You Don’t Talk About Index
Late December 1982: The 1973 Ford Pinto turned northeast on Lake City Way in Seattle. Inside, two University of Washington students drove through heavy holiday traffic, an hour later passing the soggy logging communities along Stevens Pass Highway. They turned left, crossing the north fork of the Skykomish River to the tiny, thickly forested town of Index, population 160, below a two-tiered granite cliff: the Upper and Lower Town Walls. The men crossed railroad tracks to the Lower Town Wall and built a bonfire, illuminating the lichen-covered rock above. The men ascended a fixed line in the dark, scrubbing holds and drilling. Using Boeing surplus bits, they installed quarter-inch Rawl split-shaft buttonheads, naming their route Terminal Preppie.
The following year the U.S. climbing scene erupted in controversy; many saw the practice of rap-bolting as anathema to the ground-up style that had defined American climbing to that point. The spark that ignited the powder keg was Alan Watt’s rap-bolted 5.12b Watt’s Tots, at Smith Rock. Meanwhile, a posse of Seattle men quietly and without controversy installed over 200 routes on rappel at Index. The men didn’t speak much about the routes. The Pacific Northwest, with its rugged, glaciated terrain, has a long tradition of producing high-end mountaineers. The area’s endemic Alpine tradition and Nordic heritage imbued Washington rock climbers with a stoic temperament; here, you’re expected to suffer alone, quietly, and in nature, keeping your accomplishments to yourself.
The first rule of Index is you don’t talk about Index.
Break this rule and things can get messy. Consider that in 1986, the late Todd Skinner set up camp along the Skykomish and went to work on a splitter seam — City Park (5.13c), at the Lower Town Wall — what would be the hardest crack climb in the country at that time. Skinner made certain photographers were there to document his move-by-move rehearsal for the climbing press. Skinner’s willingness to spend a month rehearsing painful finger-locks in the same crack was incomprehensible to the locals. Weeks later, Skinner found his project plugged with railroad grease. He blowtorched the grease out of the crack, sent, and went on his way. While most Index regulars from that era did not condone the anonymous sabotage, it was clear the charismatic, freshly-bronzed, media-savvy Skinner and his sensational Camp IV stories didn’t fit the Northwest mold.
Still, if you measure a crag’s merits by rock quality and the influential climbers who there perfected their technique, there can be no doubt Index holds a very special place in the pantheon of granite climbing areas. Index locals know the bullet-hard, fine-grained granite, the splitter cracks, and the faces pimpled with dime-sized chickenheads and edges rivaled anything those Californians have down south. On a clear day at least.
In an area with over 100 inches of rain per year and where, like Squamish, British Columbia, rock faces quickly grow over with sheets of moss and lichen, modern Index ethics are best described as exercises in self-flagellation. Desperate locals have been known to wrap the wrists of their raincoats with duct tape, to practice their solo-aid climbing in the near-constant drizzle. “Routes at Index were products of enormous amounts of work,” recalls Greg Child of his years here spent wire-brushing new routes. “We were frustrated young men, wandering the forest looking for new climbs, getting rained out, getting mossed out.”
But let’s not forget: this is Index and you don’t talk about this stuff. America’s most reclusive crag has incubated big-wall techniques and rap bolting, but speak not. When you come to these wet, moss-choked woods, you’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. You’re not special, as that Tyler Durden voice in your head might tell you — not a beautiful or unique snowflake; just another maggot passing through. So listen up — this is the unauthorized, quirky history of Index. A story of the Washington climbing prodigies who met early, tragic ends, and the local climbers who developed the unique traditions appropriate to the climate and vegetation here. The story of Index, the real birthplace of clean climbing and rap bolting. Before you ask why you haven’t heard of Index remember: the only rule of Index is you don’t talk about Index.
The TPMV is a five-pitch aid route on the Lower Town Wall, originally A4 before flakes peeled off, put up by Seattle natives Bruce Carson and Dave Anderson in 1972. In 2007, Ben Gilkison extended the first-pitch variation (5.13a R) for 140 feet of climbing. A single No. 5 Micronut protects the crux. All but 40 feet of the original direct start now go free.
