Mount Index (5991')
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As someone who has lived at the terminus of Highway 2 for most of my life, Mount Index has always been an intriguing site. You cannot miss it driving down US 2 with its steep summits and the cascading Bridal Veil Falls. Having become a developed climber, scaling Mount index began to feel like a right of passage.
I had heard that the climb is “easier” in many respects during winter. So, the last two years I watched and waited for the perfect alignment of quality snow, low avalanche conditions and me having time. On January 9th I thought I finally had that perfect day. But, before I could even get up the main ridge it became clear that the snow was in no shape to climb. It was powdery and provided no solid hold for an ice axe. On top of that I went crashing through at one point and almost got trapped in a jumble of rocks below the snow. Dismayed I headed home that day and chose to continue my watch and wait approach.
A mere two weeks later the conditions on Mount Index looked perfect for the climb of hourglass gulley. Cold temperatures had hardened the snow and a week of avalanche runs had removed most of the risk. Somehow it finally felt like the day had come. I left home at around 2:30 am for the Lake Serene trail head feeling upbeat and ready to conquer.
The hike up to lake Serene was uneventful, though I felt surprise to run into a couple other hikers at 4:30 in the morning. They seemed uninterested in talking so I nodded said good morning and continued. When I reached Lake Serene I tempted walking across it, but, several spots cracked and creaked. One even broke through. Instead of risking being solo and falling into an icy lake I chose to walk around the west side of Lake Serene. As I reached the 3200ft saddle above the lake the sun was rising and the day was going as good as anyone could hope.
The ridge-line was in questionable shape from the get go. Between my last try two weeks earlier and now, several spots had melted into large ice blocks. The view was reminiscent of an ice fall and navigating it had the feel of a big mountain experience. As I worked my way up it only got more precarious.
If you have read any route descriptions of the climb of Mount Index’s hourglass gulley, then you will be aware of the sheer rock face. I do not know what it looks like in summer, but, right now it is a hodgepodge of icy rock and snow. To be able to conquer it, I traversed out to the left (if facing the wall) along a very steep snow slope. The exposure in this spot was no joke and gave me pause more than once as I inched along. After around 20 feet I found one small icy spot with a tree above that was just enough to get my axe in and a leg up. I managed the step but it was a tense 10 seconds that felt like an hour as I kicked a few steps suspended in the air. Many will tell you this is the crux of climbing Mount Index and I would more than agree with the sentiment.
As I pressed upward above the rock step the ridge remained 40-50 degree snow and ice. For the next 100-150 feet I was kicking steps, shoving in my ice axe, and feeling the adrenaline pump through me. I felt a surge of joy once the ridge leveled out again and then promptly sat down in the snow to take a breath. I was almost in disbelief at how steep the section is looking back down it. Perspective is a wild thing.
Traversing from the end of the ridge line to the buttress you will round, the walking was easy again. The view from here begins to open up and is superb. To the northeast the wild sky wilderness peaks stand tall and I could even glimpse the top of Glacier Peak off in the distance. After rounding the buttress my mind snapped back to the fact that the climb is still in front of me and I went back to work.
The lower section of Hourglass Gully is wide and in the snow very easy to navigate. But I must caution that when you look up the gully be sure to stay to the left side of the small island dividing it in two. I chose the right side because it looked easier. This was despite the fact that so many trip reports and climbing guides say to go left. This time of year the sun only hits the right side of Hourglass gully. Due to this, the ice above my head kept breaking off and turned the right side into a shooting gallery. I was constantly looking up to see ice flying down hill and whizzing by me with the sound of a passing car. I was lucky not to ever get hit because many of those looked as though they could do some serious damage.
While you make the climb up Hourglass Gully on Mount Index, you will notice it constricts. It will push you up into a smaller and smaller area and as it does the snow abruptly steepens. There are spots in the upper gulley where I would estimate it at around 50 degrees. In fact, at the top of the gully the way the snow is right now made it near vertical. On top of that it was blue ice with wet snow on top making foot placement a chore and perfect ice tool work a necessity.
To be able to exit Hourglass gully I required two tools. I had my technical axe in my left hand to hold me against the wall. My standard axe I used in my right hand to cut steps into the ice since my crampons wouldn’t bite in. That was a very tense few minutes as I made my way across the ten foot section. I was so very relieved when I reached the top.
From here the rest of the climb of Mount Index’s hourglass gully route is easy. A simple walk along the upper ridge line, a small traverse below the lower summits and finally attaining the summit. That moment of cresting the the summit is one I will never forget and one I will never repeat. For being such a small mountain it throws everything it can at you and more. There is a good reason that this peak, not this route, holds two spots on Washington’s difficult ten. Respect it if you go up there, the route is by no means easy or straightforward.
I would like to leave other climbers with a word of caution. Most climbers will be able to take on the ascent but the descent during winter time is a harrowing journey.
Getting back down into hourglass gully was intense. Beyond that, I chose weight savings and only brought along a half rope (30m). Due to this decision I was forced to down climb some of the icy snow along the first ridge line. Of course, this was occurring in the waning light of day since I had taken longer than expected. I was lucky to make it back to the 3200 foot saddle as the sun completely left. I had to walk out in the dark but I felt lucky that I wasn’t attempting that rappel in the dark. It would not have gone well.
If you go up there for a winter ascent watch the daylight and if you feel at any point it is too much, go home. Please make careful gear choices that reflect your ability. On this peak your life will depend on it. There is more than 1 spot where a fall will kill you.