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Andrew Lee, SSgt., USAF, Cheyenne Mountain, 2016, Airman Magazine

Essay

America’s Atomic Mountain

Colorado beckons visitors today as the land of Rocky Mountain High: snowy peaks, mountain resorts, alpine vistas, legal marijuana. Long before John Denver became the state’s unofficial propaganda minister, the state’s boosters marketed its natural beauty and healthy culture. Highway signs around the state boast of “Colorful Colorado,” but most visitors and Colorado natives alike fail to notice the state’s singular contribution to Atomic America.

Colorado almost certainly stands alone for its full-lifecycle commitments to the modern nuclear state: uranium mining and processing still mark remote western Colorado towns; for decades, key nuclear weapon components were manufactured and assembled at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver; the state’s northeastern plains continue to harbor dozens of nuclear missiles, tucked in underground silos; and burrowed into the heart of Cheyenne Mountain, at the edge of Colorado Springs, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) maintains an operations center In 2006, most NORAD operations were moved from Cheyenne Mountain to the nearby Peterson Air Force Base. In 2008, Cheyenne Mountain was redesignated the NORAD Alternate Command Center, and in 2015 Defense officials announced that sensitive electronic devices and servers would be restored to Cheyenne Mountain where they are protected against electromagnetic pulse attacks.poised for nuclear action. If Colorado were a nuclear weapons corporation, it could boast of thorough vertical integration. To get a sense of how Colorado exists today as an atomic state wrapped in an economic cloak of recreation and tourism, there is perhaps no better illustration than Cheyenne Mountain.

Resorts and Recreation

Cheyenne Mountain’s broad outline frames the southern border of a city, Colorado Springs, which in 2018 was ranked second as the United States’ "Best Places to Live in the United States," U.S. News and World Report, accessed June 14, 2018, https://realestate.usnews.com/places/rankings/best-places-to-live.“best place to live.” During the past six decades, Colorado Springs has grown into one of the most pervasively militarized urban areas in the United States: the U.S. Army’s Fort Carson borders the city to the south, Peterson and Schriever Air Force Bases sit to the east of town, the sprawling grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy mark the city’s north border, and to the west the NORAD facility is tucked deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, protected by thousands of feet of granite, two 23-ton blast doors, and enough infrastructure to sustain operations for weeks on end in the event of a nuclear attack.

On the surface, Cheyenne Mountain greets visitors not with the face of nuclear catastrophe, but with an array of recreational and commercial attractions. If you come here in search of the beating heart of nuclear America, what you find instead is posh resorts and mountain bicycling trails.

Two people in red shirts on mountain bikes ride on a trail toward the photographer, Rocky Mountains in the background.
Alison Ramerth, Airmen stationed at Peterson Air Force Base participate in an after-work mountain biking program at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, June 2015, U.S. Air Force

The five-star Broadmoor Hotel’s Cloud Camp Resort is perched atop the north summit of Cheyenne Mountain. Guests of Cloud Camp reach their luxurious destination by hiking several miles up the peak, riding a mule, or cruising inside a 4WD Cadillac up a twisting dirt road. Cloud Camp bills itself as an “authentic Colorado escape,” featuring panoramic views for those bold and privileged enough to participate in this all-inclusive The Broadmoor, "Cloud Camp," accessed January 27, 2020, https://www.broadmoor.com/cloud-camp.“Wilderness Experience.” Visitors to Cloud Camp report tastefully appointed log cabins, secluded hot tubs, guided hikes around the summit’s rocky trails, archery, disc golf, and cooking classes with premium chefs working to prepare their daily meals. The camp is a modern replacement of the original Steven Saint, “The Springs’ Other Mountain: There’s a Lot More to Cheyenne than NORAD,” Colorado Springs Gazette, January 8, 2002, LIFE1.Cheyenne Mountain Lodge, which opened in 1926 and offered visitors access via elephant-back on today’s mule and Cadillac route.

