Eventually I found the perfect 3 day route that would allow me to set up a base camp on the first day, make an attempt on Mount Maude and Seven Fingered Jack on the second day, then on the third day hike out. It was a perfect plan and the chances of summiting both peaks were good. The night before my departure, I drove to the trailhead to spend the night where almost 20 miles from the trailhead, I was stopped by a closed gate. This was very unexpected and decided it wasn't worth the walk.
One of the appealing things about Mount Index is there is almost no info on this route, no mile marker, or any indication of technical difficulty other than a line in the guidebook. Because of this a true wilderness adventure awaits anyone who dares to go out there. It looked reasonable for a single day attempt so I packed a bag and I was off.
Rain pummeled through the trees, splashing into puddles, trickling into streams, as I meandered along a well trampled trail. The travel was quick, easy and beautiful. Passing many waterfalls, I met many day hikers in spite of the crazy amount of rain coming down. As I gained elevation I learned from others who were descending that Lake Serene was 4 miles up trail. Continuing uphill, the rain lessened and any chance of viewing my route was blocked by a thick fog that enveloped me. I left the trail and traversed through tangled brush to the only distinguishable land mark, a large talus slope.
Reversing the route was tedious but manageable and just for a moment the storm cleared and a view emerged of what I was climbing. To continue on would have been over my head and with no question or regret I made my way back to the car to re-strategize. The outcome of my attempts left me frustrated but not defeated. I decided to attempt Index again from another route that I knew a little more about. So I drove over to the closure at Forest Road 62 and packed for the next day. The road closure on FR62 is 100 feet off Highway 2 at about 500 feet above sea level. The summit of Mount Index is at 6,005 feet making it quite prominent. The description for the dirt road, one that I would get to know so well, mentioned two forks in the road and said the route was obvious. It also said I would be on the road for about 11 miles to the fork where I break off to begin the route. On June 25 at 8 a.m. I began the long walk in sneakers with my mountaineering boots packed in my relatively light backpack.
The first part of the road went well until I got to a fork about 3 miles in. The map said to go left but it didn't feel like the right direction. Understanding the consequences, I went right, walked down hill which brought me to some turns in the road that were not on the map. Unsure of myself I continued along the road this ever present feeling is one I would get to know on this climb. Contrary to the route information I followed my gut. Miles and several undocumented forks later I was relieved to find a landmark that told me I was on track, the Weyerhaeuser Gate.
I spun around and saw two people walking towards me, immediately apprehensive, one of them waived at me in a way that I could tell he was friendly. I waved back energetically, to show I was a good guy too. Backcountry interpersonal communication!
Come to find out the two were John and Lisa. John was working with the forest service and logging companies and had keys to all the gates. While surveying for endangered species he hit a boulder in the road and drained his vehicle of all its transmission fluid. They spent the night in their vehicle and were walking out today. They were unsure of the best way to get out and although they had a map, it was not very detailed. They would have been able to figure it out, but just to be sure I wrote down some directions for them. After laughing together at the situation we parted ways en route to our own adventures.
After the washout, the "road" changed a lot. Accordingly, I switched into mountaineering boots. After a quarter mile it became so densely vegetated that I could not see the ground or the sky at times. Long periods of thrutching through branches for the next three switchbacks of the road didn't even let me touch the ground.
At times I wasn't even sure if I was on the road until I figured out a trick. I would climb to the top of the brush, survey my surroundings, and see different vegetation growing on either side of the road. With that I was able to follow the road with relative ease and peace of mind.
Due to all the rain and lack of wind or sun for the last few days the bushwhacking was exhausting. There was water on all of the plants and I was soaking wet while constantly groveling through the shrubs. Knowing I would have trouble drying my cloths later, I stayed in a t-shirt, hiking pants and rain pants. The rest of my cloths stayed mostly dry in my pack. Following the road and my compass to assure the correct route this battle continued for hours.
In the morning I slept in, my hope was that the improving weather would be warm enough for me to put on my wet clothing with less misery, but I was wrong. I drank a bunch of hot water to raise my body temperature and wriggled into the wet freezing clothing. Immediately I started doing jumping jacks to warm up.
