Hot, Wet, Slug-Infested Sandbags: Five Reasons Not to Climb at Washington's Index Town Walls

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With the Skykomish River winding through the valley below, Brittany Goris sends P1 (5.11c) of the Terry Michael Route (5.12a).

With the Skykomish River winding through the valley below, Brittany Goris sends P1 (5.11c) of the Terry Michael Route (5.12a).

The monster peers with green eyes from below the thick canopy. It lurks in the shadows of spider-webbed fissures. It lingers around the train tracks below the cliff, dangles like a loogie from the hold you need to be dry, and oozes beneath your feet when the salmon deposit their corpses along the riverbank come autumn. It’s called Index. And I can promise you this: You do not want to go there.

You might imagine the world’s greatest crag to be some tufa-dripped wall in Spain, a stalactite-riddled cave in Greece, or a lode of perfect stone in California. But the world’s best crag is actually in the emerald defile of the Skykomish Valley. Honestly. In a rainforest in Washington, just an hour’s drive east (or three, depending on traffic) from Ebaymazon (the city formerly known as Seattle), sits an amazing sweep of immaculate granite. And yet, in spite of its 500-plus incredible routes from 5.6 to 5.13+, many four to six pitches long and spread across nine main sectors, and in spite of the fact that notables such as Fred Beckey, Todd Skinner, Greg Child, Peter Croft, Andy de Klerk, and Justen Sjong have all climbed here dating back to (in Beckey’s case) the 1960s, the area remains quiet. Well, sort of.

The Upper Town Wall and the Cheeks loom over the town of Index, Washington, with Mount Baring in the distance.

The Upper Town Wall and the Cheeks loom over the town of Index, Washington, with Mount Baring in the distance.

I first visited Index in 2011, after moving to Washington to work as a climbing ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, just a few hours away. I had heard about the crag before, had even heard it touted as the best crag in the country—but I didn’t expect much. Everyone thinks their home crag is the best in the world.

My first day, I climbed 10 pitches of some of the finest granite I’d ever touched. I can still recall the routes as I made my way from The Country to the Lower Town Wall: the slight roof on GM (5.9) where three cracks converge, the friction mantel on Climax Control (5.11c), the fingery traverse on Cunning Stunt (5.10c), the perfect hand crack of Thin Fingers (5.11a), the bizarre slot start of Tattoosh (5.10b). It wasn’t just that every inch of every pitch was on impeccable stone; it was that each route was as unique and memorable as the next, with its own geology and sequences. Smitten, I spent most of my free days that summer at Index.

In 2011, Index was not just the best crag I had ever climbed at; it was also the quietest. On countless occasions, a friend and I would rally from Seattle, park in the spacious Lower Town Wall lot along the banks of the Skykomish River, marvel at the dearth of other cars, stroll five minutes across the train tracks and through the woods to the wall, and climb five-star pitch after five-star pitch without waiting in a single line. Often, I wouldn’t see another soul. And if I did see anyone, it was usually one of the handful of regulars I quickly got to know, respect, and admire. 

Sonya Kepler navigating the knob-studded crux of Tempituous (5.12a; 3 pitches), Dana’s Arch Area, Upper Town Wall.

Sonya Kepler navigating the knob-studded crux of Tempituous (5.12a; 3 pitches), Dana’s Arch Area, Upper Town Wall.

Among those regulars, I noticed a startling concern about how Index was perpetually on the brink of blowing up. It occurred to me that the paranoia might date back to a 2009 article penned for Climbing by Angele Sjong, “The Index Club.” Paradoxically, Angele had stressed that, “The first rule of Index is you don’t talk about Index. The second rule of Index is you don’t talk about Index.” So much for rules 1 and 2, I thought. Of course, Angele’s piece wasn’t the first time Index was in the limelight. Back in 1986 when Todd Skinner freed City Park at 5.13d, it was the country’s hardest trad climb. At the time, the locals didn’t take kindly to his hangdogging or Hollywood style with photographers in tow, and smeared railroad grease all over their own perfect crack just to foil Skinner’s plans. Skinner cleaned the crack with a blowtorch and ultimately prevailed. Of course, the climbing media covered all of this with relish. But the dreaded crowds didn’t materialize then—or after Angele’s article.

