nearly 80 years, the first ascent of the North Face of the North Peak of
Mount Index has been shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. Initially widely
disbelieved, the first ascent of the North Face, and the first ascent of
the North Peak itself were not “verified” until thirteen
years later. However, the leader of the first ascent party had misreported
the year of the climb, and even the identity of his companion. After
sleuthing around the journals and newspaper archives, and conducting multiple
interviews with the parties involved, I found that even the “ascent” was
not what it had been thought to be. I would like to share with readers of
this inaugural issue of The Northwest Mountaineering Journal a history, some
details of which are being revealed in this essay for the first time ever,
nearly eight decades after the event.
The North Face of the North Peak (5,357 ft.) of Mount Index (5,979 ft.) was first climbed in about 1929 by scoutmaster Lionel H. Chute and one of his scouts from Seattle Boy Scout troop 263. The route followed was identical to the standard route used today on the north face. (Note: the next several paragraphs, with some minor differences, were first printed in Exploring Washington, p. 87, item 79 (1975).)
Chute had made four attempts to scale this formidable peak over a period of two years. On the first attempt, with three or four other scouts, they succeeded in reaching the top of the midface snow/brush basin where sheer cliffs turned them back. They managed to leave a white undershirt tied to a pole, at their highest point, which was visible from the town of Index when viewed through binoculars.
On the second attempt Chute veered eastward across the face, but was again turned back.
On the third try, Chute and scout Dan Boone got part way up the gully to the left of the rib on the left side of the north face, but were forced to retreat.
On the fourth (and successful) try, Lionel Chute reported that he was accompanied by scout Victor Kaartinen. The full party of five scouts camped at Lake Serene, while the next day Chute and Kaartinen proceeded to climb the north peak, while Milton King, Howard S. McGee and Vernon Phillips circled the lake to climb the main south peak via the ordinary route.
Chute and the climber he later reported as Kaartinen climbed via the now standard route on the north face, their only equipment consisting of a 40-foot length of half-inch manila rope.
All went well until the cliffs above the mid-face bowl were reached. Chute managed to reach a narrow ledge about 30 feet up, from which he followed a crack 6 feet higher to a very exposed position. A rock projection gave way as Chute stood on it, but he succeeded in jumping back to safety.
To reach another ledge about 15 feet higher, he had to toss the rope up and loop it over a small rock spike. Disaster was narrowly averted here, for after Chute had climbed hand-over-hand to reach the higher ledge he discovered that two of the three strands were severed. Chute spliced the rope, brought his partner up, and the two soon reached the top of the north face.
Here they piled up a two-foot cairn of rocks, left their names and the date written on a slip of paper in a waterproof match container, and inserted a small scrub tree trunk into the cairn. By this time the three other scouts had reached the summit of the main peak, and the two groups then yelled and waved at each other.
However, Mr. Chute’s climb was for many years met with disbelief. Northwest mountaineers, who were in a position to appreciate the magnitude of the achievement, did not believe that the climb had taken place. Boy Scout administrators, on the other hand, did believe that the climb had taken place — but instead of properly appreciating Chute’s achievement, they reprimanded him for what they felt had been a reckless deed.
The Second Ascent
A subsequent attempt on the route was made in 1937 by three Seattle climbers, who placed a number of pitons during the ascent (Lionel Chute, one of those rare individuals born with a natural aptitude for rock climbing, and perhaps not being versed in their use, did not use pitons during his ascent). One of these climbers was seriously injured during a fall high on the north face. An epic rescue effort was performed by local volunteers (mostly loggers) from the town of Index (none of whom was an experienced climber), this constituting the first major mountain rescue operation conducted in the North Cascades).
The second ascent of the north face of the North Peak of Mount Index occurred in 1940 by Dr. Otto Titus Trott (1911-1999) of Seattle, and Erick Larson of Everett (it was earlier reported as 1939). For many years, Dr. Trott was my family physician, operating out of a small clinic just one block west of Broadway, on Capitol Hill. His name may not be familiar to many of today’s climbers, but he made three historically significant climbs in the North Cascades: the first ascent of the Hanging Glacier on Mount Shuksan (Sept. 3-4, 1939, with Andy Hennig), the second ascent of North Index (1940, with Erick Larson), and the first ski descent of Mt. Shuksan (March 29, 1941, via the White Salmon Glacier, with Henry Reasoner).