Three thousand feet below Cloud Camp, the more modest Cheyenne Mountain State Park offers its own array of recreational experiences, with more than twenty miles of hiking and mountain bicycling trails, a year-round campground, nature trails, running and mountain bicycle races, and picnic areas. Colorado touts the park as a place where, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, "Cheyenne Mountain," accessed June 18, 2018, http://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/CheyenneMountain.“you can explore nature’s diversity with prairie-to-peak ecosystems.” A trail completed in 2018 now also gives visitors the option of hiking to Cheyenne Mountain’s 9,500-foot south summit. The major debate that surfaced around this new trail had nothing to do with militarization or security, but focused instead on whether mountain bikes would be permitted past the ridgeline onto the rocky summit trail.

Campers at the state park get just a hint of the blurred spaces of recreation, commercialization, and militarization that exist on and around Cheyenne Mountain: at dawn and dusk the notes of reveille and taps often drift on the breeze from nearby Fort Carson, along with the periodic thunder of artillery practice. At night, just above the northwest boundary to the park, the off-limits entrance to the NORAD facility glows in floodlights, the only external sign of the mountain’s hollow core.

A very thick, large, cream-colored, metal door stands ajar in a dimly lit, underground cavern whose walls are covered in metal sheeting and piping.
Andrew Lee, SSgt., USAF, Cheyenne Mountain's inner entrance is guarded by two, 23-ton blast doors that can hydraulically close in 20 seconds, 2016, U.S. Air Force

America’s Atomic Mountain

By the late 1950s, U.S. military planners recognized that their Colorado Springs-based air defense headquarters would soon be facing a new type of threat in the event that the Cold War heated into action. The Soviet Union was rapidly developing intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities that would turn hours of reaction time into minutes in the event of an attack. With the Soviets’ ever-more potent payloads as well, the Department of Defense committed to a plan for a self-sufficient underground command facility capable of withstanding multi-megaton impacts and continued operations for an indefinite period of time.

North American Aerospace Defense Command, Office of the Command Historian, "A Brief History of NORAD," May 13, 2016, p. 17, https://www.norad.mil/Portals/29/Documents/History/A%20Brief%20History%20of%20NORAD_May2016.pdf?ver=2016-07-07-114925-133; Deb Stanley, "13 Secrets of NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain," TheDenverChannel.com, May 16, 2016 [last updated], https://www.thedenverchannel.com/lifestyle/discover-colorado/secrets-of-colorado/13-secrets-of-norad-combat-operations-center-and-cheyenne-mountain-air-force-station.Defense officials selected Colorado Springs for its Cold War command operations center by sifting through a series of requirements: the site should sit away from coastlines to provide maximum time in the event of a Soviet attack, ought to be distant from other prime targets, have geological stability, and allow for construction “at reasonable cost,” but needed access to modern infrastructure and communication networks. It should also be hardened to withstand a full-scale nuclear attack. Initial plans to bury the command center beneath installations on the plains of eastern Colorado Springs were scuttled due to concerns that these would remain vulnerable. Final recommendations pointed to two granite peaks on the west edge of the city. After surveys found geological flaws in the first choice (Blodgett Peak, at the southwest edge of today’s U.S. Air Force Academy), North American Aerospace Defense Command, Office of the Command Historian, "A Brief History of NORAD, " May 13, 2016, p. 19, https://www.norad.mil/Portals/29/Documents/History/A%20Brief%20History%20of%20NORAD_May2016.pdf?ver=2016-07-07-114925-133.excavation began on the Cheyenne Mountain Complex on May 18, 1961. Sarah Scoles, “A Rare Journey into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, A Super-Bunker That Can Survive Anything,” Wired, May 3, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/05/rare-journey-cheyenne-mountain-complex-super-bunker-can-survive-anything/; North American Aerospace Defense Command, Office of the Command Historian, "A Brief History of NORAD," May 13, 2016, p. 20, https://www.norad.mil/Portals/29/Documents/History/A%20Brief%20History%20of%20NORAD_May2016.pdf?ver=2016-07-07-114925-133.After three years and nearly 700,000 tons of rock had been hauled out of the mountain, the new NORAD facility was complete in its granite cocoon.  