TPMV gets a notch on the Index historical timeline because of the techniques Carson and Anderson pioneered during its ascent — a combination of copperheading, hooking large unstable flakes, and nailing. The following year Carson and Anderson plied their Index techniques on Yosemite big walls to complete difficult aid routes sans hammers. The duo completed the Rostrum in 1973 without a hammer or using fixed pitons. (Nuts were new on the scene and a rack of aluminum wedges did not exactly inspire confidence in big wall climbers at the time.)
Carson was considered a visionary for adopting this clean, bold style. Wrote Royal Robbins in a 1976 American Alpine Journal, “[Carson] was a true mountaineer… and brilliant rock climber. …Leaving behind the hammer [on the first VI clean-aid ascent, the West Face of Sentinel Rock], was one of those flashes of genius [that] combine courage and insight which are extraordinary, even transcendent.”
Later that year, Carson and Yvon Chouinard climbed the Nose, the first party to leave the ground without a hammer. Although the piton-ruined rock disturbed Chouinard, he had not yet entirely committed to the ethics espoused by “nut fanatics” like Royal Robbins. As they started up the Nose, Chouinard confessed to Carson, “I’ve never really stood on one of these [nuts] before.” But by the time they topped out, he’d become a clean-aid convert. That same year, Index locals Don Brooks and Karl Kaiyala, accompanied by Roger Fuggle, completed the second hammerless ascent of the Nose. “[Carson and Chouinard] lent us some of those nut goodies, and off we went,” says Kaiyala.
Carson died September 4, 1975, only 24, after falling through a cornice in the Indian Himalaya. In 1998, an avalanche broke Anderson’s femur while he backcountry-skied near Salt Lake City. His rescue helicopter crashed, killing all aboard.
Through much of the 1970s, Index was considered an aid crag. That almost changed in 1977, when the UW student and Yakima native Paul Boving freed the stunning, twin splitters of Thin Fingers, on the Lower Town Wall, the FFA of one of the numerous techy 5.11 crack climbs for which Index is now known.
In the same year, Boving also FFA’d R.O.T.C. (5.11c) at Midnight Rock in Leavenworth and the Boving Route (5.10c) on Dragontail Peak in the Stuart Range (with Matt Christensen). “Boving was kind of competitive and impatient, so he really went after stuff,” recalls Christensen. Boving climbed Thin Fingers twice more but on his third ascent fell, pulling a few pieces, hitting a ledge, and sustaining a head injury. He never came out of his coma and died shortly after. “For some reason he didn’t wear his helmet, even though he [normally] did,” recalls Christensen. About a year after Boving’s death the cracks of Thin Fingers would become protectable with a new invention: cams.
Boving’s death shrouded the Lower Town Wall and the remaining lines there lay dormant throughout the late 1970s. Index slipped into a dark age and the forest began to reclaim the walls. Meanwhile, granite crags throughout the US — North Conway, Donner Summit, and Joshua Tree — saw heavy route activity in the 1970s.
Iron Horse is a classic Index Lower Town Wall route — thin, fingery crack climbing through a small, bouldery roof into a chimney/flare finish. The preternaturally gifted, congenitally shy, and then-unknown Northwest climber Peter Croft grew up on Vancouver Island and made Squamish his stomping ground in the 1980s. Croft often voyaged south to Washington, including Index. As Croft recalls, “[Index] rock… was like the best of Squamish but maybe smoother and the weather just as bad. That said it also seemed like the greatest concentration of hard thin cracks that I'd seen.” “Peter was always coming through climbing routes unroped. He was kind of heads above what everyone else was able to do at that time,” recalls Christensen. “Peter was super quiet then. He didn’t talk much,” says Northwest local Julie Brugger. Croft’s completed his ascent of Iron Horse and an onsight solo of Thin Fingers sans fanfare or observers. Still, it marked the beginning of what was to be Index’s most productive decade. The years following Boving’s death are noteworthy only for their dearth of new climbs; with Croft’s visit, the hex on the crag was broken. The lingering spirits receded into the forest and an explosion of route development ensued.
Greg Olsen and Jon Nelson are the two UW college students who one night in 1982 rap-bolted Terminal Preppie. “We were just kids, so psyched about new routes and possibilities… we started a little bonfire on what’s now the approach trail waiting for it to get light. Eventually we gave up on trying to sleep, got up, and started drilling,” says Olsen. The two followed up in 1983 by rap-bolting Sonic Reducer (5.12a) with its seven clippers.
