In the snake-infested jungle of southeastern Ecuador, the American explorer David Lowell found himself sliding over a waterfall and heard his head bounce off a rock “like a melon being hit by a hammer,” he says.
Lowell was 72 and prospecting for copper that day in May 2000. He stepped into the slippery streambed for a vantage point free of vipers and vines. A broken rib and throbbing head diverted him to a nearby hamlet in search of help.
“There was one man in the village who was a combination chiropractor and mortician,” Lowell says. “We decided to just buy a little tin of liniment with the picture of a dragon on it.” The expedition carried on.
In the clear water of the stream, Lowell saw enough to help him find one of South America’s richest copper deposits. This May, a joint venture of Chinese state-owned companies paid $652 million to buy Lowell’s partner in the exploration, Vancouver-based Corriente Resources Inc. Lowell kept a stake there for himself, though local opposition has prevented mining.
In a career spanning six decades and 44 countries, Lowell has made 14 major discoveries, including the world’s largest copper deposit in Chile. He found treasures where others detected nothing worth mining. Lowell revolutionized exploration and unearthed metals that helped the U.S. build the world’s largest economy. He also made investors billions.
Now, China is his biggest customer as it develops faster than any country in history. Chinese state-owned companies paid $1.5 billion for two of Lowell’s biggest prizes -- the riverbed of ore in Ecuador and a copper-filled mountain in Peru. The geologist is in Hong Kong this week telling potential investors about what he calls the world’s largest discovery of titanium, in eastern Paraguay. Lowell says he controls mineral rights there to at least 185,000 hectares (457,000 acres). That is an area the size of London. Titanium dioxide produces the white pigment found in paint, paper, plastic and light-weight aerospace metals used to build Boeing Co.’s new 787 Dreamliner.
China is shopping for mineral resources around the world. Its copper use is growing so quickly that by 2035 global demand for the metal may outstrip supply by 11 million tons, according to CRU, a London-based mining and metals consulting firm.
‘He’s a Legend’
That will keep Lowell’s services in demand. As a globetrotting explorer-turned businessman, he founded and sold two publicly traded companies. He has also survived grizzly bears in British Columbia, a helicopter crash in Peru, insurgents in the Philippines, and a murderous mule while distracted by a half-naked woman in the Dominican Republic.
“He’s a legend,” says Marcel de Groot, the chairman of Luna Gold Corp. in Vancouver, which retains Lowell as a consultant on a Brazilian mining project. “There’s a lot of people who have plumbing and copper because of him.”
Humans have been digging up the world’s oldest metal and using it in coins, cooking pots, pipes and roofs for 10,000 years. Today, copper provides the electrical nervous system for the cars, computers and microwaves that China cranks out for its own 1.3 billion people and the rest of the world.
Lowell’s influence is widening even as America’s industrial might has declined. U.S. copper production peaked at 48 percent of world supply in 1945, his freshman year at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It accounts for 8 percent today. American iron-ore extraction topped out in 1970, lead in 1973 and uranium in 1980. While the U.S. economy is still almost three times larger than China’s, Lowell says he worries that America’s reliance on finance and technology will stretch only so far.
“You also have to have the nuts and bolts -- and the copper and the iron, and the rare earths, and make copper wire and make television sets and make automobiles -- to be important in the world,” he said during an interview at his pomegranate-shaded 19th-century ranch in Arizona. Two English springer spaniels, Ginger and Spooky, lie at his feet. Plaques and certificates cover one wall. The American Mining Hall of Fame inducted him in 2002 and the Australian Journal of Mining named him “World’s Greatest Explorer” in 2004.
Lowell isn’t through at the age of 82. Surrounded by a collection of antique mining lanterns, including the carbide lamp that saved his life in 1949, he says he is leading explorations in five South American countries, including Paraguay. They are mostly armchair expeditions in a concession to age, after a lifetime of riding canyon trails.
