by Dougal McCarty

Benowitz (George Ochenski) was feeling pretty feisty following a self-induced epic in a late October 1975 ascent of the “awesome” Black Ice Couloir. That was his first ice climb, and after a couple of months dulled his memory, he wanted another. Someone told us there was a waterfall called Horsetail Falls on the back side of Flanders Mountain. They said there was a sign pointing to it on the trail.

We fish-tailed our way up the road as far as we could go on a mild winter day in an old green Chevy truck. We had no trouble finding the sign or seeing what it was pointing to. It was clear why it was called Horsetail Falls, and why the forest Service put up a sign to point it out. It poured out over the lip of a cave-amphitheater gouged out of the infamous Hyalite Canyon volcano-conglomerate rock. It couldn’t look more like a horse’s tail. Our female companions continued to ski up the valley while we stood and studied the climb. Two easier looking sections led up to a distinct crux.

The resemblance to a horse’s tail was even more striking standing on the floor of the cave. There was a small notch at the lip of the roof where the waterfall bent sharply and splayed out into space ending on the cave floor on a botryoidal mound of ice. It was truly a beautiful piece of natural architecture. The proportions were just right. It was wider on two sides and thinnest on the outside face with just a hint of the vertical taken away. It had a shimmering translucence caused from the audible running water inside the hollow tube. The floor of the cave was dry cold ground littered with sparse chunks of ice while just outside there was a winter snow scene.

I gazed in a state of contemplative awe, in no sort of hurry to jump on that “pitch”. Benowitz, however, was pushy to say the least. He was bordering on being obnoxious. I suspect this is the same personality defect that leads someone to pursue a career in state politics. He bantered me relentlessly to hurry and get up the thing. Despite this antagonism I slowly sorted the gear sitting in the cold dirt of the cave, carefully blowing out all ice in tubular screws, paying little attention to the buffoonery of my companion. Without the resolution of a Samari Warrior or the anticipation of a racehorse in the gate I was ready to “have a look at it” close-up.

I climbed up on the mound on the outside face at the beginning of the hollow ice tail and placed the first screw. The rack consisted of all medium length Salewa tubular ice screws. They only had a few inches of thread on their ends while most of the shaft, 4 or 5 inches, was smooth metal. Usually this wouldn’t have made any difference, but here the ice was thinner than the smooth part of the ice screws. After they were screwed in they would slide in and out 4 or 5 inches with the slightest push or pull. This minimized what confidence I might have had in the whole system. I stood on the mound with the first loose screw at eye level wondering what I should do next and Benowitz started in again.

“Burst for the top!” he yelled repeatedly, along with several other editorial comments. I couldn’t believe even he was acting so brash. I mean, this was serious business. I told him so, but it just made him worse. Then I had to chuckle. It was just too absurd. I decided to go up a little higher. I went up a body length or more above the first screw and put in another one. It slid out when I clipped the rope in. I pushed it back in and kept moving up to the sound of Benowitz’s taunts. I placed another loose screw and by now I was really pumped. I swung my axe up as high as I could and found a solid placement, but I was too tired to move up. I left the axe where it was and slithered down to take tension on the screw that was a bit below my waist. It slid out until the threads stopped it from going all the way and I felt the rope hold my weight as I called to Benowitz for more tension. I pushed the screw back in with my hand and held it there while I hung and rested.

By now Benowitz was in a real frenzy, shouting with no restraint. “Burst for the top! Burst for the top! Come on man, burst for the top!”

The top did not yet look close to me; certainly nowhere near close enough for any bursting. After suitable hang time I mustered up enough of a burst to lurch up on my ice hammer and regrab my ice axe. After moving up another similar sequence I was well over halfway up and “bursting” for the top began to seem like a plausible strategy. When I got just below the lip of the cave I kicked my foot all the way through the ice. It was unnerving being so high up on such a steep, thin, hollow, free standing piece of ice, but the hole made a welcome foot rest for an aching calf muscle. This was a fantastic position. I had the luxury to take stock of it. My tools were solid and my foot was on a comfortable rest, even though the water was soaking into my boot. The top was only a couple of moves away.

Here I was at the top of a transitory silver thread leading out of a dark cave. I glanced down the pitch at the line of shaky ice screws and heard the sound that the water made, a humming tune through the screw holes that penetrated into the hollow. On the other side the open valley looked like a winter scene on a post card. Our friends skiing out there later said that they were watching as I worked my way up, and they heard a sound that was like a flute that changed pitch with each hole I made in the ice.

“Burst for the top!” He shouted again.

In a few more moves I was in a snowy gully next to bushes and trees.

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