Dr. Trott was one of the principal founders of the Mountain Rescue Council (along with Wolf Bauer and Ome Daiber), and he was the principal medical advisor to the Council. These three individuals — these three grand old men of Northwest mountaineering — through the Mountain Rescue Council and through the establishment of The Mountaineers’ Climbing Course, have exerted a profound and enduringly beneficial influence on the subsequent history of Northwest climbing. Of the three climbs, Dr. Trott regarded the Hanging Glacier as his most important North Cascades ascent, and with good reason. This was the most difficult and most significant ice climb achieved in the North Cascades prior to the Second World War. Dr. Trott had been largely responsible for introducing European ice climbing techniques into the Northwest.
At the top of the North Face of the North Peak of Mount Index, Dr. Trott and Mr. Larson found the small pole left by Chute and his companion. Upon returning from their climb, the pair reported to all concerned parties that they had found this conclusive proof of Mr. Chute’s claims, and the “approximately 1929” climb has thereafter been generally accepted.
Uncertainty about the Date
For many years, the year given for Lionel Chute’s ascent was "1929." When I asked him (in 1973) if he could recall the exact date of the climb. He replied: “I made the climb in 1929, I think on July 4th.” He mentioned that an account had been written up in a newspaper. However, when I checked all of the issues of the Everett Herald, the Seattle Times, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for the summer of 1929, there was no mention of an ascent of North Index. During a 1983 interview, the authors of a 1983 article appearing in the June, 1983 Mountaineer annual that largely deals with other matters asked Mr. Chute briefly about his climb on the North Face of the North Peak of Mount Index. His response was that the ascent took place “on July 5, 1930 with Victor Kaartinen” (1983 Mountaineer, p. 58). The only known published photograph of Lionel Chute, taken in 1923 on the Mount Constance climbing venture, appears on page 59 of this annual, as the picture on the right (the correct caption is given in Sept. 1983 Mountaineer, p. 2).
Thus, as of the year 1983, the dates given for the Chute ascent of North Index were at variance: Lionel Chute himself first specified July 4, 1929, and then ten years later modified this to July 5, 1930.
Lionel Chute Interviews
Because Lionel Chute’s initial reports of his climb had been disbelieved by some and criticized by others, I felt that he might be hesitant to talk to me about the matter. Thus, I concluded, it would be both respectful and beneficial to my quest to approach Mr. Chute through the introductions of a supporter, Dr. Trott, who had verified his ascent. Even though I had already located Lionel Chute’s address and I could have written him directly, I met with Dr. Trott in December 1972 and mentioned to him that I was interested in contacting Lionel Chute concerning his ascent of the North Peak of Mount Index.
Some time thereafter, I again contacted Lionel Chute to see if he would consent to a tape-recorded interview. He agreed to meet with me at his West Seattle home, but on a private basis, as he preferred that the meeting not be tape-recorded. I agreed to this, and then arranged for an afternoon on which to visit with him.
I met with Lionel, and he described to me the details of his North Index ascent, as have been presented above. At first, Lionel was a bit shy, but when I mentioned to him that my own father had been a Scoutmaster in the Sierra Nevadas during the 1930s, Lionel immediately warmed up. His years with the Boy Scouts had been the happiest and most important of his life. On the walls of his living room were several photographs depicting various Scout gatherings and activities in the Olympic Mountains. To some extent, Lionel was still living in the past. The Boy Scouts had been the most significant influence on his life; and his ascent of North Index with the Scouts had been his one moment of glory.
I was surprised to learn that Lionel had taken photographs during the North Index ascent. He had, in fact, on a shelf in his living room about twelve photo albums taken during various trips and climbs in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. He showed me several photographs that he had taken during the North Index ascent. Although I myself have never climbed North Index, I knew several individuals that had, and I previously had seen photographs that were taken high on that peak.
I recognized a couple of the photographs Lionel showed me as having been taken from a great height, looking down toward the lake outlet and the forested lower north ridge of the North Peak. Narrow ledges, great exposure, brush, the central basin or bowl, the wooded ridge far below — there was no doubt in my mind that Lionel had taken these photographs high on the north face of the North Peak of Mount Index.
