Following Henry Custer's 1859 Route

in the Canadian Skagit


John Roper


For a dozen years or so, the goal of climbing every map-named summit in the Skagit River Drainage has been rattling around in the back of my brain, a concept fueled, I'm sure, by the pleasant persuasions of the id, “that part of the psyche which is regarded as the reservoir of the instinctual drives and the source of psychic energy…” (Webster)


My hometown is Newhalem, a small, neat, company town on the right bank of the Skagit River in Whatcom County, and the heart of what was to become the North Cascades National Park. The rushing, powerful, liquid sound of the Skagit is the white noise of my id.


The map-makers have given us about 250 named Skagit River summits just in Washington. Doing these U.S. peaks is proving to be the easier part, for me. It's the 33 named peaks up north in the Canadian Skagit that are giving me trouble.


Why? First, it's a long drive (8 hours, roundtrip, from Seattle ) just to position and return from these British Columbia peaks. Second, you can't get anyone to go with you. Why? First, it's a long drive. Second, because no one has ever heard of these peaks. Third, once you have suckered someone into going up to do a Canadian Skagit peak with you, they never want to return because of the lousy weather, the lousy rock, the lousy mosquitoes, the lousy brush, and the many lousy 5000-foot vertical gain approaches.


Imagine my glee then, when totally out of the blue, Mitch Blanton from Bellingham, wrote me, and suggested that we get together to climb Shawatum Mountain, of all things, just north of Ross Lake in the Canadian Skagit. I called him up that night.


We rendezvoused the week before for a “feel ‘em out” climb of Goblin Mountain , up the North Fork of the Skykomish. Mitch proved to be a perfect climbing partner. Lean, but not mean. Strong, but not overpowering. A good guy, full of energy and questions. And he had climbed, as the newspapers say, “almost every peak in the state.” He handled Goblin's crux (two mantle moves, followed by a lay-back, quick-three-step to a horse-mount-leg-over) with impressive finesse.




It had been six years since I'd last visited the Skagit source, so I was excited, if not fully rested when my alarm went off in Bellevue at 4 AM on June 14, 1997 for the climb of Shawatum and its northern neighbor, Mount Brice . Mitch was ready on my arrival in Bellingham at 6 AM. We crossed over the border at Sumas, then followed Canada 's HW 1 east to the Silver-Flood Exit 168, shortly before Hope. There we found the Silver-Skagit Road turning south just before crossing the seasonally significant Silverhope Creek.


Along the way, I handed Mitch an envelop from my “Canadian Skagit” packet, which contained the “Report of Henry Custer, Assistant of Reconnaissances made in 1859 over the Routes in the Cascade Mountains in the Vicinity of the 49 th Parallel .” In it was an account of the first climb of Shawatum Mountain by Henry Custer and his crew done 138 years ago!


This report was discovered at the U.S. National Archives in Washington , D.C. in the early 1980's by Harry Majors, an exacting North Cascades historian/scholar. Majors meticulously and accurately analyzed Custer's cryptic notes and pieced together the 1859 routes of this Swiss-American topographer as he surveyed along the 49 th parallel from Sumas-Lynden to the Skagit River (now Ross Lake ) to establish the U.S.-Canadian Boundary.


Twenty six miles from the start of the dusty Silver-Skagit Road toward Ross Lake , Mitch and I finally crossed the Skagit River on a one-lane bridge, where we enjoyed an impressive view south to Shawatum. In another 1.7 miles on the left, we found a day-use turnoff that once was the start of a now overgrown logging road up Shawatum Creek. It is immediately blocked by a berm at elevation 1700 feet. This point is about 8 miles north of the border and 200 miles from Bellevue . We parked and packed up here, swatting at the mosquitoes, which were just as bad as I'd remembered them from past trips to this area.




Henry Custer stood at near this same spot on August 24, 1859. He arrived here from civilization via a route up the Chilliwack River, over Whatcom Pass (where he described the view of Mt Challenger), and down Little Beaver Creek to an established, manned astronomical “Station Skagit” on the river, south of the border. With two Indians, Custer paddled north up the Skagit in a canoe from camp, while his assistants, Mitchly and Williams, took seven Indians and followed a trail upstream. At a log jam a few miles into Canada , the parties reunited. Here Custer writes:


It was now my intention to send 2 Indians in charge of the canoe back to the astro. Station Skagit , and to proceed with the rest of the party along the trail to a point from which one of the peaks on the ridge East of us could be easiest ascended. I selected… Shawatan Peak as being the highest and most isolated peak which would promise from its peculiar position the most extensive view. We pushed on very briskly and after a few hours travel, reached a good camping place on the river where the trail passes over the back of a Mt spur, descending down from Shawatan Mt which lays opposite to our camp. This spur forms here a bold promontory on the River bank and presents an excellent opportunity to ascend the above-mentioned mountain…


