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Index North Peak Reality Check

Original Post
Don Harder · · Yosemite via Seattle · Joined May 2019 · Points: 215

Here’s a short article I wrote for the Northwest Climbing Journal two decades ago that didn‘t get included in the first edition with some of the other things I wrote. It’s for all you sad-sack Northwest climbers that thrash around in the slide alder and devil’s club. In the rain…

Land of Shadow

By Don Harder

 Sometimes it's difficult if not impossible to talk about things that happen in the mountains. Especially if you were the only person involved, if there was no one else witness to the events. It wasn't until 25 years later, while watching a movie in the theater, that the full impact of what happened on the North Peak of Index came home.

 I'm not sure whose idea it was, it might have been mine, but I wish they'd kept their fat mouth shut. I knew better then to go up on Mt Index. I'd heard nothing but harrowing stories about what a pile of choss it was and how epic the descent was. The former wasn't completely true, the latter was. In retrospect, I'm lucky that I didn't make the descent the fast way-the really fast way. 

 One July morning in 1973 found four of us, Don Brooks, Brent Hoffman, Tom Kuehn and myself heading up to Lake Serene with full packs to climb the North Peak of Index. We're talking full packs. We didn't know what we were going to encounter so we brought everything. Everything except enough water. We had pitons, hammers, ice axes, crampons, etc. Fortunately, though, we had these really crappy packs that were a test of fortitude in themselves. My Millet pack had a 1/2" belly strap and shoulder straps that were guaranteed to bruise. Nothing but the best for us. 

 Decades later, Jim Bridwell was at my house when he spied an almost perfectly preserved Millet pack acting as gear storage in my basement. He made some comment and I asked him if he wanted it. He said emphatically, yes. There's no accounting for taste. I gladly gave the hateful thing to him and have no idea what he used it for but I was better off without it. 

 We stopped at the lake for a few minutes to check out possible lines on the middle Norwegian Buttress. That was an adventure yet to come. It was early in the morning but it was already hot and of course we were overdressed. We herfed to the base and, before we knew it, we were on the route. The terrain turned from hiking to 4th class without warning. I don't remember if we roped up at this point, we probably just simul-soloed it. 

 The climbing wasn't that spectacular but the scenery and setting were. If you've never been up there, the North Peak of Index is a HUGE piece of rock. The regular route winds up the East and North side and the views down the valley are amazing. The Index Town Wall looks like a tiny little lump, which it is in perspective. 

 Brent brought this goofy little plastic tube, the kind you use for blowing out boltholes. His theory was that he could use it for sucking up small trickles of water in little seeps. We all laughed at him- at least till our water ran out. Then he was the hero of the day. We soon found ourselves crowding around him whenever a seam of water appeared, waiting our turn at the tube.   

 We were all jacked up and I must have been a little more so because slowly the others dropped away behind me. They were out of sight but I could hear their muted chatter way down below and to the side. I was in a world of my own. 

 Somewhere along the way, I got off route. It just sort of happened. I remember realizing that I wasn't following well-worn holds or footsteps. No big deal, it was still easy. A few hundred feet or so and I'd be back on route so I just kept climbing. 

 Now, along with full packs we were all wearing mountain boots. I had Galibier Super Guides which were great mountaineering boots but not so hot at any other type of climbing. For most of the North Peak, they were overkill. For the kind of climbing I was getting into, they were just kill. 

 I suddenly found myself doing some intense face climbing. It was vertical 5.8 or 5.9. It was steep enough that if I'd taken a rock and held it behind my back and dropped it, it would have fallen several hundred feet before hitting anything. My predicament was getting worse. I did some moves that I couldn't have comfortably downclimbed in mountain boots. Shit, now I was gripped. The others were so far away that I couldn't hear them by now. I was in the shadowed north side of the peak and no one was coming to my rescue. They probably had no idea where I was. 

 It was suck-it-up time. Looking up, it seemed like I had about 20' or so of hard climbing till it eased off. I took off. Suddenly, it was really hard. I was starting to lose it. Now I was really scared. I stopped to calm myself. It was do-or-die time now. I sat there for a few seconds trying to compose myself. There was a conversation going on in my head. I told myself that I could either shut the f*** up, climb, and get out of there or I could whine, fall, and die. My semi-smart half chose the former. I took a few deep breaths and started up. Almost immediately, the block that I had both hands on started to pull out. I was going over backwards. 

 Things got a little foggy at this point. I'm not exactly sure what I did. I remember feeling the sensation of falling over backwards and I stabbed out with both hands to grab at the wall. I must have held on but now my carefully constructed composure was gone. I leaned my forehead against the rock and whimpered. For the second time in a minute, I had the shut-up-and-climb or let-go-and-die conversation with myself. I breathed deeply and focused. The next 15' were a blur but I remember belly-flopping on to a ledge at the top, totally spent. 

 I lay there till I heard voices approaching. The route came within 50' or so from where I was. Somebody shouted over, asking what I was doing over there. I couldn't answer. I got up and traversed over to join the others. I had nothing to say. 

