Friggin’ Freezin’ – by Bill Braden (Canadian Mining Journal – January, 2012)

The Canadian Mining Journal is Canada’s first mining publication providing information on Canadian mining and exploration trends, technologies, operations, and industry events.

Bill Braden is the Northern Correspondent for the Canadian Mining Journal

Renowned winter road readies for really big traffic

Just about every winter brings a new “first” of some kind to the NWT’s storied Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, the frozen lifeline to three major mines now harvesting approximately 18 per cent (by value) of the world’s gem-quality diamonds.

Now in its 32nd year, the world’s longest-ever ice road will see what could be its longest-ever shipments: the 35-m long blades for a quartet of giant wind turbines to be installed at the Diavik Mine, owned by Rio Tinto and Harry Winston Diamonds Inc.

“They’re not heavy, but they’re big and long and awkward and very sensitive,” said Ron Near, Director of Winter Road Operations, in a recent News/North article. “There’s huge logistics involved in ensuring they get to the mine in a safe way.”

The challenge for Near and his team will be to make sure the rigs, which could stretch to 50 m long, make it over the 64 twisting portages that bridge dozens of lakes along the 330 km from Yellowknife to Diavik.
That, and shepherd up to 7000 other loads of fuel, cement, steel and gear, enough for three mines to run for a year, in less than two months.

25 day punch to Contwoyto

Its name – Tibbitt to Contwoyto – comes from the road’s first and last lake crossings in what was originally a gruelling 600 km odyssey in 1979. That’s when Dick Robinson’s Yellowknife trucking company cut a trail and hauled a small string of fuel and gear into Echo Bay Mine’s Lupin gold prospect.
“Nobody had ever gone as far north as Lupin with trucks,” recalls Robinson of the exhausting 25-day punch. “We proved that it could work.”

But two years later, when Echo Bay needed a better road to build and supply its new 2,000 tpd mine, it failed. They learned a valuable lesson: it was one thing to drive a trail in for a single convoy, yet another to keep it open for weeks through a brutal Barrenlands winter.

Echo Bay President John Zigarlick abandoned the road, bought a Hercules heavy lift aircraft and audaciously built and ran his mine by air. But when gold collapsed from $800 to $300, he needed the more economic land route. In 1983, with Robinson hired to build the southern half, Echo Bay put its own crew on the northern half, and this time it worked.

Diamond miners launch new ice age

1990 marked the turning point for the road, when Chuck Fipke and Stu Blusson found the vast gem storehouse that would become the BHP Billiton Ekati mine. The road, smack in the middle of all the action in the diamond fields, was destined to become the mines’ lifeline.

It was a mixed blessing for Echo Bay, as their trail became the gateway into the so-called Corridor of Hope. They grappled with a frenzy of diamond hunters clamouring for access to what was essentially a single track designed for fewer than 1,000 loads a year.

Senior executives Kirk McLellan and Ian Goodwin, of Echo Bay and BHP respectively, solved the dilemma in 1997 when they forged a bold new joint venture to manage the whole road for mutual benefit. They contracted with Nuna Logistics, (a part-Inuit owned arctic builder lead by Zigarlick) to build and oversee the road, moved quickly to establish traffic control and started planning how to jump the road from a few hundred to several thousand loads a season.

To make it reliable and safe, the miners poured resources and cash into making it happen. EBA Engineering developed a scientific ice strategy, and merged with years of practical experience, vastly increased weights and volumes. One major innovation was ground penetrating radar, adapted to measure ice with millimetre precision, to set safe load limits.

By 2002, Echo Bay was closed, but Diavik came on in 2000, and De Beers Canada by 2008. This remarkable partnership, among the world’s most competitive mining giants, holds them responsible for a federal licence of occupation, while they share the $18 million per year cost of the project.

Like a military campaign

Ron Near knows the territory well. He came into the Director’s job in mid 2011 as a former RCMP officer, owner of a security service that patrolled the road, and most recently, Yellowknife base manager for one of the principal haulers.

“It’s planned like a military campaign,” says Near.

The Nuna Logistics construction team is led by Alan Fitzgerald (both he and Nuna boss Zigarlick have served in the Canadian Armed Forces) and supervised on the ground by ice road veteran Kirk Keller. His opening team will fly into the three permanent (but frozen up) camps and turn on the heat by Christmas.
Helicopters fly the entire route (80 per cent of it on lakes) and auger hundreds of holes, checking ice thickness for a minimum of 30 cm before sending out the trail blazers: amphibious, tracked Hägglunds, equipped with ground penetrating radar.

Keller says one of the major lessons learned is to get started as early as possible, and speed up Nature’s ice building by clearing snow and adding more by flooding. A minimum 80 cm (32 in) is needed to allow the first partial loads to pass, usually by the end of January. By mid-February, the ice will be at least 104 cm (41 in), enough for a fully loaded Super B fuel tanker – 63,504 kg.

By early in the New Year, lightweight snow clearing machines — SnowCats and Wolverines are preferred — blade insulating snow off the ice, and start packing snow over the land portages. As ice strengthens, graders and bigger plough trucks are deployed, widening the road to as much as 50 m. Flooding teams fan out, using portable Typhoon pumps to flood the road and build ice from the top, while cold penetrates and
adds ice from the bottom. Radar profiling is continuous.

Water trucks tank up from the lakes and continuously flood the snow packed portages, building a smooth, double lane, seamless ribbon of ice 405 km long to its terminus at the Ekati mine. As many as 200 people are engaged in the six week building program.

Back in Yellowknife, rigs cluster at the “Nuna Dispatch” yard near the Yellowknife Airport and await clearance to head out. Around the clock, every 20 minutes, they’re dispatched in convoys of four, spaced a half km apart, and kept to speeds between 30 and 10 kph. (Empty trucks on the return run can zip along at 60 kph on separate “express” lanes). A round trip as far as Ekati takes about 30 hours.

Ron Near projects the 2012 year will see an average volume of between 6,000 and 7,000 loads before warmer March weather curbs operating hours or melts the portages. The record year was 2007, when 11,659 trips were logged, hauling over 345,000 tonnes.

Those volumes could be matched again in future years, as De Beers’ second northern mine, Gahcho Kué, seeks permitting approval and construction starts, and if the mothballed Jericho diamond, a further 200 km north of Ekati, reopens. Seabridge’s massive Courageous Lake gold find, near the long abandoned Tundra mine, is also a prospective new client.