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BootsandPants

[TR] Mt. Index - North Peak - North Face 8/21/2016

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You'd have to be blind to miss Index while driving along US-2. Complex gnarly crags; thousands of feet of rock shooting skyward from the valley floor. An impressive sight viewed from any aspect along the road no matter which direction you're heading. I still remember the first time I saw the peaks after moving here from the frozen wasteland of upstate NY years ago. Since that day I've always wondered what it would be like to try to claw my way up one of those faces. Good rock and amazing climbing always seemed called me elsewhere though and I kind of forgot about Index. Squamish, North Cascades, J-tree, Bugaboos, Banff, and even the town walls right across the valley singing their siren song of good rock all lured me away from one of the pillars of the Blue Collar Triple throughout the years. It wasn't until recently while I was looking for something to do with a rare free weekend that Ambrose suggested we climb the north face of North Index. He had attempted it first in 1988 (turned around in the Great Bowl due to wet rock) and again a few years later, but got lost in the steep forests on the way to the start in the days before the superhighway to the lake was put in. Needless to say, he wanted to finish it this time. With the temperatures blazing in the 90s during the day, I figured a route characterized by vertical bushwhacking might provide some shade.

 

The hike up to the lake Saturday evening was heinous. Laboring away in 90 degree heat full of humidity, dodging day hikers and dogs. When did blasting music through a backpack speaker become a common hiking practice? When did I become a crotchety old guy? After 80 minutes of sauna cardio, we were swimming the lake. At least this particular terrestrial hell was shortlived. The rest of the night was spent drinking whisky while looking at the stars and nattering on about life while the peaks and Norwegian Buttresses loomed menacingly above us in the dark.

 

I was kept awake most of the night by the blinding sturgeon moon, but morning came soon enough and we were moving up the loose, moss covered boulder field and onto the NE Rib. After tunneling through alder and devil's club, then soloing the first few pitches, Ambrose called for the rope at a particularly tricky (read: mossy) part, so we roped up about an hour after leaving the lake.

 

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What follows from here is a few hours of clawing vertically upward, constantly unsure of our position. I believe I was able to locate the "hidden ledge" traverse, mostly due to following a hunch and seeing what looked like crampon scratched rock. It didn't seem very ledge-like, but it went. Thick jungle climbing for three rope lengths followed; every vertical foot earned through sweat and trust that all the vegetables we were pulling on were somehow attached to this big block of rock.

 

Scraped and slightly bloodied from what Beckey describes as "making like a gorilla", we emerged into the great bowl on the north face. I've never been so glad to see dirt and moss covered slabs before and was happy to have some frame of reference to know we were somewhat on route. Moving up this dirt circus was infinitely faster than the jungle we had just emerged from, and we simuled steepening, protection challenged terrain until hitting the knife edge north rib.

 

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The rock is supposed to get better on the rib, and that's somewhat true. It was a little disconcerting that the pillar/block you have to crank on at the start of the rib is detatched and hollow, but the rest of the ridge seemed ok. The exposure on the rib is wild; sheer drops down dizzying heights surround you. I wish I'd gotten a picture of it, but we simuled through this section trying to move fast as a river of clouds was beginning to make it's way up the Sky Valley.

 

I had always thought that the climb was pretty much over once we finished the rock rib, but from what I could see I was quite mistaken; we had at least 500 feet of more loose brushy bullshit. Beckey says to traverse out onto the east face and go up a brushy gully to regain the ridge. We did go that way on the way up, but found on the way down that it was much easier and slightly less exposed to just stick to the obvious ridgeline and take the path of least resistance. Following the ridge farther gets you to the false summit, of which we climbed up and could finally see our goal. Gingerly scrambling down the other side on more extremely exposed terrain along a thin connecting ridge to the base of the main summit. As we ascended the final hundred feet or so of "steep heather benches", I was trying to figure out just how deep heather roots have to go to hold a 170lb person; apparently they went deep enough.

 

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Finally, we were on the summit and gazed at the rest of the Traverse.

 

Holy shit.

 

Seeing it up close and in person really puts the gravity of it into perspective. I've long hoped to walk that road someday, and now I have a clearer idea of what will actually be required; lots of water and whisky.

