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Rural Missouri Magazine

Masters of the muck
Missouri S&T 'mucking' teams host
old-fashioned mining skills competition

by Jason Jenkins
MS&T Men’s Mucking Team captain Klaus Nunemacher of Palmyra, left, and fellow mining engineering majors Chris Searing of Liberty, Matt Coy of Lewistown and Frank Virant of Rolla race to fill a 2-ton ore cart while practicing for the mucking event.

They’ve each won more world championships than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls or Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. Together, they’ve eclipsed the vaunted records of John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics.

They’ve even won more titles than Missouri’s own St. Louis Cardinals.

Other dynasties may be better known, but few teams have dominated their respective sports like the “mucking” teams at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Since 1979, the men’s and women’s teams have collected 17 championships at the International Collegiate Mining Competition, more than any other school that participates in the event.

This year, as Missouri S&T (formerly the University of Missouri-Rolla) prepares to host the 30th annual competition in April, the women are aiming to defend their world title, while the men are seeking their first championship since 2005.

The mucking competition is a test of old-fashioned mining skills that were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Machinery, automation and computers have replaced most of these hands-on techniques today, but the camaraderie and teamwork that the competition inspires is still in high demand in the mining industry.

This year’s event is expected to draw about 30 teams from universities across the United States and around the world, including six from Australia.

Melody Rea, an aerospace engineering major from Kansas City, Kan., practices for the gold panning event inside the MS&T experimental mine. Instead of searching for actual gold, team members pan for flattened copper BBs.

In addition to keeping old-time mining techniques alive, the International Collegiate Mining Competition also pays tribute to all miners who have died in the line of duty. The competition began as a remembrance to the victims of the Sunshine Mine disaster, where a fire inside the silver mine near Kellogg, Idaho, claimed the lives of 91 miners in 1972.

“Muck” may have many connotations, but in mining, it refers to the loose material created when blasting.

“It could have your ore in it or it could be waste,” explains women’s team captain Jennifer Fizer, a junior from Slater majoring in mining engineering. “Either way, you had to shovel everything into a cart by hand and then haul it out of the mine.”

Hand-mucking is one of seven events in the mining competition. Each team must push an empty 2-ton ore cart down and back along a length of rail, then race to fill the cart with muck. Once full, teammates then push the full cart down and back again. The team with the fastest time wins.

Three teammates shovel in overlapping relay-style segments so that two shovels are constantly pitching muck toward the cart. Two other teammates serve as “blockers,” using their bodies to ensure that a shovelful of muck thrown with extra fervor doesn’t fly over its intended target. If you’re not getting dirty, you’re not doing it right, Jennifer says.

The action is fast and furious, with rehearsed choreography that would impress a NASCAR pit crew.

“It’s just something to get you that one extra nanosecond to get that extra shovelful,” Jennifer says of the coordinated shoveling. “It can make all the difference. Last year, we barely won the mucking event by 5 seconds.”

Another event that requires speed and team coordination is the track stand, where the team builds and then disassembles a 15-foot section of rail atop five wooden ties — all by hand.

From left, mining engineering majors Jill Groeblinghoff of St. Paul, Allyson Finch of St. Robert, Women’s Mucking Team captain Jennifer Fizer of Slater and Maggie Hettinger of St. Louis push an ore cart down the rails while practicing for the mucking event.

“Our boys are the best,” says Jim Taylor, supervisor of Missouri S&T’s experimental mine. “They consider it a slap in the face if they don’t win it.”

Assembling the track requires both concentration and trust, as teammates swing hammers and spike mauls just inches away from their fellow muckers’ heads. The teams are scored on time, and penalties are assessed for missing or loose spikes.

“They use a popsicle stick to judge if you’ve driven the spike in far enough,” says men’s team captain Klaus Nunemacher, a senior from Palmyra majoring in mining engineering. “If they can slip the popsicle stick between the head of the spike and the rail, you’re assessed a penalty.”

The Missouri S&T teams are so dominant at track stand that other schools have been known to videotape their performance in hopes of learning time-saving techniques.

Speed also is of the essence in the Swede saw event, during which five team members use a bow saw to cut through a 6-by-6-inch timber similar to what would have been used for roof supports. Again, the quickest combined time wins the event.

“A good team can get it done in under a minute,” says Barb Robertson, administrative assistant in the Missouri S&T Mining and Nuclear Engineering Department, who helps coordinate the teams’ activities. “I think the fastest I’ve even seen is one of our guys did it in 7 seconds, and one of our ladies did it in 13 seconds.”

Also timed is the gold-panning event, where each team member is given a bucket of muck containing five flattened copper BBs to serve as bits of gold. Competitors are given up to five minutes to find all the BBs, with the lowest combined time determining the winner. Five-minute penalties are assessed for each BB not recovered.

Three events are determined not by speed, but by distance. Surveying is by far the least physical, but perhaps the most challenging, event of the competition. A two-person team must determine the coordinates and elevation of one location relative to another without the aid of modern surveying equipment such as a Global Positioning System device.

Klaus Nunemacher sets railroad spikes into ties with a hammer during the track stand event. A teammate will follow behind him with a spike maul, driving them in completely. Scott Miettinen, a mining engineering major from Omaha, Neb., watches to make sure no spikes jump out of the ties and cost the team both time and a penalty.

“Sometimes, it’s the surveying event that decides who wins,” says Barb. “I’ve seen them come within a quarter of an inch, but I’ve also seen them come in 400 feet off.”

In the hand steel event, a team is given 10 minutes to drill holes into a horizontal concrete block using chisels and a 4-pound hammer. The team that drills the greatest total depth wins the event.

Certainly the loudest event during the competition is jackleg drilling. Two members from each team wield a 65-pound pneumatic jackhammer, which they use to drill holes in a vertical rock face. Each teammate is given three minutes to drill as many holes as possible. Again, the team that drills the greatest total depth wins the event.

While other host schools provide large concrete blocks for jacklegging, Missouri S&T holds the event in the school’s quarry, where teams drill into solid rock. The uneven face of the quarry wall adds a unique element of realism to the competition.

The Missouri teams also have a unique area for winter training. When it’s too cold outside, the muckers head underground to the experimental mine. Here, they can practice all the events except hand-mucking and track stand.

“It’s summer in Australia, so they’re able to practice and be better prepared than some North American schools that don’t have a place to practice,” says Jennifer. “We’ll be ready for them.”

Missouri S&T plans to field four teams — two men’s and two women’s — at this year’s competition. 2008 could be a rebuilding year for the teams, however, as many veteran muckers graduated in the past year. Jennifer is the only student remaining from last year’s women’s championship team. She is now joined by muckers who comprised the women’s second team in 2007.

Joe Ferry, an aerospace engineering major from St. Louis, practices for the jackleg drilling event inside the MS&T experimental mine as team captain Klaus Nunemacher, right, and Zach Cochran of Huntsville watch.

“I’m having to learn how they work as a team and mesh with them,” Jennifer says.

Though both teams have championships in their sights, Barb says that competition provides more than just annual bragging rights among mining programs.

“It’s just amazing to watch them. You can actually see them grow as they learn to network and make connections with others in the industry,” she says. “They’re learning not only to compete, but to become leaders.”

Missouri University of Science and Technology will host the 30th annual Intercollegiate Mining Competition at the school’s experimental mine, 12350 Spencer Road, Rolla. Teams will practice throughout the day on Friday, April 11; the competition begins at 7:30 a.m., Saturday, April 12. These events are free and open to the public. For more details or directions to the mine, call Barb Robertson at 573-341-4753 or e-mail barb@mst.edu.

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