Magic Ghosts and Science

Located an hour east of Seattle, Index Washington sits on the North Fork of the Skykomish River, just above its confluence with the main channel of the Skykomish a small river that the passing train crosses over on its way across the north Cascades.  The 150 inhabitants live in the woods by the river and wake to the sights of Mount Index, Mount Baring and the vertical granite of the Upper Town Wall.

On Sunday mornings, bells ring in the town church.  Some of the residents are god fearing people. Some residents are pagans with pentacles, five-pointed stars contained within a circle. The five points of the star represent the four classic elements.  The pagans believe in a fifth element as well.    The little town in the mountains hosts a variety of beliefs.  Stories exist of ghosts, of magic and of science.
Index climbing involves blue collar science.   The 80 degree slabs involve boulder problems between no hands rests.  The routes feel extremely sandbagged.  Climbing in good conditions in Index is rare. Summer is hot with the Lower and Upper Town Walls in the sun.  Winters are rainy and there are few steep routes to climb on.  Sometimes in the fall, when the clouds sit just right, Index can be perfect.  That’s the magic time in Index and that’s when everything gets sent.

In 1984 the Department of Natural Resources granted the Robbins Company, whose equipment helped dig the chunnel between Great Britain and France, the right to test mine in Index.  Using a Mobile Miner, an enormous digging machine, the company bore a 12’ x 21’ by 278’ tunnel in the wall and removed 3,000 cubic yards of material.  Local climbers argued against the heavy machining and the Robbins Company voluntarily ceased their digging, allowing for the University of Washington Gravity Lab to use the tunnel at the Country climbing crag for research.


The fifth force may exist. Elementary particles interact with each other through four different forces: gravity, electromagnetism and  strong and weak interaction- known as “strong” and “weak nuclear force” respectively.  Tests on gravitational constant have been recorded in a deep borehole in the Greenland ice sheet, an Australian mine shaft and onboard the USS Dolphin submarine while it was deeply submerged. These tests search for discrepancies between the estimated and the actual forces, for the existence of a fifth force.  Being close to a known large mass allows for a constant in the tests.  The University of Washington Gravity Lab used the tunnel in Index to search for the fifth force. Scientists invent magic.

The vertical granite of the 600 foot Upper Town Wall hosts a number of quality free climbs.  The Davis-Holland, the easiest route on the formation at 5.10b, follows a crack line on the west face.  Next door is Rise and Fall, followed by Green Dragon, Town Crier and a host of other “5.12” routes.  I hiked to the top of the Town Wall with a seventy meter rope and dropped it down the face.  Using two mini-traxions, I rappelled down seventy meters and then climbed back up using the mini-traxions to arrest my falls.  Being alone on the wall, working through the tech nine climbing of Rise and Fall, was one of the best experiences I’ve had in awhile.  I used to free solo longer routes a lot.  Working the route, along on the wall gave me a lot of the same feelings. I enjoyed the solo time.

The local hardmen of Index are an interesting crew. Andrew Philbin’s mom belays him occasionally and almost always on his hardest sends.  When Andrew projected the tech-nine arête Amandala (5.13c) at the Lower town Wall, his mom belayed him on the rig.  With encouragement from his mommy, Andrew sent and earned notoriety in the Washington climbing community for his ascent of the “Mom”dala. Andrew’s mom believes in him.


Philbin wrote about our recon of Good Girls like Bad Boys, a 6 pitch 5.12 route off of Madsen Ledge on the Upper Wall.  “We used The Ave (5.8) as an approach pitch; not the most elegant outing even if you are fond of thorns, spiders and dirt. “ Philbin lead the first two pitches off Madsen Ledge, a pitch of 11c and a pitch of 5.12.  While Drew managed to figure out the difficult slab mantle on the 5.12 pitch, the hard climbing proved my ineptitude on this style of climbing and we retreated as darkness fell.  I vowed to return.

Mikey, the other master of Index, and I hiked past the Upper Town Wall. The technical climbing had worked me and Schaefer wanted to get back into shape.

“I’m gonna send on my last try,” I told Mikey at the base of Attractive Nuisance a route at the Outdoor Hangboard.  The route follows a steep corner.  A slab on the left side and overhanging incut granite holds on the right require drop knees, shoulder scums and wild body movement.  Initially, the route was rated 5.13.  In the new guidebook Daryl Kramer downgraded the route to 5.12c.  Mikey tried the route 8 times before he sent. It took me 9.  It’s hard to know what to believe sometimes. I do believe that I did it though.

Locals hang signs outside their houses.  No trespassing. Private Property. Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again. Index residents are known for having 12 Gauge IQs.

