Mountainous Mining: The Saddleback Story

22 September 2010 (Last Updated September 22nd, 2010 18:30)

Mineral-rich Tajikistan has some of the most remote and hostile mountains in the world. Alex Hawkes speaks to Saddleback Corporation, the one company brave enough to set up mining operations in such an extreme environment.

Mountainous Mining: The Saddleback Story

"When we recruit new staff, I always ask the same three questions," says Saddleback Corporation's CEO Alastair Ralston-Saul. "Do you think you are tough? Do you ever get lonely? And do you think you can learn passable Russian?"

Working for Saddleback, if you hadn't guessed already, is not for the faint hearted. The UK company, which was established in 2004, has spent the last six years developing a number of gold, coal and anthracite projects in the remotest parts of Tajikistan. As the southernmost country of the former USSR, Tajikistan has some of the world's most hostile and remote mountains. It also happens to be a mineral-rich terrain with a number of notable gold, coal, silver, lead, zinc, iron ore and limestone deposits.

This natural wealth, however, had remained relatively untouched until Saddleback decided to bravely go where no company had gone before and attempt to mine at high altitudes surrounded by drops of up to several thousand feet.

Kaftar-Hona

Of Saddleback's ongoing projects in Tajikistan, the Kaftar-Hona anthracite deposit is by far the most ambitious and also potentially the most lucrative. The deposit was discovered in 1940 and is made up of 12 parallel running anthracite seams that stretch over a 13km strike in the mountain. It is estimated to have 174 million tons of anthracite, making it one of the richest anthracite deposits in the world.

"Tajikistan is a mineral-rich terrain with a number of notable gold, coal, silver, lead, zinc, iron ore and limestone deposits."

Unfortunately for Saddleback, the only way to reach the deposit was to build a road 64km up the side of a mountain. "It took us a year and half to construct the road up to the deposit, but when we finally got there it was like reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Ralston-Saul says.

"The operation was very complex as sometimes the drops on the mountainside could be up to 2,000ft. Another big problem with working at those heights is the risk of avalanches. We have been very aware of that and managed to avoid avalanche risk areas, meaning our road can be kept open all year round."

Having made it successfully to the top, Saddleback conducted a pilot production programme on the deposit to locate its highest-quality seams.

The company has since decided to construct a second road, which will lead to the bottom of the deposit via less-hazardous roads. It will eventually use this entry point to mine the deposit from underground.

"We will begin construction of the second road shortly. The trucks that will eventually operate on this road will carry 25t to 30t each and will be able to pass each another without having to stop in lay-bys as we will make the road sufficiently wide. Once the anthracite arrives at the bottom of the mountain it will be washed and sized before heading off to India. We already have a large number of intentions to purchase from Indian steel mills," Ralston-Saul says.

"In the long term with this deposit, we want to ensure we can bring the anthracite down all year round. We are therefore looking to eventually install a $50m gondola lift system that will bring the anthracite directly down the side of the mountain."

The fight for anthracite

With only 1% of the world's coal reserves estimated to be of anthracite grade, Saddleback has no shortage of market demand. The company believes that anthracite of this high quality – which it claims is matched by only a few mines across the globe - could also be used across a broad range of premium metallurgical, thermal, water purification and composite materials applications.

"Saddleback conducted a pilot production programme on the deposit to locate its highest-quality seams."

The Kaftar-Hona deposit is located 244km from the Tajikistani capital of Dushanbe, which has trains to transport the anthracite directly into Iran, where it can be shipped on to the east coast of India.

For a central Asian country, Tajikistan has considerable transport links – largely as a result of China's decision to construct new highways across the entire east to west and north to south sides of the country. With the Chinese also planning to complement the highways with extensive rail links, Saddleback will also eventually have quick and easy access to western China – particularly the ever-industrialising Urumqi region.

Setting up camp

Yet, in spite of the country's increasing connectivity, Saddleback has had to adopt an entirely self-sufficient attitude when setting up operations in Tajikistan. The company has a warehouse stocked with up to $1m of spare parts and supplies in Dushanbe, which stores everything from tyres to food and spare engines.

Each base camp nearer to the mining operations also has a workshop which keeps more essential spares and allows Saddleback staff room to carry out repairs to equipment. The 30m by 40m workshops are even large enough to carry out repairs on up to three bulldozers at one time.

Management and staff live inside flat-pack buildings complete with hot and cold water and all other mod cons. In a bid to become more environmentally sustainable, the company is also exploring the possibility of eventually installing hydroelectricity generators to power its base camps – made possible through the large number of streams and rivers that run throughout Tajikistan's mountains.

"When you are operating in these outlandish places – the problems are always spare parts, food, communications and keeping general morale up," Ralston-Saul says.

"My objective is to keep things fairly modern and mechanised so we often have five or six managers overseeing a team of several hundred of the local population depending on the mine.

"The Kaftar-Hona anthracite deposit is by far the most ambitious, and also potentially the most lucrative, of Saddleback's projects."

One of the hardest challenges is bringing the Tajikistani workers up to international safety standards – even with simple things such as wearing a helmet or carrying out safety checks on the trucks. You have to set very strict disciplines but you get there with them eventually."

Given that equipment operating in high altitudes can lose up to roughly 20% of its horsepower, Saddleback has been meticulous in its selection of equipment manufacturers. The company generally relies on Komatsu products for mining, preferring them to rivals caterpillar due to the more mechanical nature of their maintenance processes which allows for quicker repairs. By also utilising Hitachi excavators and Toyota Hilux trucks, Saddleback believes it has hit on a winning formula when it comes to ensuring safety in extreme mining conditions.

"I remember one winter we were particularly worried about the slippery conditions of the road so attached one of our Hilux trucks to a bulldozer using tanks cables. Sure enough, the Hilux slipped over the side of the cliff and was left hanging from the bulldozer with two members of our management swinging inside. We pulled them safely back up," Ralston-Saul says.

"We are very proactive when it comes to safety and think hard about some of the dramas that can happen. It is this attention to detail that has ensured we have had virtually no accidents and zero deaths throughout our operations."