American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Earthquake, Washington, Mount Index

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2002


Washington, Mount Index

Chris Olson (28) was exactly where you don’t want to be when a 6.8-magnitude earthquake hits: Standing on a 12-inch ledge 130 feet up a rock wall.

“I thought I was dead,” he said. “It felt like the entire rock ledge I was on was going to peel right off the wall and take us with it.”

An experienced climber, Olson was halfway up the wall standing on a ledge and helping his girlfriend’s brother, Jim Shokes, who was about ten feet below him on a much narrower ledge. Olson was anchored to the top of the wall by a rope but was vulnerable to falling if the rock gave way.

“I was trying to belay him up to me when the shaking started,” Olson said. “The granite wall was rockin’ and a rollin’.”

Olson said Shokes yelled at him that there must be a train coming. The tracks are right below the wall, which climbers often call “Godzilla.”

“But I knew it was something more than a train,” he said. “I thought it was probably a rock slide because I’ve seen and heard them before, and it felt like that. But I didn’t hear anything.

“Then I thought Mount Rainier was erupting. I’ve worried about that because I’ve worked at Rainier the past couple of years. But I knew it wouldn’t be shaking that hard all the way up there.” That’s when it hit him: Earthquake!

“All you could do was hang on,” he said. “I could see the rock I was hanging on moving in and out. I thought it was over for me.” About 50 feet to the right, he saw the entire area being peppered with rock. To the left, about 100 feet away, a huge boulder came down the side of the rock wall and hit the railroad tracks below. Then all Olson could see was dust clouds bellowing up from below.

“It felt like forever hanging on there,” he said.

He turned to look behind him and saw an avalanche on Mount Index, where a deep slab of snow and ice slid down the mountain to Lake Serene.

“There were little dust clouds popping up all over in the woods from rock slides,” he said. “It really looked like we were getting bombed.” Once the shaking stopped, after about 20 to 35 seconds, Olson estimated, Shokes grabbed the ledge Olson was standing on.

“He pulled himself up, and we roped together and rappelled back down the wall,” he said. “At the bottom, we threw our stuff in bags and left promptly.” When they got to the bottom of the wall, Olson’s girlfriend, Mary Shokes, and his four-month-old daughter, Isabella, had just come from town to meet them. Mary had climbed the wall earlier and was walking back to town with the baby when the quake hit.

“She said she didn’t feel it, but she saw the houses shaking, so she turned around and all she could see was a big cloud of dust,” Olson said. “She didn’t know what had happened to us.”

As someone who has taught at the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, is a climbing ranger at Mount Rainier, and who works as a Safety Manager at the Mount Baker ski area, Olson thinks of himself as knowledgeable and prepared for emergencies and danger in the wilderness. This, however, caught him off guard.

After the earthquake, they decided they’d head home to check on their place. They found it in shambles. It is just a few feet from where a landslide took out some homes. But it didn’t take them long to put the experiences of the quake in perspective. They were back in Index on Monday with plans to climb the wall several more times this week.

“After all that, I feel really lucky,” Olson said. “It was scary, but it won’t keep me off the wall.” (Source: Doug Sanders, Everett Mountain Rescue Unit Washington Region and The Everett Herald, from an article by Leslie Moriarty, March 7)

(Editor’s Note: Active volcanoes, earthquakes, avalanches, and interesting weather always make the Pacific Northwest a challenging place to climb.)

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