Caretaker to the Old Man of the Mountain
Before New Hampshire’s symbol fell on May 3, 2003, Niels Nielsen acted as caretaker for the Old Man of the Mountain. Excerpt from “The Old Man Comes Down from the Mountain,” Yankee Magazine, July 1991.
In 1959 Niels Nielsen moved to New Hampshire from Brooklyn, New York, to join the highway department. Two weeks after starting the job, he made his first trek to the top of New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountains, a 40-foot-tall rock formation on Cannon Mountain, some 1,200 feet above Profile Lake.
“I had sailed around the world as a merchant seaman,” he said, “yet I had never seen anything like the Old Man. I don’t believe anyone can be up there and not feel the presence of God.”
Though Niels believes the stone profile is God’s work, keeping it stuck to the mountain is man’s doing. The Old Man’s head is made up of a half dozen randomly placed and precariously perched boulders. They are held in place by a web of steel cables called tie-rods, each about nine feet long with a holding strength of 109 tons and linked by adjustable steel joints called turn buckles. These are mounted to foot-high U-bolts anchored to the granite. The current strain on the tie-rods is tested with a simple thermometer — one degree warmer means an extra ton of stress.
“The Old Man heaves and sighs with changes in temperature,” Niels had told me. “The forehead rocks back and forth. The turnbuckles act as hinges, so he has a little bit of space to move, but not a lot.”
Since 1965 Niels, a bridge maintenance and construction supervisor, has also been the Old Man’s caretaker. At six feet five and 250 pounds, he’s the right man for the job. Every year he has trekked to the top of the great stone face to check the Old Man’s condition. He measures every shift in the rocks, takes strain tests on the turnbuckles, repaints them to prevent rust, and seals cracks in the rocks. He hangs over the Old Man’s forehead in a bos’n’s chair, a sheer drop below, and washes away the effects of acid rain to ensure the face doesn’t crumble. Then he cleans out the Old Man’s ear with a garden hoe.
When his son David was young, Niels encouraged him to come along by asking the boy to help give the Old Man a haircut and a shave. Now 32, David brings his own son, Tommy, who is 11.
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