Not everything went smoothly even at the new site. Computers quickly became obsolete, in some cases to the point of nearly triggering the war that NORAD was designed to protect the United States against. The 1983 Matthew Broderick film, “War Games,” made NORAD’s interior a familiar site to an entire generation of Americans, but not many viewers understood that the film’s premise of a computer-generated mistaken attack was based on North American Aerospace Defense Command, Office of the Command Historian, "A Brief History of NORAD," May 13, 2016, p. 24, https://www.norad.mil/Portals/29/Documents/History/A%20Brief%20History%20of%20NORAD_May2016.pdf?ver=2016-07-07-114925-133.actual events from 1979.

A conference room lit up by two large screens. The one on the left shows air traffic in the continental United States, while the one on the right shows a detail view of terrain. In the foreground is a desk marked
Andrew Lee, SSgt., USAF, Alternate command and control center at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado, 2016, U.S. Air Force

The blithe acceptance of NORAD and its exceptional premises continues in many ways today. The first and most obvious of these is surely the top-to-bottom commodification of the mountain for leisure pursuits and vacation getaways. Thanks to private enclaves such as the Broadmoor and the neighboring Cheyenne Mountain Resort, along with public national forests, and state, county, and city park lands, Cheyenne Mountain has been normalized as just another Colorado recreation destination.

A bit less apparent but more fundamentally troubling is the military’s implicit assumption that there is nothing incongruous about planning for global thermonuclear war in the midst of a mid-sized American city. In this way, spaces of consumption, recreation, and even “wild nature” are embraced literally on top of a hardened bunker designed to withstand and provide a site of retaliation against weapons of mass destruction. As part of each day’s routine, This is a point related clearly by Sarah Scoles in her article in Wired: Sarah Scoles, "A Rare Journey into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, A Super-Bunker That Can Survive Anything,” Wired, May 3, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/05/rare-journey-cheyenne-mountain-complex-super-bunker-can-survive-anything/.NORAD employees head underground with the tacit recognition that in the event of a full-scale attack, they would be sheltered underground while their families, friends, and neighbors suffered the consequences at the surface.

A third exceptional conceit built into Cheyenne Mountain’s NORAD complex is the assumption that a full-scale nuclear attack, one which finds ICBM’s raining upon the interior of the United States, would be survivable and winnable, if only our defense officials have the capacity to hunker down long enough inside a mountain. The command center’s underground complex of water reservoirs (storage capacity: six million gallons), 500,000 gallons of diesel fuel, ten-megawatt power plant, and buildings constructed on shock-absorbing springs demonstrate the This is a point related clearly by Sarah Scoles in her article in Wired: Sarah Scoles, "A Rare Journey into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, A Super-Bunker That Can Survive Anything,” Wired, May 3, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/05/rare-journey-cheyenne-mountain-complex-super-bunker-can-survive-anything/.elaborate plan for life continuing uninterrupted inside the mountain. This, in turn, brings up a final substantial premise: that if we put enough faith into our technological systems, computers, electromagnetic pulse-resistant blast doors, and automated tracking devices, we would be adequately prepared for whatever might come from the climax of the Cold War.

The fact that today’s NORAD entrance—and the hidden facility itself—are encountered by neighboring recreationists and tourists as little more than a Cold War novelty, if they are considered at all, says less about how far we have come than it does about how little we have managed to learn. The nuclear state that persists in Colorado, and the invisibility of the control and violence that this is predicated upon, ought to continue to remind us not to take these spaces for granted, but rather to insist on noticing and remembering them for the perverse conditions that support their existence.

Sources

"Best Places to Live in the United States." U.S. News and World Report. Accessed June 14, 2018.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "Cheyenne Mountain." Accessed June 18, 2018.

North American Aerospace Defense Command, Office of the Command Historian. "A Brief History of NORAD." May 13, 2016. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Saint, Steven. “The Springs’ Other Mountain: There’s a Lot More to Cheyenne than NORAD.” Colorado Springs Gazette, January 8, 2002. LIFE1.

Scoles, Sarah. “A Rare Journey into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, A Super-Bunker That Can Survive Anything.Wired, May 3, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Stanley, Deb. "13 Secrets of NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain." TheDenverChannel.com. May 16, 2016 [last updated]. Accessed July 30, 2020.

The Broadmoor. "Cloud Camp." Accessed January 27, 2020.
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