Last July I rolled into a small town called Index in Washington state, exhausted and with no plans to stay. My body was spent from weeks of climbing and paddling whitewater in Leavenworth, a mountain town an hour east over Stevens Pass and on the dry side of the Cascade mountain range where all types of fun outdoor adventure can be found if one is willing to overlook its silly Bavarian theme.
Starkly different in its feel, Index is known for its highly accessible walls of steep, quality trad climbing on fine-grained granite—and a reputation, I would learn, for its notorious sandbag (stiff difficulty grades of the climbs). What mattered to me at the time was the free camping as I was badly in need of some rest on the way to pay my first visit to the Pacific Ocean. No sooner than I had parked and set up my campstove, however, I recognized a Volkswagen camper-van that had become a familiar sight in Utah at Indian Creek that spring. Sure enough, my greeting was answered by a friendly wave and that was all the invitation I needed to go check out the Lower Town Wall, the closest of Index’s granite formations.
Not long after sundown an hour or so later I found myself beside a campfire surrounded by a community of climbers that already felt like old friends but would soon feel like family. Many living out of customized vans and pickups, others in tents down by the river, the reasons for their loyalty to this little spot at the edge of the Cascades quickly became apparent. Camped next to a clear, teal-blue river, beneath lush forests draped in hanging mosses and carpeted with ferns, I would find it surprisingly easy to lose track of time chasing the beautiful lines on those granite walls, neglecting to visit close friends in the area when I found myself either too tired to move or too excited to explore new routes and work on those that had already taken me to school.
This summer I stopped through Index again while making a motorcycle tour up to British Columbia. My limited timeframe this year left me only a handful of days to enjoy a place that left such an impression last year, but in those few days I was happy to find all the things that sat so sweetly in my memories of last summer in addition to some new friends and experiences.
'The Country', one of Index's fine and accessible granite walls. Here, Per Nesselquist cleans Tunnelvision (5.10d) to set up a fixed line for a shoot.
Shooting from the fixed line he rigged for me, I caught Per throwing down on Little Jupiter (5.11d), a hard Index sport climb with a low angle crux involving some desperate pinching of granite 'chickenheads', small protruding knobs. In true local fashion, weather and climate dictate climbing conditions and Per's attempts to send for the camera were thwarted by poor traction caused by sweltering humidity - he peeled off the crux almost immediately after I caught this shot but had redpointed (led the route clean) previously which likely added to his frustration.
Local highline hero Carl Marrs points past the Middle Wall to his new project, a highline rigged at the top of the Upper Town Wall (out of frame).
Named 'Peregrination', Carl's highline spanned 390 feet between outcroppings on the Upper Town Wall with an impressive view of Gunn Peak, the town of Index and the beautiful North Fork of the Skykomish River. Carl managed to send his project for this shot, walking it end to end clean with no falls, something he'd only managed once before.
We had hiked up to the line earlier that week but, in true Washington fashion, thick, low clouds rolled in, obscuring the view of both the ground and the ends of the line and making walking the line extremely difficult (read: impossible) but lending an eerie feel to his attempts.
Part of the pride and joy of a highliner is the feat of rigging and engineering that goes into every line. With 500 feet of air between the line and the ground, every precaution is taken to ensure redundancy and sound engineering. Here Carl inspects the anchor he built for the system: twin systems of equalized webbing and static cord tied into three, steel glue-in bolts in solid granite. The line itself is purpose-specific 1 inch polyester webbing rated to 7000 lbs., one layer for walking and the other for backup, protected with a special abrasion prevention system (duct tape and a sleeping pad).
Here Joey Croft walks the line with a bird's eye view of the exposure. While slacklining (and highlining, its aerial counterpart) require great physical strength and balance, much of the challenge with highlining is psychological as the exposure triggers natural impulses that interfere with the physical challenge at hand.
The Lower Town Wall, the most popular climbing area at Index, is often found crowded with local climbers working on their projects and sharing belays. Here, Alysse Hotz practices the tricky opening moves of Tatoosh (5.10b).
Without a doubt, one of the biggest draws to the Magical Land of Index is its tight-knit community of climbers. Whether trading belays, sharing meals or hanging out by the river, the company of fellow climbers of all abilities contributes heavily to the magic.