Caretaker to the Old Man of the Mountain
Last summer I joined the three generations on a trip to the top. It was Niels’s 63rd birthday. Also along were five men from the New Hampshire Parks Department and his daughter-in-law, Deborah. A helicopter dropped us on an eight-foot-square landing pad on top of the mountain.
Niels, dressed in his usual red flannel shirt with an Old Man monogram, led the quarter-mile hike down some rugged topography. We had gone about halfway when he slipped and fell into a crevice. It was a shock to us all, but no one said a word. Niels got up, brushed himself off, and proceeded. A little farther along he stopped and stared in silence at a six-foot gap between two pointed boulders: Decision Rock. You can go around this point by clambering over the rocks, but Niels has been jumping it for 30 years.
“There will come a time when I am too old to do this job,” he has said in the past. “That will be the day I no longer can step across this gap. When I have to go around, that will be my last year.” He looked fit, and I thought for sure he’d make the jump. But Niels just stood there. It was 9:30 A.M., Wednesday, July 25, 1990, and Niels Nielsen had to go around.
When we got to the top, he sat down on the Old Man’s head looking out at the White Mountains. “Will the wind be a problem when you go over the side?” I asked. But Niels just looked off into the distance.
Finally he stood and strapped on a heavy leather safety belt with hook and lanyard. “The Old Man’s more than a pile of rocks to me,” he said. “He is a live thing. I can feel him pulsate when I’m over the side.”
Holding a thin steel cable fed from a grip hoist, Niels rappelled down the Old Man’s brow to spray bleach on the damaging lichen and moss that grow in the cracks of the granite face. “Lower,” Niels shouted up to the man on the grip hoist. “OK, hold it there.”
It was 1805 when Luke Brooks and Francis Whitcomb, pausing to wash their hands in the pond now known as Profile Lake, looked up and were astonished to see the craggy physiognomy outlined against the sky. They thought it resembled President Thomas Jefferson. It became a tourist attraction early, and literary and political notables commented on it. “In the mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men,” bragged Daniel Webster.
A century later the Reverend Guy Roberts of Whitefield first warned that the Old Man’s forehead was in danger of toppling. In 1916, when Edward Geddes, a Massachusetts quarry superintendent, installed the first turnbuckles, it was within four inches of falling into Franconia Notch.
Private groups like the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and New Hampshire women’s clubs helped the state legislature raise $400,000 to buy Franconia Notch and make it a state reservation in 1928. The Old Man became the official emblem of the state in 1945 and still appears on road signs and license plates. More turnbuckles were added to the Old Man in 1958, and seven years later Niels Nielsen took over as caretaker.
When he reappeared above the granite ledge, Neils’s face was flushed and his gray sideburns dripped sweat. He caught his breath. “I came up out of there, and I was wiped right out. That never happened before.” For only a moment he paused. His next words were matter of fact: “This is my last year. Dave will take over. And then Tommy.”