Index Town Wall
  From Index to Yosemite  
  by Don Harder  

Fon Harder shares with us four stories and many personalities from the 1970s, a formative period of Yosemite influence on Northwest climbing.

First Date

It was the summer of 1971. The Vietnam War was in full swing. Nixon was still in office. I had just turned 17 and was too young for the draft. A lot of unknown climbing was out there to be had. Life was good. For some.

One of my friends, Richie Doorish (Pete’s younger brother), said that someone named Pat Timson was working on a new route on the upper Index Town Wall. I’d heard rumblings from other climbers about this guy– what a badass he was. Richie didn’t have much good to say about him so I figured he must be ok.

In 1971 few climbers were in the Seattle area and we all seemed to know each other. Weekends in Leavenworth were, after climbing, amazing parties around campfires at Eightmile or Rat Creek. We’d all seem to congregate at or near the same campsites for an evening of roaring fires and camaraderie. Mark Weigelt, Jay Ossiander, Bruce Albert, Al Givler, Carla Firey, and Julie Brugger were just a few of the people you would find at the parties. Sometimes there’d be dozens. Anyway, if you didn’t know a certain climber, you knew someone who did.

Pat Timson. Photo by Don Harder.
Pat Timson. © Don Harder.
So a guy named Pat Timson was working on a new route on the upper Town Wall. I picked up the telephone and called him out of the blue. He sounded suspiciously amenable and we agreed on the next weekend to give it a try. If I’d had any idea what I was getting into I would have hung up the phone, locked my door, and hidden in my room.

Pat had this great ’63 or ’64 pale green Volkswagen bug. We put a lot of miles on that car over the years. It finally blew a sparkplug and Pat sold it to some sucker with the sparkplug epoxied in place.

We found ourselves driving to Index on a beautiful summer day. We got a late start and carried god-awful pin and rope-laden packs for the hike up. We didn’t get to the base of the climb until sometime in early afternoon.

In 1971 the Upper Town Wall didn’t get much traffic. Only three or four routes were there and you could usually count on being the only people around; you might have been the only people there for months. The place had a surreal, peaceful feel, at least until you got to know it better.

At the base, Pat sort of nonchalantly looked at me and said he’d lead the first pitch if I wanted to lead the second. Being out of breath and obviously stupid from oxygen debt, I agreed. Several decades and a thousand pitches later with him taught me what was behind his evil offer, but this first time as a rope partner left me clueless. If I’d had any idea what was behind his generosity, I’d have grabbed my stuff and run in screaming terror down the trail.

Anyway, Pat did a good lead to a small ledge where he set up a one-bolt and tied-off pin belay. I got there and eyed his dubious anchors. I wouldn’t be the one to complain. If the anchor was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. In these days we actually trusted 1/4-inch bolts.

Pat had a friend who worked for a construction company who’d given him a bunch of construction bolts. They were even worse than the standard climbing bolts available at the time. If you’ve ever clipped one, the experience is unforgettable. Pat only put in bolts as a last resort, so if you clipped one of his, it was either a long way out from the last one or in the midst of some really nasty climbing. Either way, the bolts sucked. Unless someone has had the sense to replace them, you’ll still find some scattered throughout Washington and California.

My turn. I looked up and saw a nasty bottoming groove disappearing over a short headwall. Pat was silent as we sorted hardware. Shit, I thought, I can do this. I had a couple good aid routes under my belt. Besides, I’d read the Chouinard catalog about how to stack pins, how to make them “cunningly jam themselves” into the crack. A friend of mine, on another route, having read the same words from the same catalog, took a whipper when the pin he was standing on “cunningly” un-jammed itself from the crack.

I started up the flaring groove. Those days were before copperheads or smashies. This pitch would have been a piece of cake with some of those little do-dads but what you don’t have, you can’t use, and we didn’t have any. So I found myself doing nasty stacks with rurps and angles. I was taking my time and Pat was getting antsy down below. I’m ten, fifteen, twenty feet out and really getting nervous since none of the placements are worth much. One last, ugly placement remained before the crack formed up again. I slammed in a solid knifeblade. It sounded good and I eagerly clipped into it and stood up. I’ll be double dipped in dog-doo if the side of the crack by the blade didn’t fracture away, and off I went. I don’t remember flying past Pat but it must have been quite a sight. All that crap about pulling a pitch sounding like a zipper isn’t true. The stuff I had placed didn’t make a sound as it woofed out of the seam.