Built in 1898 to serve train passengers heading over Stevens Pass, the Bush House served as a hub for the small town of Index.  Mrs. Bush, the owner, greeted travelers at the the train, ringing a bell and calling out “Bush House Hotel.” The Bush House served as a hub for the town, being the only place large enough to accommodate sizeable gatherings. Index’s largest building shut down when Snohomish County revoked the hotel’s occupancy permit because of structural and public safety concerns.  The hotel’s disrepair, the poor foundation and the collapsing structure, were just part of the concerns.

Concrete tiles run perpendicular to the steel rails.  Every other tile has a scuff mark, the white blasted line where metal hanging from the train connectors gouged the tile. This is what kills people on the train luge.  Lay between tracks. Face up. Listen to the roar. Watch the sky vibrate. Hold still and the Amtrak will clear your body.  If a chain hangs from the caboose, the train luge becomes serious.  It’s possible. It just involves laying beneath the tracks and believing you’ll be ok.

1907- Annabelle stayed at the hotel while her newly married husband worked in the Monte Cristo mine. Prospectors found rich surface deposits in the area but the past few years had been less fruitful. Annabel’s husband thought he could revive the mine, make money to support his new wife and build a family in Index. While eating dinner at table 2, a group of train passengers entered the hotel’s restaurant with news of a catastrophic accident in the mine.  The rains of the past few days had flooded the mine, destroying much of the infrastructure.  “Everyone died,” they said.  Annabelle sat in shock fiddling with the silverware at her table.  She left her food, returned to room 9, packed her bags and hung herself.  Her husband returned a few days latter after narrowly escaping the accident.  When he discovered her dead, he killed himself too.  The ghost of a woman in a white dress walks through the hotel at night.  Tears run down her face and onto her deeply bruised neck.  When the hotel restaurant was open, visitors complained that the silverware at table 2 shifted while they were eating.

We started hiking in the dark and reached the top as the sun rose. Jessica Campbell, a friend from nearby Leavenworth, and I rappelled into the crux pitches of Green Dragon.  The classic Washington aid line goes free at 13- with a couple of face variations around the original aid line.  Justen Sjong and Ben Gilkinson freed the route recently and gave it modern (read not sandbagged) grades.  The last two pitches of 12c and 13a are the crux and we worked out the moves early in the morning.  But soon, the sun was over Baring. The rock heated quickly.  Our feet burned in our black shoes.  Climbing became impossible.  We retreated to the summit.

WSGS, the Washington State Ghost Society, investigated the paranormal activity at the Bush House a few years ago.  The group spent the night, setting up video cameras and tape recorders to capture EVP, electromagnetic voice phenomenon.  I’m not sure how the advanced scientific equipment worked. Probably like the fifth force testing. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur Clarke.  In the morning when they reviewed their footage, the white silhouette of a small boy appeared running near the shed behind the Bush House.  They heard his screams on the tape recorder.  Interviews with locals revealed that a boy had been murdered in the shed.   Or so the stories go.

“This is the hardest pitch in the world, “ Mikey’s yell soaked into the mist of the Upper Town Wall.  Our one headlamp jumped across the Upper Town Wall. Earlier that afternoon, Mikey redpointed the crux pitch.  He managed the third pitch, put together the fourth, and the fifth. When darkness fell, he started up the last difficult 5.11 pitch.  With a scream, the light of the headlamp levitated upward.  The mist hid the moon. The air was cold and the rock colder.  It was the magic time in Index. Mikey sent the pitch and took us through the difficult climbing to the summit. When it was my turn, I couldn’t figure out how he ascended the blank expanse of vertical rock.  The fifth force?  I pulled through and soon joined Mikey on his successful ground up ascent of Good Girls Like Bad Boys.  It had been a daunting prospect but Mikey had succeeded.  He believed.

Rain wet the trail on the hike down from the Upper Town Wall. My headlamp picked out a newt walking down the trail, I’d seen a fist sized frog and a large snake hiking with Drew.  Thumb sized brown spiders weaved webs between the trees.  Where the pagans in this town because of these animals? Why were the scientists experimenting with the fifth force in a place like Index?  What else lived in Index? I wanted to find magic in the woods.

Previous owners nailed plywood to the windows and doors of the Bush Hotel.  A small opening just pass a No Trespassing sign and above a piece of plywood, allowed entrance. I stared into the room full of dust and old couches wondering if I should go in.  The voices of dead people sang in my ear. I turned off my Ipod and the voices ended.  A little bit of the magic stopped.  I turned around, and went back to my car.  I was afraid of seeing ghosts. I was more scared of not seeing one. Finding a boring reality is more frightening than having those unknown possibilities, even dreadful ones.  I want to live in a world of imagination. I want to believe in ghosts, magic and science.

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