 

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As we stood on the summit, the clouds were really starting to build below us and I was actually beginning to get a little worried that our 90 degree sunny day jaunt was going to turn into a marine layer induced cluster.

 

Unfortunately, it turns out I would be right.

 

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With an involved descent ahead, we left after what seemed like too short of a time. We quickly and gingerly downclimbed everything back to the rock rib where we were going to start the first of 11 raps. The last section of downclimbing along the ridge (probably what is described as the "third pitch" of the rock rib) was probably some of the most exposed scrambling I've ever done with no margin of error. Everything was going ok...

 

While making the last move down to the little ledge, the block I was standing on rolled and fell off the ridge. I immediately grabbed a large horn to balance myself, however that began to shift and peel off as well.

 

Shit

 

Figuring that I was Properly Fucked, I let go and try to throw as much of my weight forward as I could, hoping I could latch on to something else on my way down. Luckily, Ambrose was able to push me back into the rock and I only fell the two feet down to the little rock he was standing on with my center of gravity over my feet thanks to his push. I don't really want to think of what would have happened if he wasn't there. We'd both used that block on the way up, and he used it on the way down; why it rolled when I stepped on it is beyond me. Needless to say, this shook me up to my core. The next four hours of rappelling into the increasingly swirling clouds, wind, and eventually rain was an exercise for me in mental fortitude to bottle up my feelings, keep my shit together, and do what needed to get off this fucking thing. Good alpine training or something like that.

 

Rappelling into the clouds and wind slowed things. Ropes whipped about, tangling themselves; low visibility made finding a rap line an uncertain chore. Ancient tat slung around twigs and held in place by years of dirt became welcome sights, some of which we had no idea what they were tied around. My little mental game to take my mind off of that falling block was "guess how old this piece of tat is". My favorite piece was the rainbow webbing (which generally looked the best out of the bunch) and probably has been up there since the '90s. It wasn't a reassuring game.

 

We were able to see enough through the clouds to make it back down to the gentler slabs in the bowl and put the ropes away to downclimb that portion. More raps down through the jungle we climbed up were again slow and challenging; rapping through thick trees with 20ft of visibility due to the clouds is an experience. I think we were both pretty worried that we were going the wrong way, but scouting didn't turn up anything and we kept finding tat, so we kept going down.

 

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Eventually, we broke through the bottom of the cloud layer right as we made it to the hidden ledge traverse. The blanket of uncertainty lifted immediately; we knew exactly where we were. One 60m free rappel off of a branch, and another off of two flexing pitons and we were done with the real difficulties.

 

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As a final parting shot, it started raining on us during the last rappel; this bastard wasn't going to make ANYTHING easy for us! Copious amounts of slipping and profanity got us through the bushwack and down the boulderfield, soaking us to the core and adding insult to injury.

 

By some cosmic providence, the rain let up right as we got back to the lake and the last of the sun's rays left the sky. Scratched, scraped, bruised, wet, and with fried nerves we drained the last flask of whisky on the shore of the lake, letting its serenity wash over us.

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Nice work ticking one of the "fearsome foursome" (the words of Dallas Kloke describing Index, J-Burg, Nooksack Tower, and Big Four). As you now know, an ascent of the North Peak is an accomplishment! I too was almost chopped by a rock on that side of the mountain, glad you and your partner's reflexes were up to the task.

 

While the Index traverse looks intimidating from the summit of the North Peak, I think it is better than going down way you came up. The rock quality is quite reasonable, the positions magnificent, and the descent off the Main peak much better than going down the North. I really feel that it is a classic traverse, deserving of much more attention than it currently gets.

Edited by JasonG

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I love a good story about climbing splitter granite cracks in the alpine with great pro and perfect weather under an azure sky. Guess I will have to wait! Sometimes getting on top of a cool looking peak really is the most important thing.

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While the Index traverse looks intimidating from the summit of the North Peak, I think it is be better than going down way you came up.

 

 

I agree!

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Great story. Thanks for sharing.

 

I'm still on the fence about whether I want to do this one. Some days I'm an eager masochist and others I am a sport climber embracing all the creature comforts I can find. Maybe the contrast between these makes each richer.

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