The Old Man of the Mountain

NEW HAMPSHIRE

At the top of a mountain in northern New Hampshire, a 40-foot-tall rock formation formed the rugged profile of a man — the “Great Stone Face,” as writer Nathaniel Hawthorne called it.

The natural phenomenon, 1200 feet above Profile Lake, became a spectacular tourist attraction known as the Old Man of the Mountain.

“I had sailed around the world as a merchant seaman,” said Niels Nielsen, the attraction’s caretaker, “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.”

Nielsen died in 2001 at 74, and two years later, so did the Old Man. After eons, the natural formation collapsed into the lake, a mass of broken rock.

Way before that, I went to the top of the mountain with Nielsen to do a story for Yankee Magazine. Niels, at 65, was getting less agile and before we set out he said that if he couldn’t jump across a certain stream on the way up, as he had been doing for 30 years, that this would be his last trip up the mountain and he’d hand the caretaker job to his sons.

“There will come a time when I am too old to do this job,” he had 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.”

When I went up the mountain with him, he looked fit, and I thought for sure he’d make the jump. It was 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 25, 1990, and Niels Nielsen had to go around.

A sad day in New Hampshire history. It was also the day my life nearly ended.

I was wearing rubber boots for the 1200-foot trek to the top across streams and up muddy slopes. When we got to the peak Niels strapped on his safety harness and rappelled over the side to spray bleach on the rocks to wash away lichen and other corrosive materials.

OLD MAN MOUNTAIN

To get a better look at what he was doing, I stepped closer to the edge. The wet soles of my boots lost all traction on the smooth rock. It was like slipping on ice. My feet slid out from under me and I could feel myself going over the edge.

The obit flashed through my mind. Freelance Writer Dies in Fall From Old Man of the Mountain.

It was not to be. One of the guys up there reached out and grabbed me in the nick of time and yanked me back.

Every now and then, on anniversaries and such, Yankee Magazine reprints the article I wrote as one of its “classic” stories and it is duly picked up by other magazines.

So here I am, a hundred years later to bring you a reprint of a reprint.

YANKEE MAG
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