Fast-forward to 2019, and it’s hard for me to believe how naive I was. These days, on any sunny summer afternoon, the Lower Wall lot might fill up with 40-plus cars, spilling out onto tentative spots along the road. A quarter mile east, some 20 vehicles stacked in rows two or three cars deep fill the primitive campground. Forest service rangers arrive to enforce the two-week camping limit, often cleaning up trash where tweakers and climbers commingle by the river. Even the parking along City Park, the Outdoor Adventure Center, and the General Store (the three main staples in the tiny town, population 205) tends to fill up now. And while the crags that dominate the view from town—Lookout Point, the Diamond, the Cheeks, and the steep, massive Upper Town Wall—remain relatively uncrowded, Lower Town Wall classics like Great Northern Slab (5.6), Princely Ambitions (5.9), and Godzilla (5.9) often have queues.

The Index General Store, framed from left to right by the Upper Town Wall, the Cheeks, the Diamond, and Lookout Point.

The Index General Store, framed from left to right by the Upper Town Wall, the Cheeks, the Diamond, and Lookout Point.

Now, it would be remiss of me not to mention that many people blame me for Index blowing up. After all, the photographer Matty Van Biene and I wrote a guidebook that came out in 2017. And while I admit there’s some truth to this, it’s important to stress that we didn’t make the wave; we simply caught it. When I started working on the book back in 2013, there were already changes afoot. More and more people were going to Index, and new climbing gyms were popping up in the greater Seatac area like mushrooms on a rainy autumn eve. Bouldering in Leavenworth (an hour east over Stevens Pass) was beginning to come into the national spotlight. My desire to write the book was born out of the obvious need to manage the looming wave—to spread climbers out beyond the Lower Town Wall onto the many five-star classics in the woods overgrown into disrepair. 

Although I don’t live in Index anymore, I miss it. I still care deeply about the walls, the locals, the whole Skykomish Valley, and I still visit every chance I get. And so, naturally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the effects of my guidebook, hoping that when the cosmic scales are weighed, I’ll have done more good for the place than bad.

“It’s a great book,” my friend Lucas Debari, a retired professional snowboarder who turned to climbing and now lives in Index, recently told me. “I wouldn’t go back and stop you from writing it. I think it has been a good thing for the community. But it definitely added to the traffic, and that is turning into a problem.”

Reed Johnson using belief—and an upside-down gastocling press—to cling to Fifth Force (5.12b), one of Index’s most notorious sandbags (see p.54 for more).

Reed Johnson using belief—and an upside-down gastocling press—to cling to Fifth Force (5.12b), one of Index’s most notorious sandbags (see p.54 for more).

Still, routes that never got climbed in 2011, such as the awesome 5.10 upper pitches of Tattoosh, or the other three 5.11 pitches of Japanese Gardens, are now much more a part of the regular circuit. Entire crags like the Diamond, Rattletale, and Inner Walls have gotten massive facelifts, as well as scores of fantastic, new routes. Some individuals have taken it upon themselves to retrofit routes whose bolts were in dangerous decay. Blankets of moss have been removed from forgotten classics.

All that said, though, Lucas is not alone in his concerns. In fact, he’s probably more charitable than other locals (friends and frenemies alike), some of whom may or may not burn effigies of me during full moons down by the river. And so, in an ongoing effort to counteract the negative effects of my book, I’m taking this opportunity to set the record straight. Index is an incredible crag. But that said, it’s definitely not for everyone.

Washington native Hannah Carrigan on the delectable twin cracks of Senior Citizens in Space (5.7+), Private Idaho.

Washington native Hannah Carrigan on the delectable twin cracks of Senior Citizens in Space (5.7+), Private Idaho.

In fact, I can think of at least five good reasons not to climb there. Ever. Five fantastic offerings that I share with you in hopes that you’ll never set foot in the hot, wet, slug-infested Skykomish Valley. Because the truth is, Index isn’t that great after all. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’d hate it.