[The] next morning we started our journey (Mitchly, myself, and an Indian) by following the summit of the leading spur already mentioned. We found the ascent easy and progressive until we reached a locality, where the Mt sides were covered with extensive patches of Hookle berries, the largest & finest, of peculiar brownish-blue color, that could be seen. They are of excellent flavor. To withstand the temptation of a large tract literally covered with these delicious berries goes beyond the moral strength of a white man, much less that of an Indian. To halt & eat & to eat & halt is all you can do under these circumstances; and if, during an hour or two, you can manage to bring yourself…through one of these belts where these berries grow exclusively, you may say you have done well…

The ascent, when having passed the timber limit, becomes somewhat steep. Still in the main no difficulties were encountered to reach the rocky isolated summit. The bar.[ometer] indicated here a height of about 6500 ft. Beyond occasional patches of snow, the summit was free of it, the temperature cool & pleasant. Owing to the altitude and isolated position of the peak, the view was very fine in all directions. To the West, the rocky and steep summits of the Chuch-chech Mtns [Spickard-Redoubt-Custer area—the Chilliwacks] were the most prominent feature in the landscape before us… To the South the high and icy summit of No Komokean Mt [Jack] is visible. To the North, almost in Range with it, lay the steep and rocky cliffs of Hozomeen Mt, rising far beyond the average height of the ridge in which it is situated. From here excellent bearings, determining the longitudes of these peaks, can be taken. To the SE, a vast sea of peaks, ridges, and valleys is observable, apparently thrown about in utter confusion.


…The view would have been still finer and more extensive, but the country was shrouded partially in a smoky, hazy air, due to the excessive fires in the River valleys; and many peaks & Mts were only dimly visible.


After a few hours descent, we finally reached our camp again, greatly exhausted by heat & fatigue.




After Mitch read this passage to me in the car, I had a hard time not thinking of him as Mitchly, and I tried to imagine what it was like here in Henry Custer's time. Our goal was to do a clockwise circum-perambulation of Shawatum Creek, first climbing sub-summits of Mount Brice , north of the creek, then Brice (7099'), then circling south to Shawatum Mountain (7081'), finally exiting out Shawatum's west ridge, perhaps the same ridge Custer described. (See map.)


From the car park, we took the left choice of roads. The Centennial Trail (1871-1971) was crossed, first on the left (hard to spot), then the right, then the road began switch-backing into Giant Creek, higher than either the 100-foot contour interval, Canadian quad, Skagit River (92 H/3), or Beckey's International Border Area…North Cascades map shows. After alder wars on the road, we finally ended up in Giant Creek at about 3000 feet.


As we climbed up this wash, I reminded Mitch, who was in the lead here, of Custer's wise 1859 advice:


“To ascend a mountain in the easiest and best way is just as much a matter of good judgement as anything else. The following rules should guide travelers in the mountains. If starting from the foot of a range…of mountains you wish to penetrate…always select the largest stream arising in this range…and follow its course.


If however your intentions are simply to ascend a peak on the foot of which you stand, always select the longest leading spur following the direction of its summit. It will secure you an easy and gentle ascent. Never select a ravine or watercourse coming from the peak to be ascended; if you should follow one of these, you will find many difficulties in your way, consisting in sudden drops, dense bush and brush vegetation, and an increasing steepness, sometimes amounting to impracticability as you get nearer the summit.


These rules I had reason to find it well to always adhere to during all of my extensive travels in the Mts, in ascending to as well as descending from a summit.”


So we left the messy “dense bush and brush vegetation” of Giant Creek and gained the ridge to the right. The route opened up nicely as we ascended the ridge past a mining claim at 4200 feet.


Instead of fat “Hookle berries” to tempt and delight us, we were besieged by a phenomenal herd of hungry mosquitoes. Blurred clouds of these beasts hovered about us as we hurried along, swinging at them with our caps. We scrambled for the lead position, since the person in front was perceived to have about three fewer bugs around him. Mitch swallowed one sideways, and I thought for a while that no amount of coughing could dislodge one stuck in my right lung.


Climbing shirtless in the heat, Mitch offered the skeeters free lunch, as they regarded his Deet insect repellant as simply the appetizer soup. Nearly interconnecting, patterned welts adorned his shoulders.




We persevered to a pleasant double-summit at 6400 feet which we dubbed “Antimony Mountain” (300' prominence) at the head of Antimony Creek, defined by Webster as “a silvery white brittle metallic chemical…found only in combination; used in alloys with other metals to harden them. Compounds of antimony are used in medicines, pigments, matches, and fireproofing; symbol Sb.”


Without much celebration, we continued east on snow to the local highpoint, an unnamed 6602-foot peak with a rather hefty prominence of 902 feet. We referred to this as “ Pyrrhotite Peak ,” again after a nearby creek draining into Shawatum Creek. Per Webster: “any of several magnetic, bronze-colored, lustrous sulfides of iron, often containing small amounts of copper, cobalt, and nickel.” Here we stopped for a brief rest and refueling at 3 PM.


On this summit, Mitch told me of the life of English explorer, William Tillman, and gave a quote of his that became the oft-repeated motto of this trip: “Strenuousness is the immortal path; sloth, the way of death.”


