Index, noun, second sense: an indicator, sign, or measure of something.
Local significance – Mount Index, one of the more visible peaks from Highway 2; related to the city of, an old mining and logging town whose heyday was before the Great Depression; also related to the Index Town Wall, the premier crag climbing center in Washington.
Mount Index is actually composed of three distinct summits (resulting in the common misapplication of its title to the nearby Mount Barring, which also has three summits and is visible along much greater sections of highway): the north peak, the most visible from the highway, the rarely climbed central peak, and the true summit slightly farther south, for which, unlike the other two, there are several less technical routes. The mountain’s prominence is due to all of these factors, the town, the wall, the dramatic visage, but also to the Lake Serene Trail, which ends at its foot and is among the most popular hikes in the state.
The name of the peak is someone ironic, it is commonly taken to refer to its index-finger like appearance, despite Mount Barring being far more fitting of that description. But in the sense indicated above, the mountain’s name is more appropriate. The nearby Wild Sky Wilderness is noted for its inaccessibility, possessing few trails and very rugged peaks, and Mount Index is in this line. It is the most prominent major peak one encounters on Highway 2 and relative to its technical difficulty, probably the most climbed until one reaches the Icicle Creek area out of Leavenworth. All of this is intended to provide background for what it meant for me to set out last weekend to solo the main peak of Index by the Hourglass Gully route. This was not my first attempt.
I am beginning to wonder what exactly it is that lies at its summit that I am not to reach – a pot of gold, Cordoba upon Talol, the mother of my children – something to this effect would be fitting. The look of the mountain from Lake Serene, which is one of the most arresting lowland views in the Cascades, has acquired a certain familiar, haunting quality; and the trail has certainly been the scene for more than one minor tragedy.
When I was 8 my family went on a day hike to Lake Serene, it was a warm day and on the way back I went a short ways off-trail to wet my head until a waterfall, returning to the trail I slipped on a wet log and hit my head on a small boulder, requiring three stitches.
On January 27th of this year I made my first attempt on the peak, I found the trail infuriatingly impassable, requires close to twice the normal allotment of time to reach the lake. After a short climb up the ridge I decided the chances of reaching the summit that day were negligible and turned around.
After that trip in January, Index was at the top of my list, yet for mostly weather related reasons I was not able to return until March 20th, which I designated as a trail-clearing operation. Once I arrived however, I found that trail crews had already done of the bulk of the work and I enjoyed a relaxing few hours at the lake, watching avalanches come off the face and digging a snow cave. When I was nearly back to the trailhead I realized that my car keys had fallen out of my backpack when I had eaten lunch and I had to re-hike the entire trail.
The weekend of he 7th and 8th of April looked to be one of the first good patches of weather of the year and once again I set out for Index, this time intending account for all circumstances. I left my house at four thirty in the morning to be at the trailhead at first light. In addition to my usual winter mountaineering gear (snowshoes, trekking poles, ice axe, snow shovel) I carried a set of crampons, a rope and equipment for a self-belay, a snow-anchor, and food and equipment to stay the night. The pack must have weighed 40 pounds. By the end of Saturday I was back at the trailhead defeated, with soggy feet and a very sore back and shoulders.
My plan had gone very well until I reached the ridge above Lake Serene, which the early morning sun had reached hours before myself. Through increasingly soft and slushy snow I fought my way upward, climbing each pitch twice because forward progress was nearly impossible with my pack, for nearly five hours, and covered a meager 1000 feet from the lake, leaving another two thousand, and a great deal of ground I had never seen, to the summit. Around two in the afternoon I finally reached a flat spot, recognizable as a notch toward the top of the steeply slopping section of the ridge, where, for the first time since I left the trailhead at six, I sat down and ate something. Unsure of how many more nightmarish pitches of snow climbing remained ahead, how I would protect any untreed sections, and how much, if any, of the equipment in my pack had remained dry, I gave up and rappelled back down to the pass and hiked out.
Obviously this was not the best day in the mountains I have had, but the principle trauma was barely related to the act of climbing at all. Obviously there were exacerbating effects: solo climbing an unfamiliar route in adverse conditions with a tremendous amount of exposure only partially mitigated with a self-belay system one invented on the spot is hardly a scenario for a good state of mind. Yet that I sat down and cried when I stopped for lunch implies a much deeper problem.