1) The Sandbag 

Trad climbing, in general, is sandbagged. And of all the places I’ve climbed, there is none more sandbagged than Index. Not the Needles, not Yosemite, not the Gunks, not Cathedral Ledge, not Looking Glass, and not (for God’s sake) anything on the Front Range. I’m talking sandbags so stiff you can only assume they are typos. Sandbags so egregious that you have to add at least two numbers (not letters) to the grades. I watched Sam Elias nearly punt on the sideways dyno on Model Worker (5.11c). I saw Tommy Caldwell temporarily stymied by a stemming sequence on Numbah Ten (5.12b). I even saw a 5.14 climber who won’t be named unable to unlock the crux on a 5.12b called Batskins! I mean, come on, man, it’s just knob climbing. Alex Honnold purportedly said Natural Log Cabin—with its tricky stemming and enduro layback finish—was the hardest 5.11+ in the world … and that one’s not even a sandbag for Index! Dude, he should have tried the no-hands foot dyno on Spooner. Now there’s a 5.11d for you.

Orion Watson locked down on Climax Control (5.11c), The Country.

Orion Watson locked down on Climax Control (5.11c), The Country.

Precisely why Index is so sandbagged remains up for debate. But my gut is that if anyone knows, it’s probably Terry Lien. Lien was one of the most prolific Index first ascentionists throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. He ticked off the FFAs of almost all of the best finger cracks, and often gave them demeaningly low grades. He spends more time these days with his “herbal” business than climbing, and so his memory could be fallible. But what he told me was (and I paraphrase), “We looked at the climbing magazines, and saw pictures of the pros on 5.11s. Since we weren’t pros, we figured there was no way we were climbing 5.12s. So the hardest thing anyone could do was 5.11+. And once everyone did that one, and someone did a new harder route, the new one became 5.11+ and the old one became 5.11b or c.” Dubious as this logic is, the sandbag stuck. Now, the modern generation of climbers developing new routes has taken the sandbag and upped the ante (watch out for anything put up by Michal Rynkiewicz, Ryan Hoover, or Chandler Davis). So the grades are only getting more ridiculous. Not less. 

2) The Munge 

Let’s begin with a qualification: We’re not just talking about regular, old dirt here. Moss, lichen, blackberry bushes, salmonberry brambles, mud, algae, owl pellets, banana slugs, spiderwebs, spiders, birds, bats, frogs, and who knows what else all just love to occupy certain key holds at Index. I’ve seen (and touched) it all, folks. There are some routes so covered in moss you can barely see the bolts. With all that rain and vegetation, it doesn’t take more than a couple seasons for the forest to reclaim a pitch that sees no traffic.

I’d be lying if I said I never found these things distasteful. It’s true: Back in the day, I didn’t like brushing through cobwebs mid-crux—lord only knows what kind of hungry arachnids lurk in the shadows. But after a number of years at Index, I came to see it as a sort of honor. A privilege even. Like eating #freshiesforbreakfast, or whatever it is that the first skiers of the day at the nearby Stevens Pass get to do. “Cobwebs on Natural Log Cabin?! No way! Can’t believe I get first burn of the season!”

But again, we Index climbers are peculiar. Honestly, does all that nature, smack-dab on your holds, really sound like something you’d enjoy?

Seth Hobby leading the final ropelength of Rattletale (5.10b), a three-pitch excursion up perfect hand cracks at Lookout Point’s Rattletale Wall.

Seth Hobby leading the final ropelength of Rattletale (5.10b), a three-pitch excursion up perfect hand cracks at Lookout Point’s Rattletale Wall.

3) The Weather

I now live in Flagstaff, Arizona—basically a climate haven for rock climbers. Sometimes, I hear local climbers complain about the summer heat. That’s cute! You know what I tell those people? “Man, don’t go to Index.”