I didn't want to wander through the jungle looking for my stuff so I packed up the remainder of my gear. With everything shouldered into my pack I followed my compass northeast through the sopping wet vegetation. The jungle was just as dense as the road was, except now it was steeper and had a lot more sharp plants. I stayed northeast, skirted some cliffs to the east but continued until I got cliffed out. The idea was to find a broad bench at 4,700 feet that would grant access to the upper mountain.
According to the maps and guide there were 3 options from here. Option one was to climb class 3 rock directly above the bench to gain the west ridge and follow it to the summit. Option two was a gully just south of the headwall (which in reality was downhill in the opposite direction) or option three which was another gully even farther south that was the longest but reportedly the easiest. The rock in front of me was definitely harder than 3rd class and neither of the gully options made sense. I decided to follow what looked like the best route and continue northeast up a gully. Once again the gully was very steep and densely vegetated. I used my ice axe to swing into the mud and grass and use my free hand to pull up on branches. I call this class 5 bush whacking!
I scrambled up onto a saddle with a little snow on it and rested for a bit. Then continued east up the only obvious option. A forested ridge that was not too steep or overgrown. I followed this ridge uphill until cresting a saddle. Here I thought I would be within a stones throw of the summit instead I was greeted with an incredible view of a huge basin. A glacial melt stream flowed through the center with snowfields surrounding, and feeding it as the bright sun melted the snow. At the far side of the basin was the bulging crown that was the summit of Mt Index, it seemed very far away.
I continued to move quickly through easy terrain until I reached a small saddle where I had some route options. Now I saw the snow traverse that I had read about and it looked as scary and dangerous as everyone said. So I opted, instead, for a steep mud gully with the occasional rock or branch for purchase rather than a muddy ice axe. Although it was a short crux, only about 50 feet tall, it had striking exposure, it had my full attention.
From the top of the gully I was relieved to see gentle snow slopes trending uphill towards the summit. I hiked and enjoyed my last few steps to the top of this very special mountain. The summit was lofty but comfortable. The views were outstanding. I saw all of Washington's highest peaks, including Mt Rainier which dominated the skyline to the south. The air felt crisp and warm, it was a still day in this wild place. There was a kind of silence that you can only "hear" when you are alone. It seemed like the world revolved around this point.
From there the biggest miracle of the trip happened, I found my EXACT path of ascent all the way down to where my camp site had been. I recognized this the entire way and was thrilled. It was still challenging to find the route and there were a few times that I got off track but I quickly retraced my steps and found my way.
Once back at the logging road I could breathe again. The worst of the route finding was over and now all I had to do was the horrid bushwhacking down the road. It wasn't totally dry this time but definitely better than the last time. I crossed the washed out road at 3,000 feet and knew that it was time to just shut up and suffer. Ahead of me was a long boring road hike, at least I had two pairs of shoes.
Around 8:00 p.m. I was almost to the trail head when John came speeding around the corner in his red Ford, as he passed he yelled "flag Lisa down she'll pick you up" I laughed, and knowing I was close, ran the remainder of the road.
One last miracle was the perfect finale of the trip. Upon arrival at the trail head, John rewarded me with an ice cold beer! I was so grateful for that beer and it stands out as one of the best I've ever had. Lisa came in a different vehicle shortly after. John explained that he had just enough fluid to put in the car to drive it out as it drained, hence the rush as he passed me. We passed time drinking some beers and talking about our adventures over the last few days. I was really happy to have met them and I look forward to hanging out with them in the future. After cooking some dinner I headed back to Leavenworth for a good nights sleep next to the soothing sounds of the Wenatchee River. I was too tired to clean up the mess I had made in the car while packing for the climb, instead I just crawled into bed and fell asleep thinking about the wild mountains of the Cascade Range.
Author: Paul Barish
After leaving the sunny sandy beaches of south Florida Paul set his sights on the highest mountain town in the United States, Leadville Colorado. Here he completed an Outdoor Recreation Leadership Degree at Colorado Mountain College and at the same time developed a pasion for suffering to the summit. When he's not bagging winter 14er solos Paul can be found thawing out on dry rocks with good friends.