“He’s one of the last, best, boot-leather and muleskinner geologists in the world,” says John Guilbert, 79, a retired University of Arizona professor of exploratory geology. Guilbert and Lowell developed a theory of minerals exploration that bears their names. Guilbert estimates that Lowell has found more copper than anyone who ever lived.
Lowell’s treasure-hunting began at age seven, during the Great Depression when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. Accompanied by his dog Rags, he hand-sorted silver samples in Arivaca, Arizona, for his father, Arthur Currier Lowell, a perennially cash-strapped, self-employed miner. The Lowells descended from a New England family that gave the country a Harvard University president and poets James, Amy and Robert.
Skinny, rebellious and indifferent in the classroom, Lowell says his mother Lavina considered him the least promising of her children. He was competing in rodeos and finishing high school when his older brother, a Marine officer, died in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
His undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona’s College of Mines hinged on scoring a B in a calculus course he was retaking. The teacher was a young woman. He recounts handing her an orchid with his final exam and explaining his predicament.
“I got the B,” he says. “I may have deserved it. I’m not totally sure of that.” Lowell later endowed a master’s degree program at his alma mater. In 1957, he earned a master’s in geology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
On his first job as a mining engineer in 1949, at a silver and lead mine in Mexico, Lowell survived a near-disaster that set the tone for his career. A mile underground, the waning light from the flame in his carbide lamp signaled a life-threatening shortage of oxygen, he says. While clambering to safety on a ladder, Lowell temporarily lost consciousness and dropped the lucky lantern down a shaft, recovering it later.
In the early 1960s, Lowell was prospecting for copper on muleback in the Dominican Republic when he spied a half-naked woman washing clothes on a distant river bank.
“I thought, well, part of my mission is to be able to describe the flora and the fauna, so I’d better take a good look,” he says. The mule sensed his distraction and galloped toward a tree branch in line with the saddle. “I was able to throw my feet out of the stirrups and lay back on the saddle, and the limb just scraped across the front of me.”
Between close calls, Lowell was taking note of mineral-formation patterns in large, low-grade deposits known as porphyry copper. His observations would change the way prospectors read geological clues and lead to some of mining’s most spectacular finds. Lowell theorized that porphyry formations share a common geology that can be used to detect commercially productive copper deposits around the world.
Copper Prospecting Theory
Lowell’s insight drew from his understanding of how copper-containing rock formed 150 million years ago when dinosaurs walked the earth and the planet was undergoing violent change.
Copper and other minerals rose from the earth’s hot, high-pressure mantle on prehistoric molten waves of magma called plutons. A bubble of water, silica, copper and gold formed at the tip of each mass as it migrated toward the cooler surface. Materials with the highest melting points solidified first and farthest down, creating a floor for copper, gold and other minerals, which cooled and crystallized in layers.
Copper is deposited along with some of these minerals in concentric rings, or halos. They are gray in the center, white in the surrounding zone of quartz sericite and green in the outer zone, as Lowell explains the theory. The rings can extend for miles and tilt at any angle, making the clues hard to see and interpret.
Nyal Niemuth, chief mining engineer at the Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral Resources in Phoenix, likens the principle to the story of three blind men who discover an elephant by identifying its tail, ear and tusk.
Finding an Elephant
“It lets us see part of the elephant, and know where the rest of the elephant is,” Niemuth says.
Lowell applied this thinking while working as a consultant for Newmont Mining Corp. at its underground San Manuel copper mine in Arizona in 1965. He collected rock samples to support his idea that the recurring mineral halos, previously unrecognized, could be used to find copper.
Yet as Lowell roamed the mine, which was situated along a geologic fault, the pattern “didn’t make sense” unless the ore body had been turned on its side and severed by a violent realignment of the earth’s surface, he says. He surmised the deposit was part of a larger copper cylinder that had been sliced in two, leaving the rest to be found.
Newmont wasn’t interested in his idea, Lowell says. So he sold the proposition to a unit of the Texas oil company Quintana Petroleum Corp., founded by the late industrialist Hugh Roy Cullen. Lowell led the exploration in clear view of the San Manuel mine. He found the missing section, which Quintana’s chief named Kalamazoo, for the Glenn Miller swing tune, “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.”
