Mount Index (Hourglass Gully)

March 8-9, 2020

1815m

Index / US-2 Corridor, WA

Mt. Index isn’t a tall summit by Washington standard but is definitely one of the more iconic and photographed mountains in the state. The massif consists of three summits – North, Middle and Main with the former two both included in the “Difficult Ten” in Washington, and Middle Index is agreed by many as the single most difficult summit in the entire state. The entire northern flank of the massif, including north and middle peaks forms one of the sheerest cliffs in the state, that rises more than one vertical mile abruptly off the uber-busy Highway 2. The sudden sight of Mt. Index from the highway, on both directions, inspires every single person who drives by and at the same time, teases every single person who climbs. The ascent of the main summit isn’t nearly as technical as the north and middle peaks, but still a burly fair. There are three routes that make sense – the “standard route” via Hourglass Gully from the east side, the Mt. Persis – Mt. Index ridge traverse and the third option, the SW slopes via a maze of logging roads. The latter two options are both non-technical, but require arduous and roundabout approach because the logging roads are now gated at Highway 2 by the private company.

My plan had been to climb Mt. Index via the Hourglass Gully route as a winter ascent on snowshoes because this route offers the most fulfilled experience of this iconic summit. The better way would be via the full Index Traverse over the north and middle peaks but I do not posses the required rock climbing skills for that. The ascent of Hourglass Gully isn’t technical, but the challenge comes from the conditions. As all winter/spring climbs go, timing is everything and the window for this route is fairly short. Asides from the weather one needs the most stable conditions from avalanche perspective as the entire upper mountain is exposed to all sorts of hazards. The optimal window would be a clear but cold day in the “early spring” time frame, which is around early March in recent years and Matt Lemke’s ascent in March 2019 confirmed my decision to climb this in a similar window. One advantage of an “earlier ascent” is the snow coverage on the lower east ridge approach. A thick snowpack could theoretically reduce the pain of that vertical thrashing section although 60-degree wallowing on snow is by no mean “easy” neither with winter overnight gears..

For the past several years I thought about soloing this route as I knew nobody that had the skills, motivation and the required degree of flexibility at the same time. My plan for winter/spring climbs is to do anything to maximize the chance of success, that is to pull the trigger at the last minute whenever the window forms and that does not have to be on a weekend. The climb could theoretically be done in one day but I wanted to have two days to minimize the exposure in the southeast-facing Hourglass Gully. The climb of the gully has to be done in dark but the forested approach isn’t nearly as possible without visibility, so to do this in a single day isn’t quite practical. For the last couple years I started to believe that I would never end up climbing it but things changed a month ago after coming back from South America. Connor M. needed this peak because it’s on the Washington’s P2K list. Connor would be the most ideal partner as he is a rare climber that posses extreme degree of flexibility in timing, a shit ton of energy, competent technical skills and more than enough money… I wasn’t sure whether or not I could manage to pull the trigger at the last minute because my work had been getting increasingly busy during the school season over the last couple years, but I convinced myself that if a solid window formed then I would bail two days off work no matter what. This happened to be on the Sunday-Monday and after a few emails back and forth we instantly pulled the trigger on Friday.

Mt. Index via Hourglass Gully. GPX DL

The approach to the camp on the lower east ridge would be “half a day” at most so we didn’t have to wake up early on Sunday. That’s good as I didn’t finish work until 9:30 pm on Saturday night and hadn’t bought food nor packed anything yet. I ended up not going to sleep until 1 am. The next morning I left White Rock at 9 am and the two of us departed Bellingham at 10 am. In less than two hours we had parked at Lake Serene trail-head and soon joined the hordes on the busy busy trail. The first portion of this trail was a gradual ascent following a deactivated logging road with a small detour due to a massive wash-out. A while later the trail made a turn towards east with some annoying up-and-downs past Bridal Veil Falls turn-off, followed by more annoying descents to the outlets of Bridal Veil Falls. Beyond that the trail started the steep ascents and switchbacks towards Lake Serene. There were a ton of wooded staircases suggesting a lot of trail-building effort, but the maintenance of this trail sucked big time as suggested by the dozens of dead-falls. To crawl under some of those dead-falls was super annoying with the overnight pack. The continuous snow didn’t start until the final major switchback and the snow soon became deep. Most hikers opted to don microspikes but such weren’t needed for us wearing full shank mountaineering boots. This was my first time using the Phantom 6000s for sea-level climbs and they started to give me blisters probably because we walked too fast. At the lake’s outflow we took a long break and I loosened the boots a little bit which seemed to help.

The start of the Lake Serene trail

Passing the outflow of Bridal Veil Falls

Connor hiking on the snowy Lake Serene trail

The first open view from the trail.