The next thing I remember is bouncing on the end of the rope twenty-five feet below our funky one-bolt and one tied-off pin belay. I’d gone fifty feet and ripped everything to the belay and was hanging on our one bolt. Pat had had the foresight to clip his Jumar to the bolt and use that as a belay device instead of belaying around his waist as was the norm in those days. Time to go down–for now.

The next day found us hiking back to the base and jugging up our fixed line to the top of the first pitch. Pat was eyeballing me from the side, really giving me the stink-eye. I don’t think he was too sure about his new climbing partner. He wasn’t about to let me slack off leading that second pitch so I had this nasty deja-vu as I racked up and headed up the pitch for a second time. This time around didn’t seem any easier. I didn’t even make it up to my previous high point before I found myself flying through the air again. This time wasn’t quite so bad; I was getting used to it.

Do you think I was nervous heading up there a third time? Duh! I could tell what was going through Pat’s mind, “What the f*** is this guy doing” and “I’m f****** glad it’s his rope.” Somehow I made it to my high point using tricks that I didn’t even know I had. One placement stands out in my mind; a ground-to-a-taper skyhook tapped into the seam. I thought for sure I was going to take another whipper but somehow it held. I made it past the spot where the traitorous rock had broken away with an extreme feeling of relief.

We went up several more pitches, doing some pendulums and granite ballet before backing off. For some reason, Pat and I never went up there again together. He went up there a year or so later and finished the route with Bob Crawford who came back with horror stories of expanding flakes and nasty overhangs. Pat called the route Abraxas.

Not My Time

Donn Heller and I had been working on a new route on the upper Town Wall between the Davis/Holland route and the Beckey route, off and on, for a year or so. In typical Washington fashion, we’d been scared off, rained off, mossed off, and just basically discouraged. This can happen in Seattle after a long rainy winter. You know how it is. In those days no indoor climbing gyms provided relief from Seattle winters .

Al Givler and Bruce Albert had worked the route for a few pitches and found some “good” nailing. Al’s assertion of “good” should have made me wary. Al had completed the first ascent of the Black Dike on the Chief at Squamish so he certainly knew what “bad” nailing was. I wasn’t sure of his definition of “good” nailing.

Donn Heller on Green Dragon. Photo by Don Harder.
Donn Heller on Green Dragon. © Don Harder.
Donn and I found ourselves driving, once again, to the Town Wall in Donn’s 60-something green VW bus that had a very artistic dragon painted on the back hatch. Donn was so proud of that piece of junk—at least until the motor went south while he was driving north. But that’s another story altogether. He was a mechanical masochist and once bought a Triumph motorcycle completely disassembled in boxes and spent the next few years trying to piece it together.

Donn was sporting a knee injury this time. Dave Anderson had dropped a rock on him while they were climbing Mt Slesse, which resulted in a summit helicopter rescue and fairly dramatic knee surgery. Knee surgery in 1972 probably wasn’t arthroscopic and probably wasn’t that great, so Donn had a noticeable limp.

Because of the knee, I ended up carrying all the gear to the base and, as it turned out, leading all the pitches. Every time I’d look to Donn for possible help, his knee would gimp up and he’d grab his leg like Danny Kaye in the old 40’s movie, White Christmas.

Anyway, the day was beautiful and sunny at Index. Not a soul was to be seen or heard at any of the climbing areas, which wasn’t unusual for 1973.

The nailing was actually really good. The route followed a crack system, which pretty much went straight up the wall. A few dicey moments occured on the third pitch with some stacks and small do-dads in the then-unpummeled cracks, which came out all too easily when Donn cleaned the pitch, but all in all, we had fun. We hauled a bag with some food and not nearly enough water. By the afternoon, it was hot. Way hot. Of course we were wearing wool climbing knickers and flannel shirts. By the time we got to the blank section on the upper part of the route, I was spent.

Donn Heller and Don Harder. Photo by Don Harder.
Donn Heller and Don Harder. © Don Harder.
I’d just read Royal Robbins’ story about his ascent of Tis-sa-ack on Half Dome with Don Peterson. In it, he talked about putting up “really good bolt ladders” where he stretched the bolts out as far as he could and drilled the holes deep enough so the bolts didn’t bottom out. So when I ran into this thirty or forty-foot blank section, I started putting in “Robbins style” bolts—a stretched out and well placed. Needless to say, after a half a dozen or so of these, I was spanked. Looking up, I could see wide cracks leading to the top of the wall that were completely filled with moss and dirt. With the sun dropping behind the hill, the view said time to go.