With that, we dropped down 902 feet to the saddle with Mt Brice and gained the final 1400 feet to our trip's high point at 7099 feet. Brice is a bulky, broad, turkey-tail, fan-shaped mass that drops off about 2700 feet before rising to Hozomeen, the next higher peak. We finally enjoyed a decent rest here, 8 hours 20 minutes from the car. The dry summit had a broken-down cairn, but no register.


Brice lies on a ridge between 26-Mile Creek and 28-Mile Creek. These are distances from the town of Hope . There are several other “x-mile creeks” named along an old miner's trail.


From Brice, we could identify most of the Canadian Skagit peaks. Many of them were named for Englishmen or their descendants, like Wright, Finlayson, Whitworth, Outram, Dewdney, Ford, Rideout, Lockwood, Thompson, Potter, etc. There are a few Indian names too, like Shawatum, Klesilkwa, and Nepopekum. And there were several 400- and 500-foot prominent peaks that are simply a closed-contour on the map, and not named. We made plans for future explorations up here.


The most dominant mountain in the area is Silvertip, just across the Skagit River from us. At 8500 feet, it is the King of the Skagit in Canada . It was truly a beauty in the afternoon shadows and light of early summer. Even more impressive is the fact that it drops off to a 2500- foot pass at Hope Slide before rising to the next higher peak (Jack), giving it an incredible 6000 feet of prominence. Mark Allaback and I had climbed this on August 18,1988.


After a sufficient rest we spotted a small 6200-foot bump along the traverse to Shawatum that looked like a good place to make camp. Just before reaching the 5500-foot low-point leading up to the bump, we were surprised by a 150-foot vertical drop-off that blocked our way. The Skagit River Quad that we were navigating with gave no hint of this whatsoever; in fact the contours shown here were the gentlest of all on our entire traverse. We were lucky and happy to find an easy way through the cliffs to the right.


After setting up the tent and melting snow for dinner, we began doing the math on all the various ups and downs we'd endured this day, and came up with a remarkable 8000-foot vertical elevation gain, with a 3500-foot loss in 11 hours. We double-checked our figures and agreed our fatigue was justified. Sleep came easily.




Morning came annoyingly soon. Fog filled the Skagit Valley and engulfed us a few times as we boiled up breakfast. As we choked down our oatmeal, we both agreed we hated this stuff.


The apricot morning light and clouds played off the Spickard, Rahm, and Custer cluster (the Chilliwacks), which are more impressive from this vantage than from any point in Washington . The Hozomeens looked mighty mean from here.


Mitch proposed the name “ Mitchly Mountain ” for our campsite, after Custer's right hand man on the Boundary Survey in 1859. A survey station was later established NE of Shawatum after their trip, perhaps on this very spot.


As we huffed up and down two more unnamed intermediate summits (Peaks 6227 and 6340), making our way to Shawatum along the west border of Manning Provincial Park , we admired two picturesque frozen, high lakes drained by a 500-foot waterfall at the headwaters of the creek. The ultimate admiration though was for the East Peak of Shawatum, 7000-feet high and formidable from all directions.


We gave this peak a try up a new north ridge route, but were foiled about 300 feet short of the summit, with all sorts of good excuses: “the rock was rotten and 4 th and 5 th class,” “it would take too much time,” and most important of all—“it's Father's Day, which is a very poor day to die.” Mitch, a horticulturist, turned us back to happy though when he spotted his favorite flower, Saxifraga oppositifolia , a tight green cushion of tiny leaves with small, purple flowers.


We slipped around the south side of East Shawatum into a long snow couloir which led to the col between the twin summits of this duo. We were running out of steam and bravado as the skies became threatening, and jointly decided to leave the East Peak , and it's known 4 th class route alone. Too bad, in a way, since we'd come up with a good alternative name for it. Next to Shawatum, and in honor of those pesky mosquitoes, we were going to call it, “Swat ‘Em.” Alas--it swatted us.


With the last of our energy, we topped out on Shawatum summit, 7081' at 1:30. Here on top, was a peculiar, tapered, dark-green, rocket-looking, plastic, 5'-diameter, 30'-tall structure with a short single-strand antenna sticking out of its top and a small solar panel on its south side. What on Earth was that? There was also an aluminum 1971 B.C. benchmark and another collapsed cairn with no names.


We had lunch, took a cat nap, and contemplated our exit. The obvious way from the map would be to shoot straight down a 3000-foot snow couloir that went nearly all the way to the road up Shawatum Creek at 4000 feet. But we'd already dealt with the alder-nastiness on that road lower down, and from our vantage it was clear that the road had more (and bigger, oddly) trees on it than the surrounding woods. So we ended up going down the ridge just south of Shawatum Creek which proved to be a decent route, except for that anhedonic mosquito zone. 3 hours, 20 minutes down.


We delighted in the raindrops that started splattering on the windshield just as we drove out of the Skagit headwaters.