One of the two openings on the trail.

Finally had an unobstructed view of Middle Index and North Index

Connor on the Lake Serene trail. Almost arrived at the lake

There were already pools of water at the lake’s outflow but we determined the lake was still safe to just walk across, so strapped the snowshoes on and onto the lake we went. There was no track beyond the shore so from this point onward we were on our own breaking trail. Plodding across the lake took no time and the grunt onto the lower east ridge saddle at Index/Philadelphia col was also easier than I thought, on mostly open slopes. From the col we took no break but immediately trudged up the lower east ridge, and five minutes later the snowshoes were swapped for crampons and ice axes. The grade steepened to 45 degrees in no time and the crust was icy. We climbed some easy 40-45 degree snow on the climber’s right side of the ridge crest on open terrain but the going soon became arduous when we were forced to go into the trees. The snow wasn’t as firm in the trees and we sank past knee deep many times. We also discovered a few waist deep spots that required some trenching techniques to get over. Connor took over the lead at the crux pitch. Haflway up towards the 60-degree section I started to realize the climbing was much harder than appeared from below, with shitty snow and considerable exposure. It’s too late and awkward to do any unnecessary transition so we just had to suck it up and get over with it. Above the crux step there was still considerable amount of easier-grade snow climbing before the terrain flattened out. We then strapped snowshoes back on and found a neat spot to set up camp. The ascent to camp took us 4.5 hours. We spent the rest of the evening doing the usual winter camping routine, checking forecasts (there’s data coverage) as well as taking photos for the gorgeous sunset.

The shear NE Face of Mt. Index massif…

Plodding across Lake Serene, looking ahead to the east ridge of Mt. Index

Connor plodding up the valley at the head of Lake Serene.

From the lower east ridge saddle, the snow climbing began.

Connor took over the lead and started the wallowing

Connor heading for the crux pitch.

The photo isn’t tilted and this isn’t even the crux yet…

Looking down towards Lake Serene from just under the crux pitch

Partway up the crux, looking down. Photo doesn’t justify the angle..

A while later, this is Connor at camp…

Another hour or two later we got to see some incredible sunset views

Evening colours on the northern horizon

The shear NE Face of Middle Index – hardest summit in Washington…

Palmer Mountain catching the last bit of sun rays

The rugged massif of Baring Mountain on evening glow

Another photo of Middle Index at evening hour

Our tent on the east ridge of Mt. Index

Monday would be the first day in a week that the east faces saw considerable amount of sunshine, so despite the cold temperature we agreed to climb most, if not the entire gully in the dark. At 5 am the alarm went off and an hour later we started the plod. The morning took us longer than expected because I couldn’t light up my stove using the sparker likely due to the coldness. Thankfully Connor brought a lighter that saved my breakfast… From camp we easily snowshoed over the narrow ridge with about 50 more meters of elevation gain to the base of Mt. Index’s east face, and then side-hill traversed into the entrance of Hourglass Gully. None of us liked this traversing zone as it’s exposed to a ton of overhead hazard, suggested by the abundance of sluff debris. The snow was soft enough that we could keep the snowshoes on. Into the lower gully we stuck on climber’s right side on the avalanche debris. The going became 40 degrees and we swapped snowshoes for crampons and ice axes and climbed the climber’s right variation into the “middle basin”. We had to strap the snowshoes back on as the grade in the basin was mellow (30-35 degrees) and loaded with fresh powder. Without snowshoes we would sink past our knees and even with snowshoes we started to sink past knee-deep as the going became steeper. The condition was very different than our prediction. This area hadn’t seen more than “a couple inches of snow” in the last storm cycle but apparently the face collected all of the wind drifts. Thankfully the new snow appeared to bond well and was not forming slabs. We had to keep the snowshoes on through the “hourglass” constraint, on 40 degree terrain and then continued making tight switchbacks into the upper basin. The going was slow but I had a ton of experience in wallowing knee+ deep powder on snowshoes, so kept charging on a steady pace. Once the grade became 45 degrees on the last 100 m to the ridge I started to hit the firm base layer and the snowshoes were then finally swapped for crampons and ice axes. The last 50 m climb out of the gully was actually pretty fun.