 The rest of the climb was semi-uneventful. We did a dry, uncomfortable bivy somewhere up high. That goofy little hose of Brent's saved us. Descending was a nightmare. I remember rapping off of clumps of bushes cinched together with webbing. I remember doing a single bolt rappel because the other bolt had been destroyed by rock fall and the one bolt we descended from had been damaged. There was no way to back it up. It's always a toss-up when you do a funky rappel like that. Do you go first or do you go last? I didn't have any lives left. I straddled the fence and went in the middle. 

 We stopped at the Royal Fork Buffet on Lake City Way on the way back into Seattle and stuffed ourselves beyond recognition. I'm surprised we didn't get kicked out-we were that bad.  We were obnoxious, smelled bad, and ate so much that even the blue-hairs watched us with envy. 

 Several decades later I was watching a movie about a child therapist that gets shot in the beginning of the movie. He's treating a young boy who sees dead people and the plot went on. He didn't realize till the end of the movie that the boy was the only one who could see him and could see him only because he himself was dead. He'd died in the beginning of the movie when he was shot and didn't know it. 

 I was thunderstruck. For years after this mis-adventure I often wondered if I'd really died up there on Mt Index and everything I was experiencing since then was a dream. I guess I won't know till the dream ends. 

Jon Nelson · · Redmond, WA · Joined Sep 2011 · Points: 8,196

Great story and excellent writing (as always), thanks a lot for posting it here. I sometimes consider doing a route on Index, but then these stories return me to my senses.

The "blue hairs" at the end, punks or old fogies? I'm not all that well read, so maybe someone can enlighten me.

Ryan Marsters · · Golden, CO · Joined Jan 2011 · Points: 1,431

Good story! Scrabbling up that thing under a light rain was terrifying, and we reasoned it would be better/ less expensive to do the traverse than to descend given the horrendous anchor situation. We were wrong there, and continued to grab more bush than rock for many hours. That group of peaks remains well entrenched as a shining example of Type 3 in my mind.

Tyler Stockdale · · Joshua Tree · Joined Oct 2017 · Points: 506

Wait... Are you telling me Bruce Willis was a ghost the WHOLE TIME?!

Dylan Stuart · · Juneau, AK · Joined Nov 2015 · Points: 443

Great story about the highest of town walls.

Michael Preiss · · Hobart, WA · Joined Sep 2020 · Points: 871

That's a classic, funny as hell Index story, except the almost dying predicament that almost all alpine climbers have experienced at one level or another. It's amazing what can be accomplished when death is the only other option. Thanks for sharing. 

Zach Baer · · Bellingham · Joined Feb 2018 · Points: 5

Thanks for sharing! Y'all alpine climbers are something else. I'm also curious about the blue hairs; google tells me it's a reference to old ladies dying their hair?

Robert Meshew · · Bozeman, MT · Joined Oct 2017 · Points: 30

Don,  that sounds terrifying!  Hopefully the blueberries were in season on the vertical jungle pitches.

Mulch · · Jacobstown, NJ · Joined Apr 2016 · Points: 1,139

A winter ascent of Index North after seeing it in May 2019 has been on my mind since then. An awe inspiring peak!

Dave Davis · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2023 · Points: 0

Mt.Index always looked much cooler than it actually was to climb on. That being said, an ascent of the North Pk.was a northwest climber’s rite of passage back in the day. I did it solo the first time I did it and felt comfortable down-climbing the rock while rappelling the steep soggy brush. Glad you survived Don, since as you and I have discussed, the 1970’s saw an awful lot of losses in the NW climbing community.

Don Harder · · Yosemite via Seattle · Joined May 2019 · Points: 215

I’m glad you survived your misadventures too, Dave. It was never a gimme that we would. This was highlighted by our Washington survivors reunion last fall (a year ago) at Ric’s place in Mazama. There were far fewer people attending than people that are forever gone. Forever. That’s a long time. I seem to remember that Timson and I were voted the two most likely to die next. This was not a label to strive for. The 70’s was a very bad decade for Washingtonians. This was probably due to climbing ignorance, stupidity, antiquated equipment or bad luck. 

This decade isn’t shaping up to be much better, but our friends are now dying from non-climbing related reasons. It used to be that when we got together we laughed and talked about all the cool climbs we were doing, all the trips we were taking, all the girls we were chasing. Now, when we get together, we seem to talk about joint replacements, colonoscopies, doctor visits and so on. None of us expected to live this long.

Unless you die young, this level of mortality awareness will come to everyone. Nobody gets out unscathed. Beware youth…..

Curt Haire · · leavenworth, wa · Joined Jun 2011 · Points: 1

"rapping off clumps of bushes cinched together with webbing..."  sounds like North Index alright - except as I recall it was clumps of GRASS cinched together... but maybe you found stuff we didnt...

and as for "joint replacements, colonoscopies, yadayada... "   suffice it to say that Old Age is Not For Pussies!

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Pacific Northwest
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