Donn jugged up to me and we set up the rappel. In those days we used 150-foot ropes and aluminum rappel rings. We threaded two or three bolts together and I tied the ropes and threw them down. Donn was looking down the rappel while I was putting on the haulbag. He said he thought we could make two pitches in one rappel. I didn’t argue. I should have. I guess I was just too tired.

I set off down the ropes using the “Yosemite six-biner” rappelling system. This system works great if you’ve got a lot of rope-weight below you but can get a little dodgy when you get near the end of the ropes. Hard to believe—we didn’t tie a knot in the end of the ropes. I guess we were in too much of a hurry or maybe we were just too woofed.

Near the end of the rappel, I went over an overhang and found myself hanging statically with my feet about four feet from the rock at least 300 feet off the deck. If you’ve ever rappelled over an overhang without getting some swinging momentum, you’ll understand this dilemma. Getting moving again is almost impossible. I was slowly spinning around with the haulbag pulling me over backwards, pondering what to do. Suddenly, TWINK, one of the ropes went through the brake. It happened so fast that I can hardly remember what went through my mind. That’s the closest I’ve come to crapping my pants since I was little boy. I couldn’t figure out why I was still alive, but the rappel ring had stopped the knot. This realization came over me in a heartbeat. I looked down at the end of the other rope and saw that it was about two feet from my brake hand. Not good. I had that rope in a death grip.

Things just kept getting better. With my free hand, I felt around and realized that I didn’t have any biners or Jumars. Everything was with Donn at the rappel station. I must have said something out loud because the next time I looked up, I saw something whizzing down the rope at me. Donn had clipped a biner on the rope with four or five biners clipped on to it and let them go. I put my head down and held onto the rope for all I was worth. The biners hit my upper hand and instantly blood started to run down my arm.

Eventually I discovered that my Jumars were clipped to the back of my swami belt and managed to get myself attached to the rope. Somehow, Donn and I managed to get me swinging enough to get to the rock and reach the belay station.

We finally reached the bottom. Flat ground never felt so good.

At least six months or so passed before we came back and finished the last pitches of the route.

You just never know when your time is up. A few years before this, my best friend was killed at Castle Rock. He took a 120-foot fall when he came unclipped from the rope. He was by far the brightest star of the group of us that became dirtbag climbers in the 1970s. For the next ten years Washington seemed to have a period of natural selection. Every year climbers died and not just the weak or lame. More often then not, the adventurous and strong seemed to meet their fate.

From my perspective I could see no reason why I wasn’t another statistic. I guess my time had not yet come.

Not too many years later, Donn was killed descending Asgaard Pass after climbing a winter route on Dragontail with Cal Folsom. He never did get that Triumph running.

The Edge of Light

El Cap
Yosemite’s El Cap.
In 1976 we experienced a glorious fall in The Valley. A contingent of people from the Northwest was there. Some of us seemed to be there every season and there were some who would show up for a season and we’d never see them again. A few of us definitely fit in to the former category. We needed to get real lives in the real world (which would happen all too soon) but for now we were living on the fringes of society. I think Eric Beck’s statement says it best, “On either end of the social spectrum, there lies a leisure class.” We were definitely on the lower end of the spectrum and we were definitely part of a leisure class.

Most of us had had hugely successful climbing seasons leading up to this fall. Hugely successful climbing seasons for Northwest climbers usually meant that: 1) they survived, 2) they didn’t get injured, 3) they didn’t have to work, and 4) they weren’t so burned out that they stopped climbing.

Pat Timson and I found ourselves climbing together once again. We were really punishing ourselves. One day we started at the Reed’s Pinnacle area moving on to the Cookie Cliff area and did almost a dozen different difficult crack climbs. We did the Enema crack. We did off-widths. We did it all. We were trying to cram in as much quality climbing before descending back into another gloomy Seattle winter. You can relate.

One of us had the bright idea to do the Steck-Salathe on Sentinel Rock. While not the hardest climb around by any means, by God, it’s one of the burliest. They rate the Steck-Salathe 5.9, but if you’re a 5.9 climber and go up on it unprepared, you’re for-sure going to die, or at least have an incredible epic.

Both of us had done the route years before with other partners so we knew what we were getting into. Pat had done it with Pete Doorish and had a mini-epic. I’d done it in 1973 and had barely made it back to camp. Sounded like fun to me.

We hadn’t really decided that we were going to try and speed-climb it—it just sort of happened. We took a rack of half-a-dozen or so nuts knowing that there was going to be some fixed stuff where we needed it. We took only one rope which I really hate doing on something this big because if something happens, descent is difficult. We were ready.

