In the background of Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak dominates the sky. But just to that mountain’s southeast looms another geological ripple. Cheyenne Mountain—a rounded, rocky thing that rises 9,565 feet above sea level—looks wild and quiet. But deep inside the mountain, a crew of humans toils in one of the nation’s most secure military installations. Shielded by 2,500 feet of granite, these individuals collect and analyze data from a global surveillance system, in an attempt to (among other, undisclosed things) warn the government’s highest officials of launches and missile threats to North America.
Their military mole-city, completed in the mid-1960s amid Cold War worries, is—when fully buttoned-up—highly resistant to nuclear bombs, electromagnetic bombs, electromagnetically devastating behavior from the sun, and biological weapons. It’s designed to do its job, and let those inside do theirs, in the worst of worst-case scenarios. And with escalating fears about North Korean aggression and nuclear capabilities, Cheyenne Mountain’s ability to foretell and survive a nuclear attack resonates more than it did just a few months ago.
As I drive up the hairpinned road toward the entrance to the mountain, made famous in fictional form by War Games and Stargate, signs warn me off with increasing aggression. But I'm allowed: I'm here for a infrequent tour of the mountain’s innards.
When I arrive at the visitor check-in, Fox News plays on the overhead TV. A sign beneath says not to change the channel, and a uniformed officer reads me a document that says I can't have explosives and that the employees can use lethal force to protect the site. Fair enough.
Soon, badge on blazer, fully briefed, I walk with four escorts—two men who are civilians and two women who are military officers—toward this built cave. It is, perhaps, the place on this planet most able to reduce itself off from the rest of Earth. And the hardest part for those who work there is not spending all their time subterranean but knowing that in those worst cases—of which "North Korean nukes" is the example most used during my visit—everyone they care about will be outside the thing that’s keeping them safe.
Much of that safety comes from the complex’s very underground-ness. And given that miners had to excavate 693,000 tons of granite to create the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, you might expect its entryway to wow. But the mountain itself is so tall, so sheer, that the 22-foot, two-lane arch leading to the north tunnel looks especially puny by comparison.
Rusty Mullins—deputy director of the Air Force’s 721st Communications Squadron—is leading this tour. He walks down the edge of the tunnel’s asphalt road as he talks about the site, concrete barriers forcing him at intervals to step back onto the sidewalk. The granite makes a half-cylinder around us, bolts knocked into the rock like some kind of sadistic climbing gym.
People obtain used to these depths, the disconnection. “You learn to live without any sky,” he says, “without any outside but what’s on TV.” There's a lot of TV, though—sets in the work rooms that show the world beyond that arch.