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Probable Cornice Collapse, Climbing Alone — Washington, Mount Index


Washington, Mount Index

On March 23, 1982, Alan Van Lue (29) left his vehicle at a KOA campground near Mount Index. On March 27, when he had not returned for it, the campground management notified the sheriff. His family was located through a license check in an adjacent county but were unconcerned because they considered him highly competent and able to take care of himself. The ensuing search located his high camp in the Index-Persus Saddle, where a stove, a bivouac sack, and various other pieces of gear were found intact. Repeated searches of the mountain revealed nothing. The search was suspended but, over the next several months, Sergeant John Taylor flew the area repeatedly searching for clues; he found none.

In late July, a climbing party reported seeing an ice ax lodged on a small ledge on the East Face, about three meters below the ridge line and very close to the summit. A search party quickly located a day pack about 30 meters below the ice ax. The pack was torn and the contents strewn about: these included a lot of down gear, Van Lue’s wallet and money, a roll of undeveloped film, a lens cap, and various pieces of hardware. The developed film included a sunset picture from the Index- Persus Saddle and a beautiful telephoto taken earlier that day or the day before of the East Face of Mount Index from the northeast. In this picture, the large cornices on the summit ridge are clearly visible.

Sergeant Taylor continued to fly the mountain from time to time, searching all major gullies repeatedly, with no results. On August 20, a hiking party found the victim on a residual snow field just above the upper end of Lake Serene. When Taylor flew in to pick up the remains, he determined that the body had recently hit the snow field with impact and that it had probably been dislodged from the brush in one of the gullies above by rotor-wash from a chopper. (Source: George Sainsbury, from a personal interview with Sergeant John Taylor, Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department)


The weather at the time of the ascent was absolutely perfect—clear and crisp—not too cold but cold enough to eliminate avalanche problems; it was not windy. Taylor suggests one possible scenario—that Van Lue set his pack and ice ax down and approached the edge to take a picture. He then either broke through the cornice or slipped over the edge. A subsequent light snowfall obliterated the tracks and covered the ice ax and pack so they could not be seen from the air. Since the location of the fall was north of the main summit and the common route is from the south, climbers did not cross that way until the remainder of the cornice and snow field had melted out, tumbling the ax and rucksack over the side. (Source: George Sainsbury)