Pump Shaft mine.

  • Metal bits

    Random metal bits scatter the ground above Leadville.

  • Mine entrance

    Small mounds and collapsed timbers mark another mine entrance.

  • Another headframe

    The original timbers still stand high on a hill.

  • Collapsed structures

    There's little incentive to tidy up collapsed structures like this one.

  • Headframe joint

    Original woodwork is still intact at many of these abandoned mines.

  • Mine headframe

    Original orange-hued paint can still be seen on the headframe of the Colonel Sellers mine.

  • A view up the road

    This path carved through the mountains leads past a number of abandoned mines.

  • Ore crystals

    Can still be seen on the rocks in the area.

  • The abandoned Clear Grit mine

  • The Clear Grit

    The tall building covers the headframe, while other outbuildings would've been used for storage, blacksmith shops and other ancillary tasks.

  • Yet another abandoned pile of mine spoil

    Seen through the trees.

  • Huge piles of debris

    Collapsed structures and mine spoil at the Ibex mine.

  • An ore building

    At the Ibex mine complex, this building would've been served by rail carts during the active mining.

  • Ibex mine complex

  • Ibex mine ore building

  • Another look

    At the abandoned Ibex mine complex.

  • Mine spoil

    Note the SUV to the lower right for scale.

  • Hoist drum

    A hoist for hauling ore out of one of the Ibex mine's shafts. This cable would run through a headframe before descending into the shaft.

  • Another look

    The collapsed hoist house at Ibex seems to be falling down in very slow motion.

  • Sagging floors

    At Ibex.

  • An ore cart

    Outside the hoist house.

  • The hoist house

    The facade of the hoist house has seen much better days.

  • Rusted hardware...

    Is everywhere, on doors, in windows and on the ground.

  • Old rail trestle

    At Ibex.

  • More of Ibex

  • More of Ibex

  • Another ore building

    A rail trestle still shows the way into this abandoned ore bin.

  • Ore bin

    Another view of the rail trestle.

  • Another view

    Of one of Leadville's many abandoned ore bins.

  • Mine spoil

  • The site of a now-abandoned mining settlement

    Molly Brown once stayed in this settlement, called Stumptown. It's now little more than abandoned buildings, slowly decaying.

  • Ruined buildings on a ridge above Leadville

  • Ruined buildings

  • Ruined buildings

  • A ruined ore bin

  • Another view of the bin

  • A modern-day memorial marker above Leadville

  • Mine spoil and mountains

  • Leadville

    As seen from above.