One of Lionel Chute’s photographs caught my eye: it had been taken on top of the North Peak of Mount Index, but not at the true highest summit. The photograph was shot looking toward the main summit ridge of Mount Index — but at the right edge of the picture there was a portion of a nearby peak, higher than the point from which the photograph was taken. My initial guess was that the photograph had been taken at the first “false summit,” and that the nearby higher promontory was the principal summit of the North Peak.
(Although the Middle Peak of Index rises to a slightly greater elevation than the North Peak, the nearby higher peak present in the photograph was too close to the viewer (and lacking a deep separating gap) to have been the Middle Peak. There were no photographs that looked like they may have been taken from the true highest summit of the North Peak of Mount Index.)
I inquired, to the effect of “Did you climb any farther than here?” or “Did you go beyond here?” (indicating the point from where the photograph had been taken). His reply was “No. We didn’t go beyond here. It kept getting higher and higher. We had to get back down before dark.”
Now you see why I have been so careful to painstakingly refer to the climb as an ascent of the north face of the North Peak of Mount Index: my tentative conclusion was that Lionel Chute did not reach the highest and principal summit of North Index. He turned back at the first false summit, situated at the top of the north face. Beyond here, the summit ridge levels off a bit, with a dip or two, followed by a second false summit of nearly the same height, beyond which a steep climb up a rocky prominence leads to the principal summit of the North Peak.
I did not pursue this topic with Lionel Chute, nor did I mention to him my tentative conclusion. I knew that, prior to Dr. Trott’s confirmatory climb of 1940, Lionel Chute’s ascent had been met with over a decade of disbelief, and that he was still a bit sensitive about this. I did not feel this would have been the proper time to bring to his attention that his climb of North Index appeared to have been an incomplete one. Lionel had been kind enough to invite me to his home to discuss his ascent of North Index. I was not about to infringe upon his hospitality by openly questioning the completeness of his ascent. This is something I first needed to discuss with Dr. Trott.
I did, however, show Mr. Chute a photograph of the north face of North Index, on which Dr. Trott had previously marked his ascent route of 1940. I asked him if he could point out his own ascent route on the photograph. Lionel Chute then ran his finger along Dr. Trott’s marked route, saying “This is the route we followed.” Dr. Trott subsequently informed me that Lionel’s ascent, the 1937 accident and rescue parties, and the Trott ascent of 1940, all followed the same route on the north face of the North Peak of Mount Index — essentially the standard route used by today’s climbers.
Second Interview with Dr. Trott
Following this interview with Lionel Chute, I again met with Dr. Trott. Trott confirmed my conclusion: Lionel Chute did not climb to the true summit of the North Peak of Mount Index but actually reached only the first false summit. I then discussed with Dr. Trott the details of his own 1940 ascent of North Index — and, in particular, as to exactly where he had found the evidence of Chute’s previous ascent. Dr. Trott then related to me his account of the 1940 climb — and described where he had found the “tin can” and “stick” left by Lionel Chute.
Dr. Trott emphasized very clearly that: (a) the can and stick were found at the first false summit; (b) Lionel Chute had told him that they had not gone any farther than the first false summit; and (c) Dr. Trott and Erick Larson themselves, in 1940, had not climbed any further than the first false summit. They had found the evidence which confirmed that Lionel Chute had indeed climbed the north face of the North Peak of Mount Index. From here, Dr. Trott and Erick Larson turned around and began their descent.
At the conclusion of that second interview, Dr. Trott graciously offered to write down and send me a detailed description of both his Mount Shuksan (Hanging Glacier) and his North Peak of Mount Index climbs. Shortly thereafter, he stopped by my home late one afternoon after office hours, and presented me with a typescript describing his 1939 ascent of the Hanging Glacier on Mount Shuksan, along with his 1940 ascent of the North Peak of Mount Index. We talked for awhile about music, and the early days of climbing in the Northwest (I learned that Sigurd Hall had been with Dr. Trott during his first attempt on the North Peak of Mount Index), and then the good doctor took his leave.
