Sixty years ago this coming year marks the first blast on what, some day, will be one of the world’s largest sculptures, measuring 641 feet long and 563 feet high. Every day, the mountain crew drills, blasts and clears away rock to expose the next layer in South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Sixty years ago this coming year marks the first blast on what, some day, will be one of the world’s largest sculptures. No one is ready to predict a completion date, but with updated equipment, the sculpture measuring 641 feet long and 563 feet high is taking shape. Every day, the mountain crew drills, blasts and clears away rock to expose the next layer in South Dakota’s Black Hills.

In 1998, a ROC 642 (ROC D3 is the current nomenclature) was purchased. Having this drill significantly increased the speed of the process. Driller Jeff Hermanson, one of two men working on the mountain who worked with the late artist Korczak Ziolkowski, says, “The Atlas Copco rig is the workhorse on the mountain, doing much of the production drilling.”

Until 1998, much of the work focused on the face. Since then, production has moved to the 219-foot-high horse’s head. Much like a quarry or mine is benched, the mountain is carved from the top down in benches. Since 1998, 25,000 holes totaling 324,500 feet have been drilled. In the last 10 years, they have had 943 blasts to remove 260,000 tons of rock.

There are four more benches to create and remove to get to the horse’s nose. Kevin Hachmeister is one of the two engineers working with the crew on the long-range rock removal plan. “It is important not to blast something today you may need to stand on tomorrow,” he quotes Korczak. The focus is not on blasting to destroy rock, but rather on shaving away the layers of rock to eventually expose the final working surface. “It’s like peeling an onion,” says Hachmeister.

Because they are not the sculptor, Hachmeister is clear that they are using math to execute Korczak’s vision. “We care about XYZ points. This is pure engineering,” he explains.

Approximately 10,000 measurement points have been transferred from Korczak’s model to the mountain. Hachmeister says the crew once took measurements with a plumb bob; now it is done electronically with survey equipment at the top and around the base of the mountain. The information guides each man, who is a driller, dozer and excavator operator responsible for prepping his work site. “I consider myself a technician of Korczak’s work,” says Hermanson. Currently, he is working on a bench that is 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep, with 10 feet of burden. Bench length varies depending on the work area.

Preparation takes considerable time, as the surface needs to be cleaned, exposing any cracks in the surface. They use an Atlas Copco XAS 756 compressor to blow clean the bench before designing and laying out a blast pattern. Measurements are taken and rechecked before drilling can begin.

When interviewed many years ago for a national show, Korczak said his typical workday would start with priming the compressor and struggling with getting the hand-cranked engine started. Once comfortable that it would continue running, he would string blasting caps around his neck, flip a box of dynamite up on a shoulder, grab drill steel with his free hand and trudge up the 741-step wooden staircase. At the drill site, he would put down everything, fill the oiler, lock in the steel and open the air valve to start drilling. Some days – most days – the line pressure eventually would hiss flat as he heard the compressor dying, “kap-putta, kap-putta, kap-put.” Back down the stairs he’d go, repeat the start-up and then clamber up the steps to the worksite. “One day I did that nine times. You know, that gets awfully old.”

That was then. This is now. The compressor used at Crazy Horse, a prototype for its class, has many interesting points that make it popular. The crew has remarked on its power and relatively quiet running. It’s also entirely portable, as it is the lightest compressor for its 750 free-air-delivery performance with a single-axle undercarriage. Additionally, the compressor is very fuel-efficient for long working days, and the torsion-bar suspension gives it better traction when towing. Mobility and fuel efficiency are significant factors. Consider that the workplace is more than a mile above sea level (about 6,700 feet), the task of refueling equipment is not a simple matter, and the compressor is hauled around on rocky ledges that are ever shrinking.

As they accelerate the pace and efficiency of blocking out the rough pattern of Korczak’s plan, the Crazy Horse crew also focuses on maintaining the integrity of the rock that is left for the finish carving. To minimize blast vibration, hole size is important. They use 17⁄8-inch bits, just large enough so the coupler will make it through the hole.

Much like dimensional stone cutting, the bench floor also is predrilled and blasted, providing relief for the rock below. When blasting, a charge takes the line closest to the grade first to give relief for the remaining blast.

Hermanson likes the ROC 642 because of its articulated boom, which allows drilling out over the edge, a good 10 feet from the tracks. He thinks it’s well balanced also. In 10 years, they have only had to change one hydraulic pump, a coupler, the striker bars and drifter feed cylinder. “The 1238 hammer has never been off,” says machinist/mechanic Evan Bennett.

Safety always is important on any jobsite, but on a mountain, it is paramount. Standing on the edge of the bench requires the driller to wear mountain-climbing gear, and to tie off prior to drilling. It is interesting to note most of the men working on the mountain were rock climbers who were taught to be drillers. The least-experienced guy has 15 years on the mountain.

Korczak’s son Casimir, the crew foreman, has been working on the mountain nearly his whole life. Pictures are shown in the visitor center of Casimir handing dynamite to his father to fill holes. Four sisters and two brothers also work in the operation, which is led by Korczak’s widow, 81-year-old Ruth Ziolkowski. She is the president-CEO of the nonprofit Memorial Foundation that honors all North American tribes.

Korczak dreamed of that purpose and started carving a mountain. In the beginning, he carried his handheld pneumatic drill up 741 steps to the top of the mountain and began chipping away. He worked alone, drilling all day. What a monumental feeling that must have been.

Today, a crew of men carries on with Korczak’s plan, but with much different tools – drilling at a rate of about 15 seconds per foot. Kevin Hachmeister says, “Atlas Copco is helping to drill this mountain.” But credit lies in the hands of those who climb the mountain every day, following the man of vision who intoned, “Never forget your dreams.”