Simply put, Index has the worst weather imaginable for the kind of techy granite face climbing that predominates. A good 99 percent of the year it’s raining (OK, technically it’s only 184 days per year, according to bestplaces.net, but who’s counting?), and the Skykomish Valley receives 63 inches of annual rain on average. And during the three months that Index is reliably “dry,” the humidity makes the air feel like a sponge, and the temperature is so hot—usually 80-plus degrees by midday—that you break into a full-body sweat just thinking about your project. It rains so much, in fact, that locals even use made-up weather terminology such as “The Monroe Effect” and “The Blue Hole” to describe illusory pockets of good weather used to sucker unsuspecting Seattleites into making the long drive out there when any minor fool could tell you it’s gonna be raining (another classic Index sandbag).

Angela Seidling savoring the brilliant new route Easter (5.9+).

Angela Seidling savoring the brilliant new route Easter (5.9+).

Now, it’s not all bad when it comes to Index weather. There are, every once in a while, a few random days in late fall or winter when skies turn from gray to blue, the sun peeks out from behind its wet blanket, and glorious conditions descend. But unless you’re a local, you’ll never be around for those days, so there’s no point in dreaming about them. You’re stuck with the smarmiest of the smarm, the warmiest of the warm, the gnarliest of the gnar. Enjoy that as you try to full-body smear your way up the technical V-slot of the “5.12b” Stern Farmer. 

4) The Riff-Raff 

Western Washington is wonderfully weird, and the loosely enforced free camping of the Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest that surrounds Index attracts all kinds of folks. I’ve slept in a gravel lot next to an RV full of methheads clinking, clanking, and coughing til the wee hours. (In their defense, they were rather plucky and friendly in line for the portajohn in the morning.) I’ve shared early-morning stoner reveries with the kinds of backwoods miscreants only the Pacific Northwest could produce—colorful characters that seem borne of moss, cedar, and flannel, in the most unironic, unhipster way imaginable. And I’ve heard tasteless remarks about gender and race pass the lips of various semi-permanent fixtures (including legendary locals) who call Index home during the summer.

To me, the diversity of political persuasions, socioeconomic brackets, and chosen vices all simply adds to the ambiance. For example, I’ve always had good experiences with the methamphetamine crowd. They’ve never caused me harm except for that one time I lost some sleep because one of them drove into a tree near my campsite. But I can understand why climbers of a certain ilk might find the company distasteful. That is, if you’re looking for the kind of peace, love, and unquestioningly liberal echo chamber that most popular climbing crags tend to be (“Bruh, turn up the Michael Franti”), then trust me, Index is not for you. Not everyone there is a climber, and not everyone there cares for climbers. Car break-ins are common, along with other petty thefts.

Benjit Hull crimping steady on Rise and Fall (5.12b), Upper Town Wall.

Benjit Hull crimping steady on Rise and Fall (5.12b), Upper Town Wall.

Methheads and misogynists aside, even the average Index climbing patron tends to be utterly insufferable in ordinary, “non-Index” company. The obsession with Index runs deep, and many an Index aficionado has found and seized all manner of opportunity to turn the conversation back to banana slugs, eccentric route names (see p.57), and other Index esotera. Even if you’re in freaking Patagonia. Even if nobody else in the immediate vicinity has been to, or gives a damn, about Index.

Finally, I must mention that there seems to be a cantankerousness bacteria in the supposedly “non-potable” water we all collect from the spigot in City Park and drink anyway. I’ve gotten my fair share of flak from curmudgeonly climber-locals for a wide range of offenses: working crowd control for the Captain Fantastic film crew, writing a guidebook, and criticizing whatever numbnuts stole the crag signs that a kid crafted for his Eagle Scout project. And I’ve given the flak right back. But at the end of the day, we all belay each other and share a campground. The arguing reminds me of my home life growing up, and even if they don’t actually like me, I still consider my biggest haters my friends.

But you probably wouldn’t.

 Ben Gilkison on the very steep Normandy (5.13a), at the Beach area on the Cheeks.

Ben Gilkison on the very steep Normandy (5.13a), at the Beach area on the Cheeks.