Viewed from the outside, Olsen and Nelson’s pre-Smith Rock rap-bolting was anarchy. The two men operated in a vacuum, however, unhindered by the controversy embroiling the rest of the country. Explains Olsen: “I was a devotee of the Jim Erickson 'no-tainting' ethic, yet ground-up FA's at Index were out of the question, so it didn't seem like any contradiction at all to prep routes on rappel. Not even a question.” Olsen later explained, “At some point…I began to feel that bolting was simply another cleaning task. Much less difference between brushing and bolting once ground-up [ethics aren’t] applicable. …It all just starts to feel like route prep after eight hours of scrubbing. Putting in the bolts is just another of the chores you had to do before you got to climb. Honestly, had we been in some place like Yosemite or Tuolumne where you can just walk up, tie your shoes and try something, I doubt I'd ever have considered placing rap bolts. I think we just did what seemed appropriate for the area. [N]obody noticed so we just kept having fun, doing new stuff.” Reflecting on the current popularity of Index, Olsen says, “Nobody would be climbing at Index today had it been developed as a collection of one-time moss epics.”
In backwards fashion, establishing a face route at Index can be easier than establishing a crack route because of moss’s tendency to thrive in a damp crack. “Cracks take a lot of prep work,” says Olsen. “Much less labor to clean a face pitch.” Soon the pair gave up hand drilling in favor of a Bosch Rotohammer.
When asked if route development at Smith Rock influenced them, Olsen replies, “Back then Smith had a terrible rep as choss…so we just didn’t go, and thus had no idea what it was like or how nice the new stuff was.”
By rap-bolting Terminal Preppie, Olsen and Nelson opened the door wide for route development. During the next decade over 200 free routes were established, both crack and face climbs. The locals most active during this period were Greg Collum, Child, Darryl Cramer, Max Dufford, Terry Lien, Nelson, and Olsen. Although ground-up tactics were applied to a few select routes, including Model Worker (5.11c) and Clay (5.11d), there was little controversy as to which philosophy applied to which route. “We considered ourselves climbers using the techniques appropriate to the route,” says Cramer.
In 1989 the UW graduate student Karl Kaiyala had a hunch. He’d peered through binoculars at the blank sections high on the Upper Town Wall during his 1970s aid-climbing days and had noticed a number of interesting features. He filed the intel away until, in the summer of 1990, he spent 27 days unearthing the fine knobs and tiny edges on a 600-foot expanse, pulling off clump after clump of moss tightly bound with wiry stems to the granite. Kaiyala named the route “Sisu,” a Finnish word for a stubborn refusal to capitulate. “Sisu is pretty much the Finnish national motto,” says Kaiyala proudly.
Sisu opened people’s eyes to the potential for multi-pitch sport routes on the Upper Town Wall. Soon after, locals undertook vertical yard work on the Upper Town Wall to reveal numerous high quality multi-pitch sport routes: Rise and Fall (5.12a/b), Technicians of the Sacred (5.12b), and Good Girls Like Bad Boys (5.12a).
“I almost died on that route,” says Greg Child. The year after achieving renown for his ascent of K2 sans oxygen, Child teamed up with Andy DeKlerk, an accomplished Himalayan alpinist from South Africa, for this six-pitch sport route on the Upper Town Wall, the second multi-pitch sport route in Index. The route features highly technical, quintessentially Index moves: ticky-tacky, arty, delicate crimps and foot matches on micro-features on high-angle granite slab. “Quite surprising how many small holds there are on those cliffs,” says Child, “albeit covered in moss.” Amidst a final wire-brushing and drilling, Child was temporarily distracted and rapped off the end of his rope. He hit a ledge 16 feet below, fell 25 feet farther, then barrel-rolled down the forested slope, landing in a blackberry thicket. Spitting out blood, Child took stock: he had a broken right ankle and was alone, 25 minutes up a very steep climber’s trail… and it was getting dark. Child inched over to the climber’s trail and began a three-hour combat-crawl through the pitch-black forest to the parking lot, then drove one home one-footed, using his left foot for the accelerator, clutch and brake.