Connor leading the side-hill traverse into the Hourglass Gully in dark

Heading up the Hourglass Gully now, looking up

Connor snowshoeing up the lower Hourglass Gully at dawn

Entering the “hourglass”. There were lots of ice around

Connor wallowing the 40-degree, knee deep powder like a mad man

Taking a break admiring sunrise

Sunrise behind Baring Mountain

Sunrise and morning alpenglow from high up in the gully

Boot-packing the last 100 m

Connor exiting Hourglass Gully

The crampons were swapped for snowshoes once we started the traverse and ascent onto the broad summit ridge. The going was pretty easy and the views were ass-kicking. After a few mellow rolls the ridge narrowed down and we had to be careful about cornices. The summit block loomed impressively ahead and based on Lemke’s trip report we knew the attack was on the left (west) side. At the base I ditched snowshoes for crampons and ice axe (yes, one more transition) and easily led across the 40-degree traverse into the SW Face. The traverse was then followed by some 35-degree ascent on firm snow and 10 minutes later we were on the summit, soaking in incredible views towards all directions. However, it’s 8:45 am and we were already behind schedule so our summit stay was short.

What a gorgeous day…

Connor starting the snowshoeing on the south ridge

Can’t get enough of these views..

Plodding up the broad south ridge/slopes

Heaven!

The summit ridge soon narrows down

Connor leading towards the summit block

The summit block ahead.

Looking back at our snowshoe tracks on the summit ridge

Connor traversing 40-degree slope around the summit block

Then climbing 35-degree firm snow for a substantial length

Connor arriving at the summit of Mt. Index

Huge cornices dangling over the NE Face

The shear faces and ridges gave some Alaskan feel

The summit of Mt. Persis with the Puget Sound lowlands behind

Mt. Baker behind Three Fingers and Whitehorse Mtn.

Mt. Shuksan in the far distance

Big Four Mountain and Vesper Peak on Mountain Loop Highway

Del Campo Peak at center; Mt. Pugh behind

Sloan Peak the “Matterhorn of Cascades”

Glacier Peak with the Monte Cristo Group in front

Mt. Rainier to the south

Me on the summit of Mt. Index

Connor and I on the summit of Mt. Index

Reversing the summit block was easy and instead of swapping gears for two times we opted to keep the crampons on the summit ridge. The base layer under the new snow was actually firm enough to hold our weight so there wasn’t much additional post-holing needed. We carefully down-climbed the upper 50 m into the gully and then started plunging. We soon abandoned the plunging techniques in trade for glissading. Needless to say, it was a super duper fun descent down into and out of the hourglass on our asses. In no time we were at the bottom of the gully strapping snowshoes back on. The traverse back to the east ridge and then down to our camp was without incidence. We spent as little time as possible to break camp. It appeared that we should definitely be back home by dinner time so I sent some work texts to let them know that I did not have to cancel the evening hours’ work. The descent to the 60-degree crux pitch was easy but required caution. For the crux we opted for a single rappel using my 30 m rope. The rope didn’t quite reach the bottom of the steepness but at that point we were both fine to just down-climb.

Heading back across the steep traverse across the west side of summit block

Plunging down the mellow south ridge/slopes

Connor glissading the middle section of Hourglass Gully

We opted to glissade for as far as we could…

Philadelphia Mountain in foreground

One last look at Baring Mountain, with Merchant Peak to its left

Back to the traverse, time to strap snowshoes back on

Small sluffs coming down the faces of Middle Index

Our snowshoe tracks on the access ridge

Looking down past Lake Serene. Can’t get down from here though

Connor finishing the long side-hill traverse across the drop zone

Connor snowshoeing back up the access ridge

Middle Index and Lake Serene

Carefully descending towards the crux pitch rappel

I set up the rappel using a tree anchor

Connor down-climbing steep snow under the crux

Continuing down-climbing steep snow

Huge terrain on this mountain.

Once the terrain eased off we swapped crampons for snowshoes and easily plunged down to and across Lake Serene. We took a lengthy break at the near shore of Lake Serene while talking to some hikers. After the break we loaded all shits into the packs and let’s face the slog out. The hiking-out on Phantom 6000s (me) and Baruntses (Connor) was such a pain in the ass that we both just simply “fuck the blisters and go”, as if we were actually wearing trail runners and carrying no pack… We actually jogged the last 200 m down the paved road stretch…

Back to Lake Serene plod

Partway back across Lake Serene, looking back

The NE Face of Mt. Index

A sudden change to “spring” from “winter”…

Descending the slippery Lake Serene trail

There were a lot of dead-falls on this trail.

One last photo from the lower section of Lake Serene trail.

Our round trip time was 11.5 hours if taking out the camping time. The time takes in consideration that we carried 40+ lb packs all the way past the crux zone and wore high-altitude mountaineering boots the whole damn way, suggesting that this climb could indeed be done in a single day if one dares to start at midnight and climb that vertical thrashing section in the pitch dark. On the other hand, to time a good window for this climb proved itself to be tricky, probably trickier than the climb itself. We had been watching conditions continuously for a month and we both were very experienced in making winter climbs happen, but still encountered more difficult conditions than expected.