“He drilled 26 holes into that fault-displaced portion of the San Manuel ore body, and 25 of them were in ore,” says Guilbert, whom Lowell brought on as a consultant. “That’s unprecedented. And it’s because he knew from the shape and size of the San Manuel side what the shape and size of the Kalamazoo side would be.”
Quintana paid Lowell a finder’s fee of $120,000, his biggest payday yet, and sold Kalamazoo to Newmont in 1968. Its ultimate owner, now part of Melbourne, Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd., shut the project down and dismantled the works three decades later amid falling copper prices.
Lowell and Guilbert went on to study 27 porphyry copper deposits around the world. In June 1970, they published their minerals-zoning theory in the journal Economic Geology.
Boots of Soldier
With the mind of a detective and the boots of a soldier, Lowell used the theory over and over again in ensuing years. The biggest strike came a decade later when Lowell put the idea to work while living in a tent and exploring Chile’s Atacama Desert. It is the driest place on earth. Some parts haven’t had a drop of rain in centuries. Movie makers use the sterile landscape to portray Mars. NASA has tested exploration equipment there.
This treasure hunt was for a partnership of companies later absorbed by San Ramon, California-based Chevron Corp. and BHP, the world’s largest mining company by market capitalization.
As Lowell’s team trudged across the desert gathering rock samples, he wasn’t seeing the usual surface clues consistent with his theory. He found traces of lead, zinc and molybdenum, which are signs of copper enrichment, but not the form of a yellowish stone called limonite that he was seeking.
Lowell theorized that moisture had risen from a water table deep in the earth and evaporated on the surface, leaving corrosive salt crystals that destroyed the mineral patterns he was accustomed to finding. Hand-dug pits showed those mineral rings existed just beneath the surface.
On March 14, 1981, drilling confirmed a mother lode of copper. Named Escondida, Spanish for “hidden,” it is the world’s biggest copper deposit. Two open pits cover an area almost four times the size of New York City’s Central Park and almost a third again as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. Escondida has yielded 16.6 million metric tons of copper over the past two decades, worth $138.2 billion at today’s price, based on data compiled by the Chilean Copper Commission. Sales last year totaled $7.1 billion, according to BHP.
During the exploration, Lowell feuded with geologist Siegfried Muessig, one of the project managers, both men say now. Muessig challenged Lowell’s decision to drill test holes in an area where five other companies had failed to find copper.
“Sig Muessig had decided that I was incompetent and the project was ill-advised,” Lowell says. In a 1998 interview for the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, he said, “We were having louder and louder decibel arguments.”
After unpromising results from the first five holes, the sixth proved Lowell right. Yet the companies backing the search replaced Lowell as project manager, he says, under “the pressure of Sig Muessig.”
“Dave is an excellent explorationist,” says Muessig, 88, now retired in Claremont, California. “But I’ve also told him he’s a very difficult guy.”
Lowell has rubbed other colleagues the same way. His independent streak clashed with Corriente’s management controls in Ecuador, says Ken Shannon, the company’s former chief executive officer.
“David is a lone-wolf operator, and I’m a collaborative kind of guy,” said Shannon, 56, in an interview. The men negotiated a split of Lowell’s discoveries, with Corriente retaining the deposits acquired in May by China’s Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group and China Railway Construction Corp. Lowell kept rights to a more remote 20,000 hectares.
Education of Entrepreneur
For finding Escondida and the adjacent Zaldivar copper field, Lowell was paid $4.5 million. It wasn’t until he met Catherine McLeod-Seltzer, a Canadian investment banker, at a cocktail party in Santiago, Chile, in 1992, that he began to leverage his mine-finding acumen into management control and even bigger cashouts.
McLeod-Seltzer, now 50, showed Lowell how to build publicly owned companies around his adventures rather than just taking consulting fees. In January 1993, she followed Lowell to Peru and formed Arequipa Resources Ltd. to sponsor and own his next project. That set up Lowell as chairman and a stockholder to profit from whatever he found.