We left Camp 4 at 6 a.m. and walked over and up to Sentinel. We may have walked, but we walked REALLY FAST. We never broke into a run but we weren’t far from it. I was in front of Pat when we left the Four Mile Trail at the all-year stream, which leads to the base of Sentinel. We were about 300 feet or so from the trail when, all of a sudden, I was swarmed with yellow-jackets. In about two seconds Pat and I were fifty feet down the hill. We took these huge leaps through the dirt and talus. I was slapping at myself; Pat was slapping at himself. I don’t remember how many stings Pat got, but I got a bunch, with half a dozen in the middle of my back. We were wasting time. The yellow-jackets were bypassed and we finally arrived at the base of the climb.

We couldn’t think of anything else to do so we just started climbing. We simul-climbed the whole route, changing leads every three or four pitches. The first person would clip one or two pieces of protection every pitch. The second would collect it and we’d meet when the leader had nothing left. At least this way, when one of us fell and pulled the other off, they’d have an easier time collecting our bodies.

We got to the top of the Flying Buttress without incident. Pat took the lead at this point and did the scrappy little pitch to the slab above. I started climbing without the security of a belay and climbed the scrappy little pitch myself.

The slab pitch just below the Narrows merits mention. I distinctly remember this pitch from the first time I did the route years before. It has what I think is the crux of the route. You’re on a slab, thousands of feet off the deck, climbing funky little seams with little or no protection. At one spot you have to move from one seam to another and this, I think, is the crux. Pat was somewhere above when I neared this section. I actually yelled up to him and asked him for a belay, the only belay we did on the route. He obliged. I fell. I was wearing Robbins shoes, which were great for wide cracks but not so hot for slabs. If Pat hadn’t given me a belay we both would have pitched.

The Narrows is way-cool. You’re standing in a chimney on a flat ledge that goes into the darkness twenty or so feet. The chimney is four feet wide so you have to climb with your back against one side and feet against the other. Did I mention the yellow-jacket stings on my back? The chimneys were bliss. About fifteen feet up this chimney it abruptly pinches off. The outside edge turns to off-width. About ten feet inside the chimney is a wide spot into which you can just fit your body. You literally tunnel your way through this labyrinth to get to the top of the pitch.

The rest of the climb was uneventful. I got stuck in one short little chimney section which, with my much narrower frame of the time, would not bode well for me trying it again today.

We “walked” back to Camp 4 and dropped off our stuff. It was just after noon. We’d done the approach, route, and descent in 6-1/2 hours.

We took the shuttle to Yosemite Village where a group of Washingtonians greeted us asking why we hadn’t done the climb. We said we had. They didn’t believe us. We didn’t care.

Setting the Record Straight

It wasn’t me. I was there, I saw it happen, but it wasn’t me. I’m not saying that I wasn’t capable of something like this, but this time I was innocent.

I’m tired of people coming up to me and asking if I did this thing. I’ve had total strangers come up to me in odd places, thousands of miles from Washington, and ask me to repeat my story and admit my guilt. No can do.

The setting was Camp 4 somewhere around 1974. A bunch of us from Seattle were camped near the Upper Falls Trail in sites that don’t exist any more. Camp 4 seemed much larger then. The border went from the road on one side to the Upper Falls Trail on the other to the parking lot on the east end to a few hundred feet out on the west end. You could even drive to your site. Not until 1975 did they close the road into the campground to cars.

We had our own sites. We had our own styles. We had our own attitudes. The “locals” always held non-Californians at arm’s length, and we were definitely not locals. We’d show up every spring with our pasty white trout-belly tans and hands like play-dough. Within a few days we’d be lobster red, limping, and bleeding. Within a week we’d be peeling and crippled. Within a month we’d be tanned and honed.

Pat Timson and I were climbing together this season. We started out on the usuals: Stone Groove, Lunatic Fringe, Five and Dime, Olga’s Trick, Catchy, Catchy Corner, etc. etc. It was almost a ritual. Back then I could do these climbs blindfolded. Now I can barely make it to the base.

In those days we wouldn’t do a lot of climbs because they were too easy—or at least we thought they were. Only recently have I gone back to The Valley to do some of the wonderful climbs that I ignored. What an education. I am stricken with retribution for the arrogance of my youth.

The climb d’jour was Reeds Triple Direct. Not just the first two pitches as most people do, but all three. Steve Roper’s old green guide describes this climb as “obligatory for Yosemite hard men” and we definitely felt like we fit into this category. Neither of us had ever done the third pitch.