There are many dangers in solo climbing, the one I find most distressing is the ease of admitting defeat, but most people are aware of the increased objective chances of injury or death when alone. This is actually true of most activities, from walking down the street to studying for exams. Given that I am not delusional and this was arguably my most ambitious climb to date, I knew the chances of my not coming back were as high or higher than they had ever been before. On some level I half expected to never return. I have always laughed at mountaineers who say that a climb is not completed unless the climber returns alive, for who are they to disparage total sacrifice? But perhaps for reasons even they do not understand, they are correct. It is not that the dead climber has failed, but rather without the clear and distinct hope of return the entire process of the climb is upset, somehow the return is integral to the experience. Built in to every aspect of the mountaineer’s journey is the future: one is constantly thinking in terms of preparation. This may be why mountaintop experiences tend to be so anticlimactic: the meaning of the accomplishment is always oriented toward the future, such that the significance of any accomplishment is not in-and-of-itself, but related to future aspirations. This means that there cannot be, categorically, a greatest climb, or therefore a greatest climber – one never arrives in that manner; there cannot be that sort of end-goal. This should not be confused with the post-modern vogue notion that routes, rather than summits, are the centerpiece of mountaineering: that the end-purpose is somehow in the experience. If there is not an end-goal there cannot be an end-purpose. No experience, no high, no accomplishment can be the goal of mountaineering, for each act simply points to the next or makes itself insignificant. Mountaineering is a pilgrimage, and like a journey to a holy land, there are actually two journeys, the journey there and the journey back. Each needs the other: without the journey there, the journey back is the path of defeat, without the journey back, the journey there is the path of doom. The lasting joy is not to go, but to have gone, to have seen and then returned.
This is part of a wider re-assessment of mountaineering motivations I have been undergoing that began when I read that according to Alex Lowe’s wife, one of his primary motivating forces was the fear of the discovery of his mediocrity. This suggests that the hope of security in success is ephemeral. Lowe was as great of a mountaineer as has ever come out of this country, and if even he doubted his excellence, no one can be secure. The pressing onward in the hope of proving oneself, of arriving at some sort of elite and respected position, is, from a personal perspective, endless. One can see others “arrive,” but never “arrive” for oneself. I am under no illusions that if I were to persist in seeking excellence in mountaineering I would someday be the peer of Alex Lowe. The greatest mountaineers are gifted rock and ice climbers who bond easily with other people and revel in personal fitness. I am none of these things. But in my own small way I have thought of climbing in terms of proving myself, establishing myself, earning a place, and if this desire is flawed at its very core, I cannot, with real hope, pursue it.
The effects of this, as evidenced by my experience on Mount Index, I am only beginning to realize. This sort of climbing has already acquired the character of a compulsion: I feel as though I have to do it, like there is no other way, like in order to justify my self-worth I am required to test myself like this. The issue of self-worth is central, in the past few years mountaineering has come to be the core of my identity, it is what I am most proud of about myself; yet as I have said, it is clearly nothing to be proud of and my insecurity regarding my value as a mountaineer is not something that is going to go away no matter how accomplished I become. It is becoming clear to me that I need an entirely different way of thinking about these matters. I need a new model.
There are strands of the tradition that do not consider climbing in the ways I have described, early mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada range for instance – John Muir in particular, but I have found the magnetic effects of elite Alpine climbing to be very difficult to shake off.
I, and I believe the rest of the mountaineering community, need not simply a new index by which to judge our accomplishments, but an entirely different way of thinking about climbing that rejects the entire notion of an index – the notion that we need to be able to quantify, even in a qualitative manner, our achievements. And not just any ideology will suffice, the athletic model that came out of England in the post-war era and infiltrated nearly every school of mountaineering is incredibly seductive and contagious. We don’t just need a new Alpinism, we need a new Alpinism that is attractive and persuasive. As yet I do not have such a thing, but my research has pointed me in some promising directions: a renewed respect for less technical climbing, along with an understanding of technical skills as tools rather than goals in-and-of themselves; an exploration of the mystical traditions associated with mountaineering, including strands in Zen Buddhism and the Catholic Alpinism that came out of Italy before the second world war; the eschewing of “classic” routes and well researched lines – climbing should be an act of exploration, not simply following someone else’s route description.
For about a year now I have been carrying around a photo of Mount Saint Elias. On the back I had written the last two stanzas of my poem Lent v2. Before I left my high-point I made it into a paper airplane and launched it into the cirque.