That evening, I went through the typescript, wherein Dr. Trott described in marvelous detail his Hanging Glacier and North Index climbs. In his final paragraph on the North Peak ascent, Dr. Trott mentions: “the false summit. I believe we reached the northern face summit. Whether the easy stretch to the next summit would be called the actual summit of the north face I do not remember, but if it should be, the difficult stuff is all before you reach that part. We climbed only to the summit of the north face and that’s where the stick of Lionel Chute was embedded in the can.”
This is why, when Exploring Washington was published in 1975, I wrote that “the two [Chute and his companion] soon reached the top of the north face. Here they piled up a two-foot cairn of rocks.” I did not specify that they reached the summit of the North Peak of Mount Index. I specified only that they “reached the top of the north face.” During the past 28 years, only one person — Dr. Trott himself — has picked up on this distinction.
The Date Unravels, Along With the Scout’s Identity
The exact date of the Lionel Chute ascent still eluded me. It was not until about 1990, while going through past issues of The Everett Daily Herald, searching for material on the history of the Monte Cristo area, that I came across it— “First peak on Mt. Index is conquered,” appearing on page 11, column 1 of the issue for August 9, 1927. The article is based upon a letter that Lionel Chute himself had written immediately after the climb. So Lionel Chute had been off by two years.
As interesting as the confusion over the date of the climb, Lionel Chute even went on to misreport the name of his companion. Although the companion had been reported in the 1949 guidebook as G. Tepley, Ome Daiber had told me that, from what he had learned at the time (through the Scout grapevine), Chute’s companion on the successful ascent of North Index had been Gordon Knott, (not George Tepley or Victor Kaartinen). As it turns out, Lionel Chute’s companion was not George Tepley (who did climb with him on The Brothers), nor Victor Kaartinen, nor Gordon Knott — instead, it was “Frank Hill, Eagle scout of troop 263.”
Chute and Hill, along with Scout Dan Boone, camped at Lake Serene the previous evening. At 6 a.m. the next morning (August 7, 1927), Chute and Hill set out on their climb of North Index, leaving Boone at camp to keep an eye out for their safe return. The climb was done in “twelve hours,” thus theirs was the first climb of the North Peak of Mount Index without a bivouac. Chute and Hill “arrived on top at 2 o’clock in the afternoon” and then “arrived back at the lake at 6 o’clock.” Chute mentions in the article that “It is an exceedingly dangerous climb often only a thin root to prevent a 1,000 foot fall . . . . Pictures were taken along the way and from the top.”
Lionel Chute had been mistaken, not only about the date of the North Index ascent, but even as to the name of his companion. But then, this was an event that had occurred 46 years previously, and which had involved four different attempts; so a lapse in memory is understandable.
One question still remained — why did Dr. Trott and Erick Larson not continue on, to climb the principal and highest summit of North Index? They had the time, as they had already bivouacked at a point about two-thirds up the north face. Moreover, compared to the difficulties encountered on the north face itself (getting into and out of the mid-face basin), climbing the true summit is relatively easy. It lay well within the skill of Dr. Trott, who had “a notable climbing career throughout the Dolomites and other parts of the Tyrolian Alps, the Oetztaler, St. Gotthard, and Kaiser groups; altogether over 100 ascents in difficulties from ‘difficult’ to ‘extremely difficult–lower limit’ (European Classification)” (1952 Mountaineer, p. 23).
When I was preparing the account of Lionel Chute’s first ascent for publication in Exploring Washington, I sent advance copies of the climb description to both Lionel and Dr. Trott for review. Both approved of the account. I spoke with Lionel Chute on the phone; but since Dr. Trott’s office was within walking distance of my home, I decided to visit with him in person.
After Dr. Trott read the copy, he replied: “That is correct. Lionel and I climbed to the top of the north face, but not to the highest summit.”
I then asked (circumspectly, and with discretion) if, in 1940, the highest summit of North Index appeared as if it might have offered any technical difficulties.
The good doctor then replied, “No. We could have climbed it, but we decided not to. That was not our purpose. Our purpose was to confirm Lionel’s ascent, not take it away from him.”
Dr. Trott was an honest and honorable man. In all the annals of Northwest mountaineering history, rarely recorded are statements as noble-minded as this.
|©2004 Northwest Mountaineering Journal|
|Site design by Steve Firebaugh|