Pat asked if Bob Crawford could come along. I thought, “why not?” so the three of us headed up to the base. At this time, Bob was a pretty good face climber but he didn’t have a lot of confidence in cracks. That didn’t stop him from trying. He would thrash himself again and again in these smooth Yosemite cracks. He was like a dog that can’t help going after porcupines—he knows the quills will hurt but he just can’t stop.

I led the first pitch which starts as a 1-1/2 inch crack widening into a 3-1/2 inch leaning fistcrack. We had just started using nuts for protection so we were carrying a mix of pitons and hexes. I led the first pitch, probably slamming in a couple pins and slotting a couple nuts—I don’t really remember. Only on the third pitch did I distinctly remember the pro or lack thereof. I belayed Pat and Bob up to the tree at the bottom of the second pitch.

Pat led the second pitch. The second pitch is a long painful hand-crack that widens and narrows and leans making it difficult to rest so you basically have to just grunt your way up without respite. The pitch ends on a huge ledge, at least forty feet by fifteen feet. He belayed the two of us up and I could tell that Bob was having difficulty. Pat wasn’t cutting him much slack. Pat and Bob had a special relationship. Who was the alpha dog was never in doubt.

I started up the third pitch. Reeds Pinnacle is a huge flake that leans against the main wall. At the top of the second pitch of the direct route, where we were, you can tunnel behind the flake and end up at the Left Side of Reeds, at least thirty or forty feet away. We were going straight up but had to start up the same wide chimney. This is a feet-against-one-side and back-against-the-other-side chimney that drops into black nothingness below. You can’t see the bottom but you feel the cold “devil air” blowing up from the darkness. The chimney narrows into a ghastly, hard to protect off-width at the top. I grunted and groaned up to the crux, pounded an inch-and-a-quarter angle into a bottoming crack on the main wall, and tied it off. The pin was only in about an inch. I remember it distinctly, even after thirty years. They only rate this 5.10a but you’ve got to remember, this is Yosemite old school 5.10a, and off-width to boot. If you fall out at the crux, you’re going to launch into a black abyss. There’s a reason this last pitch doesn’t get done very often.

I thrutched and thrashed and flopped onto the top ledge with my heart beating faster then I would have liked. After setting up a belay and belaying Pat up, I kicked back to enjoy the view. You could hear Bob’s grunting and groaning echoing up the chimney. I don’t think he was having fun. By the time he got to the crux, he was hyperventilating. I leaned over the edge to watch how he was faring. In a totally desperate voice, he yelled, “Tension, tension.” I don’t remember if Pat responded and Bob again said, “Take up the f***ing rope!” Instead Pat started feeding rope out. I watched with horror as slack rope looped below. Bob panicked and started pleading. Pat fed out more rope. He must have fed out twenty feet or so which would have resulted in a NASTY drop into the black chimney.

Any normal person would have either grabbed the rope or fallen. Not Bob. He looked up, took a couple of loud deep breaths, clenched his teeth in to a Satan like grimace, and launched up. Bob made an incredible display of control that I would never have believed possible. He finally hauled himself onto the ledge and had some choice words to say to Pat. Pat’s only response was, “I knew you could do it.”

The rest of the season was anti-climactic. From that point on, Pat’s and Bob’s relationship seemed to fade. I’m not sure they ever did any significant climbing together again. Hard to believe.

During the 1950s and 60s, rock climbing in America came of age in Yosemite. Inspired by tales of the granite crucible, Northwest climbers made pilgrimages to The Valley and explored local walls to put up their own Yosemite-style climbs. In western Washington, their testing ground was at Index, where in the 1960s climbers like Fred Beckey, Alex Bertulis and Dan Davis pioneered the first wall climbs in the area. In the 1970s, a new group of young climbers began making their mark at Index. Don Harder recalls those times

“Weekends in Leavenworth were, after climbing, amazing parties around campfires at Eightmile or Rat Creek.”

“If I’d had any idea what I was getting into I would have hung up the phone, locked my door, and hidden in my room.”

“These were the days when we actually trusted 1/4-inch bolts.”

“What you don’t have, you can’t use, and we didn’t have any.”

“All that crap about gear pulling [on a fall] sounding like a zipper isn’t true. The stuff I had placed didn’t make a sound as it woofed out of the seam.”

“Suddenly, TWINK, one of the ropes went through the brake... I looked down at the end of the other rope and saw that it was about two feet from my brake hand. Not good.”