While McLeod-Seltzer raised investor capital, he hunted for gold in Peru’s Cordillera Negra range. The mountains were occupied by Shining Path terrorists, and accessible only by foot or on horseback, at a time when political instability and state ownership of mining had scared off most prospectors.
Three days after Christmas 1995, Lowell says he received laboratory confirmation of a major gold find. The following July, as he mapped out the extent of the claim, Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. made a hostile takeover bid. Lowell says he drilled faster to expand the discovery and his company’s value.
A month later, Barrick raised its offer and bought Arequipa for $790 million, an almost 30-fold increase in the shares’ value from a year earlier. Lowell owned stock worth $63 million, according to published accounts at the time. The deposit held about 8 million ounces of gold, Barrick says. That would be worth $11.1 billion today.
As part of the deal, Barrick agreed to turn over Lowell’s original gold samples to McLeod-Seltzer. She used them to make wedding rings for herself and husband Tom.
After five decades of dodging snakes, bears and revolutionaries, Lowell says he went looking for a “swan song” by mining the records of undeveloped deposits. In his office in a converted barn, he pored over stacks of old technical reports. These were pre-1980 discoveries considered uneconomic to mine. They led him to a mountain in the Peruvian Andes known as Toromocho, Spanish for the bull without horns.
“The Toromocho discovery was built on a kind of a new slant to exploration,” Lowell says. “In this case, using a change in metallurgy as a way to possibly turn up a sleeper.” Advances in extraction and refining after 1980 had changed the economics for some old prospects.
In 2002, Lowell visited the peak, 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) above sea level. There had been small-scale mining on Toromocho for more than a century, but the deposit had lain dormant since General Juan Velasco Alvarado nationalized mining in 1973. Government geologists decided there wasn’t enough copper to dig.
On May 14, 2003, Lowell paid the government $2 million for an option on the property after an auction held at his request. Lowell says he was the only bidder. The government had failed to attract any buyers at least twice before, according to Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines.
From a bar in Lima where he was celebrating, Lowell phoned McLeod-Seltzer in the Canadian hospital where she was recovering from the birth of her first son. She named him Graham Jeffrey Lowell Seltzer in Lowell’s honor.
Then she set up Peru Copper Inc. to take ownership of the claim and raised $12 million through a private placement to fund test drilling. In September 2004, the company generated C$48.2 million in an initial public offering.
Old Assay Books
While working the claim, Lowell found a pile of old assay books in an abandoned installation left behind more than a quarter-century before. His reinterpretation of the records and new drilling led him to conclude there was seven times more copper in the mountain than the government had known.
He sold Peru Copper in August 2007 to Beijing-based Aluminum Corp. of China for $810 million. The selling price was four times the shares’ IPO value three years earlier. Toromocho will generate about $1.5 billion in payments to local and regional governments over the 30-year life of the mine, according to Chinalco’s environmental impact assessment. Lowell’s shares were worth about $78.7 million, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Unfinished in Ecuador
Prospecting has earned Lowell more than $150 million for himself and Edith, his wife of 62 years, based on interviews and securities filings. He says he has given most of it away, including his endowment of the Lowell Program in Economic Geology at the University of Arizona.
Lowell’s work in Ecuador isn’t finished. His 20,000-hectare claim there is potentially rich but hard to reach, he says. The national government shut down development in the region after protests in November 2006 organized by the Shuar Federation, an ethnic grass-roots group, he says.
Although the government lifted the ban in March 2009 as Corriente’s talks with the Chinese companies intensified, provincial Governor Salvador Quishpe continues to lead resistance. He will refuse to negotiate with foreign investors, he said in an interview.
Lowell hasn’t written off the project, though he may yet do so, he says. He isn’t through prospecting.
“If your primary purpose in life was finding sunken Spanish galleons full of gold and treasure, what would you do?” Lowell says. “I’m a professional treasure hunter.”