MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL - Teddy Roosevelt's chin got some TLC Wednesday.
Under blue skies and a panoramic view of the Black Hills, almost a dozen workers scaled Mount Rushmore National Memorial's four famous faces to check for cracks and water damage.
Using winches from the original work begun in 1927 by Gutzon Borglum and his 400 workers, Wednesday's work included measuring and documenting cracks that have already been sealed and then resealing the areas that have become worn down.
The features of the faces are large - with a fall from the top of Roosevelt's head to the bottom more than 400 feet. So, the work to maintain them is tedious. Mount Rushmore currently has 144 cracks, all of which have been sealed with patches and caulking. But yearly maintenance is needed to reseal areas where the patch has pulled away from the caulking, thinned or torn.
This week, the team of workers plans to cut off damaged areas of silicone, clean the areas with a solvent, and then blow the grit of the granite away with an air compressor. The final step will be to apply new caulking.
A crew makes the quarter mile hike up to the top once a year, and park policy says it's not for everyone. The steep trail leading up to the mountain is secured, and anyone attempting to scale it could be charged with a felony and spend time in jail.
National Park Service employees usually do the work, with help from RESPEC, a consulting firm that is hired for assistance. The team this year is expected to be on the mountain through today - focusing their work on Roosevelt's chin and the top of Jefferson's head.
The annual maintenance is necessary because wind and minimal wear from workers on the granite eventually break down the mountain. Its worst enemy though, is the freeze/thaw cycle of the Black Hills, Don Hart, a member of the rope access team, said.
Water seeps into cracks and crevices of the heads and freezes in the winter.
"It's amazing how much pressure frozen water can exert," he said.
Several tons of force, to be exact, said Paul Nelson, with RESPEC.
"An expansion can open up a fracture," he said. "Which is why it's so important to keep water out of those fractures."
Hart has been to the top of Mount Rushmore more times than he can count - several hundred, at least - and it's not something he takes for granted.
"It is something that is very special," he said.
Stepping to the edge of Jefferson's head, the people swarming on the Grand Terrace below look like ants and, on a clear day like Wednesday, the green of the Black Hills Forest continues on and on for miles.
Harnessed in by a rope, and wearing a helmet - standard procedure for any work on the faces - Hart points out Abraham Lincoln's nose and tries to give some perspective. If he were standing next to it, he said - which he sometimes gets to do during maintenance work - it would take more than three of him to equal the length of the nose, because it's about 20 feet tall.
Only from the top of the heads can more maintenance equipment be seen, like the rock block monitor pinned to Lincoln's nose, and across his forehead and up into his hair. His nose has a crack in it, and the device uses electronic sensors to show if the crack is getting any worse.
Is Lincoln's nose going to fall off?
"No, no, no," Hart said, without hesitation. The faces could hardly be called eroding, because the rate is one inch every 10,000 years, he said.
"It's very durable," he said.
Hart is confident that the work they're doing is not only important but a continuation of Borglum's original preservation work, which was started while the sculpture was still a work in progress.
"Our mission as the National Park Service is to preserve and protect the sculpture," he said.
By noon, the sun beats down on the sculpture, causing the granite flakes to sparkle underfoot. The crew of men breaks for lunch, careful with their footing so as not to step on another man's rope or to slip on the steep descent as they make their way to a small work station behind the faces.
Only a nearby eagle is as high as they are right now, gliding silently above the sea of trees.
"It's amazing," rope team member Daniel Bellis said, as he looked out into the hills. "It gives you a better appreciation of the sculpture."
Contact Kayla Gahagan at 394-8410 or firstname.lastname@example.org