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Old Man of the Mountain

Union Leader logo
Story reproduced with permission from the
New Hampshire Sunday News

diagram - see caption below; click to enlarge
Composite Image by Rob Gallagher (click to enlarge)

A Delicate Balance
Geologists speculate that the Old Man of the Mountain, formed by a retreating glacier during the last ice age, looked out over Profile Lake for more than 300 years*. On May 3, 2003, the delicate balance that had held the "Great Stone Face" in position through the ages came to an abrupt end.

He was universally recognized, that Old Man staring stoically for centuries from his perch atop Franconia Notch. But how many of us really knew him? Most folks stopping beside the road and looking up the mountain, only saw his good side.

His stark, stony features only showed clearly when viewed from the north, looking south. Yet, according to Brian Fowler, owner and president of North American Reserve -- a mining engineering company in Laconia, NH -- who studied The Old Man of the Mountain for the state when it was preparing to build Franconia Notch Parkway in 1976, it was The Old Man's south side -- the side few would recognize -- and other flaws he kept hidden inside, that most likely led to his downfall.

diagram - see caption below; click to enlarge
Old Man's South Face – Brian Fowler made the drawing above (we've modified it slightly) during his study of the Old Man in 1976. It depicts the south side of the stone face, which few folks would have recognized. Fowler believes this view holds the key as to how and why the Old Man fell. (click to enlarge)

The Old Man actually was made of five slabs of Conway granite balanced atop one another. Seen in this view, but hidden in the familiar view from the north, was a cavern, about four feet wide, behind the Old Man's chin (Block 5) that ran almost the entire width of the Old Man's face. About 80 percent of the chin block hung out over the cliff, according to Fowler. Thus, just about two feet of the chin was anchored to the cliff, held there only by the weight of the four slabs above it. Amazingly, the other four slabs were positioned just so, so that the center of gravity of the chin block was within that two-foot span, allowing the entire Old Man to balance on its chin for centuries.

However, through the years, rain and snow, blown through Franconia Notch on southerly winds, was driven into the cavern and the other cracks between and within the five slabs. One property of water is that it expands when it freezes, and water freezing in a crack in a rock will act as a wedge when it expands, making such cracks larger, eventually splitting the rock. Meanwhile, rocks are comprised of minerals, many of which react chemically with water. Those reactions can weaken the rock from within, eventually breaking it down. Conway granite is loaded with the mineral potash feldspar, which is particularly reactive with water.

According to Fowler, the physical and chemical damage to the Old Man's granite through the years, especially in the cavern, eventually wore away enough rock just behind the chin that the center of gravity of that block moved slightly forward, past the cliff face. When that happened, Fowler believes, the chin tumbled down the cliff, and the rest of the Old man quickly followed.

* Previously, it was incorrectly stated the Old Man of the Mountain looked out over Profile Lake for more than 12,000 years. Continental glacial ice left the Notch at about that time and the newly-exposed dome of Cannon Mountain was first exposed to the combined deterioration of its granite and intense freeze-thaw wedging, both of which began the block excision process that formed the cliff itself and ultimately the Profile. It is likely this process didn't bring the Profile into existence until 300-350 years ago.

MWO Store Feature
image of book cover The Old Man of the Mountain
By Robert Hutchinson

The Old Man of the Mountain is a photographic memorial of New Hampshire's beloved emblem; the colossal Profile of natural granite high atop a sheer cliff in the White Mountains, which without warning collapsed on May 3, 2003, smashing below into a thousand nameless fragments.

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