Child, who has summitted Everest, K2, Gasherbrum 4, Trango Towers, and a host of other dangerous, remote peaks, was chagrined by the lowering accident in his own backyard. As soon as his ankle healed, Child and DeKlerk returned to climb the route, naming it Rise and Fall as an allusion to the rappel accident and the Shakespearean tragic plot of misfortune following a heroic accomplishment.
Child was a prolific Index climber, establishing over 20 routes between 1984 and 1992. When asked about rap-bolting controversy and the lack of it at Index, Child explains, “In other parts of the country there was a fanatical ethics police. People were freaking on each other in places like Boulder. Index was a moss-covered, backwater, do-anything-you-want, get-lost-in-the-drippy-forest type of place. There were no real ethics police in those days — you could really invent your own brand of climbing.”
You’ll find Amandla on the Lower Town Wall, where it traverses right from the flared corner of Numbah Ten to a right-leaning finger crack, and finally to a steep arête. It was the hardest route established since City Park went free six years earlier.
After establishing many test pieces in South Africa, DeKlerk lived as an ex-patriot in Seattle for a decade, in part to avoid military service during his country’s blighted Apartheid era. DeKlerk named his route “Amandla,” the Zulu rallying cry “power.”
During his years in Seattle, DeKlerk not only dodged military duties, he also avoided academic opportunity, in the form of a Rhodes scholarship to study philosophy at Oxford University, to climb instead. DeKlerk racked up a string of impressive alpine accomplishments including his sick Alaskan feats (Moonflower on Mount Hunter, and mounts Foraker, Huntington, Dickey, and Barille); difficult Himalayan ascents (Gasherbrum IV, North Ridge of Latok II, Everest in 1996); and hairball climbs in the Canadian Rockies (North Faces of Alberta, Templeton, Robson and North Twin). Between alpine accomplishments, DeKlerk routinely climbed hard 5.13+ sport in the Northwest and was a fixture at Index.
Six people in the last 17 years have repeated Amandala: Justen Sjong, Michael Orr, Hawk Berry, Ben Gilkison, Andrew Philbin, and Sonnie Trotter, the latter calling it “very strenuous, solid 5.13 for sure, maybe even a little on the stiff side.” Seattle native Ben Gilkison since extended Amandla to a ledge, the most natural finish with a 60m cord, calling the Full Amandla (5.13d).
Regarding the potential for more hard routes at Index, DeKlerk remarked “Some of the corners and aretes on the upper wall have potential for really stiff routes. There is huge potential for thin hard routes and really long pitches also.
About the 1990s Index scene, DeKlerk recalls the time he found a severed pig’s head atop one of the Lower Town Wall routes. “There are some real weirdos that live in the forest around there,” says DeKlerk, laughing.
Green Drag-On is a six-pitch route that runs straight up the Upper Town Wall, just right of the historic Davis Holland free route (5.10c, 1964). This aid route, now completely free, is considered to be one of the best on Upper Town Wall. “Green Drag-On combines traditional climbing up to 5.12a with face climbing: little dishes, slopey crimps, bad smears — just sustained, high-angle granite slab climbing,” says Gilkison who freed it with Sjong. Sjong adds, “It’s...very engaging and techie — all you need is a light rack.” Green Drag-on was the second old Index aid route to be freed; Sjong freed the first, Town Crier at 5.12d, the month prior. The ascent of these aid routes, done at a modern, “weekend-warrior” grade — albeit with thin gear, RP-protected 5.12 slab cruxes, and run-out flake climbing — indicates potential for many more free lines on the Upper Town Wall.
Green Drag-On’s bottom two pitches were first aided by Bruce Albert and Al Givler. Givler was known for his ascents in Icicle Creek Canyon (Givler’s Dome) as well as the FA of the Black Dyke, in Squamish (with Mead Hargis). The full Green Drag-on was aided first by Don Harder and Don Heller in 1973.
“Al Givler was one of the most gifted climbers to ever come out of the Northwest,” recalls Harder, who now lives near Donner Summit. “I’m an old duffer, but I still get out and thrash around.”
Angele Sjong, PhD, is an industry consultant specializing in polymers and metallurgy. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband, Justen Sjong; both are former Index locals. The author gratefully acknowledges Darryl Cramer’s contributions to this article.