5. The Final Straw: Why Would You? 

In mathematical logic, you can prove or disprove universal statements by a variety of methods. One method is to show that for every data point in a certain set, the rule holds. For example, if you said, “All dogs have hair,” you could find every dog in the world, show that they all have hair, and thus prove your point. Conversely, you can prove the statement through eliminating the possibility of a viable exception. Instead of rounding up every last dog on the planet, you could just say, “Don’t believe me? Find me a hairless dog.”

Jens Holsten nearing crux number one on the thin crack of Iron Horse (5.11d), Lower Town Wall.

Jens Holsten nearing crux number one on the thin crack of Iron Horse (5.11d), Lower Town Wall.

I could painstakingly research, and list, every reason in the world why you shouldn’t go to Index. But instead, let me just ask you a simple question. Why would you? For the great stone? Keep on trucking to Squamish. For the ease of access? See “Gunks Carriage Road.” For the weather? (Do I even need to dignify that with a response?) You’re certainly not there for the moderates (go back to Red Rock). You’re not there for the scene (try the Hueco Rock Ranch in October, bruh). It can’t be the teeming rainforest that intrigues you (if you like green that much, go put your face in the lawn).

Go ahead, give me one good reason. I’m waiting …

Hear that, Index gods? Nothin’ but crickets.

I rest my case.

Exasperating Index Sandbags

Love em or hate em, there’s not much you can do about them. Here’s a list of 10 great ones to seek out … er, avoid.

  1. Message to Love (5.11b), Duck Wall. V6 compression for approximately 60 feet. A Michal Rynkiewicz special. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.13a
  2. Newest Industry (5.11a), Lower Town Wall. Solid-5.12 friction slab. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.12c
  3. Dirty Laundry (5.11d), Little Elvis. V4 to V6 to V?. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.13c?
  4. Spooner (5.11d), The Country. V-hard if under 5’6”. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.13a/b
  5. Fifth Force (5.12b), The Country. V5 layback to V7 compression to V6 foot-over-the-head highstep on slab. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.13b
  6. Normandy (5.13a), The Beach. Pumpfest to shallow, flared fist-crack V8 move. Tom Ramier at his finest. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.13b/c.
  7. Rise and Fall (5.12b), Upper Town Wall. Four stout, sangbagged pitches, including a nearly impossible crux. A Greg Child classic. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.13b.
  8. I Am in Top a Shader (5.11c), Private Idaho. No-hands mantel to all-points-off sideways slab dyno to overhanging finger crack. Jon Nelson, undercover crusher. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.12b/c.
  9. The View from the Bridge (5.10d), Inner Walls. Sustained V4 stemming with poor protection. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.12a R
  10. The Orangutan (5.11), Rattletale. V5 to improbable knobs to impossible knobs. Normal sport-crag grade: 5.12c.

Inscrutable Index Route Names

Index route nomenclature is a favorite topic of conversation for obsessed locals. Why did the names get so weird? How? Probably only Jon Nelson—perhaps the most prolific of all Index first ascentionists, still active today—knows. And according to Nelson, he doesn’t know.

  1. I Am in Top a Shader. When asked what the name means, Nelson replied, “I don’t know.” Nelson named it.
  2. Ten Percent Meteorological Vinculation. It’s a weather thing. I think.
  3. He Is Truly a Great Airplane. I mean, seriously though. Isn’t he?
  4. An Act of Strange Boar, a Group of Mysteries of French Women, a Ship Called Black Rock, and a Hatch. It has four pitches, so why not have four names?
  5. Heaven’s Rear Entry Vehicle—Parked Out Back, Tow Away Zone. Gah, hate when that happens.
  6. Texas, My Milk Farm. Any Texans who could help figure this one out?
  7. House of the 7th Bobcat. Not the first, not the fourth, and definitely not of the Rising Sun.
  8. Ted Nugent in a Basket. Where he belongs.
  9. Whipped Cream over the Clothesline. And the cow jumped over the moon?
  10. Brad Driscoll Outnumbered His Guests, But a Good Time Was Had by All. Of course he did. And of course it was.

Chris Kalman (chriskalman.com) is an editor for the American Alpine Journal, a host of the American Alpine Club’s The Cutting Edge podcast, and the author of As Above, So Below: A Climbing Story.