Getting There: Index is off Stevens Pass Highway (Highway 2), 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
Camping: Find free, unregulated sites along the Skykomish riverbanks. The nearest bathrooms are across from the Index General Store, one mile from the climber’s parking lot — use them.
Amenities: There’s cell reception at the crag, and Internet access at the Sultan town library (14 miles east). Purchase bare necessities and guidebooks at the Index General Store ( 793-0693). The nearest full-fledged grocery store is in Gold Bar, nine miles west on Route 2.
Ratings: Index ratings are widely considered stiff, with significant compression in the 5.11 range.
Weather: The temperate climate allows for climbing year-round; annual average rainfall is 108 inches, three times that of Seattle. The driest months are mid-July through September. When it’s raining at Index, many people continue east on Stevens Pass Highway to the drier Leavenworth areas (trad, sport, bouldering). The most popular option for sport climbing is nearby Little Si (exit 32 off I-90).
Access Update: The Washington Climbers Coalition (WCC), with an Access Fund loan, has secured an option to the Lower Wall area, with a December 2010 deadline. WCC is raising $300,000 for the purchase and improvements. See washingtonclimbers.org for the latest and to contribute.
By Angele Sjong
Index is an unsung land of classics, claimed from the moss through grit and determination. Here, not-to-be-missed lines — sport, trad, aid, and more. Note: don’t be surprised to find a few bolts on classic trad lines (Clay, for example), and there might be a gear section on a multi-pitch sport route (Swim).
- Technicians of the Sacred(5.12b), first pitch, Upper Town Wall; Andy DeKlerk
- Fifth Force(5.12b), one pitch, The Country; Greg Collum, Greg Child, Greg Olsen
- Blue in the Face(5.12c), one pitch, The Blues Cliff; Collum, Matt Kerns
- Heart’s Desire(5.12), one pitch, Upper Town Wall; Keith Lenard, Will Gadd
- Full Amandla (5.13d), one pitch, Lower Town Wall; Andy DeKlerk, Ben Gilkison, one piece of gear at finish.
- Godzilla to Sloe Children(5.10d), three pitches, Lower Town Wall; Don Harder, Donn Heller, John Carpenter, Pat McNerthney, Jon Nelson, Terry Lien
- Japanese Gardens(5.11c), four pitches, Lower Town Wall; Terri Lien, Jon Nelson
- Davis Holland to Lovin’ Arms(5.11b), six pitches, Upper Town Wall; Dan Davis, John Holland (DH); Don Brooks (LA). FFA: Al Givler, Tom Nephew, Mead Hargis, Jay Ossiander, Pete Doorish, Dan Lapeska, Larry Kemp, Pat Timson
- Clay (5.11d), one pitch, Upper Town Wall; Darryl Cramer, Jon Nelson, Tery Lien; has two bolts
- Full Iron Horse(5.12a), one pitch, Lower Town Wall; Peter Croft (to original anchor). Full FFA: Dick Cilley, Dante Leonardi
- Bobcat Cringe(5.12b), one pitch, Lookout Point; Terry Lien, Darryl Cramer; has two bolts
- Thin Fingers (5.11a), one pitch, Lower Town Wall; Paul Boving
- Town Crier(5.10 C2/3 or 5.12d)
- City Park(C1 or 5.13c), one pitch, Lower Town Wall; Roger Johnson, Richard Mathies. FFA: Todd Skinner
- Golden Arch(5.11b A3), six pitches, Upper Town Wall; Jim Madsen, Ron Burgner
- Green Drag-On (5.11a A2 or 5.13a), six pitches, Upper Town Wall; Don Harder, Donn Heller. FFA: Justen Sjong, Ben Gilkison
- Heaven’s Gate(5.11b), four pitches, Upper Town Wall; Dave Gunstone, Darryl Cramer
- Rise and Fall(5.12a/b), five pitches, Upper Town Wall; Greg Child, Andy DeKlerk
- Swim(5.11d, A0), seven pitches, Upper Town Wall; Darryl Cramer, Greg Olsen, Larry Kemp, Doug Teague.
- Jungle Fun to Tempitchuous (5.11d), three pitches, Upper Town Wall; Jim Yoder, Steve Gerberding, Matt Kerns, Greg Collum