A Marked Woman and Remarkable Mountain
(USGS Mount Higgins)
Dick Kegel "The Kangaroo" boulder hops below Skadulgwas on way to Higgins JR 10.21.1984
Once upon a time, a very long, long time ago, back in legendary time, before the white man or any other Indian people, there lived in the Sauk-Stillaguamish valleys a strong and handsome Indian man. His name was "Queest Alb." He led a happy life. The land there was beautiful, and still is. There were berries and plants galore to eat. Fish and deer were plentiful.
Queest Alb was happy, but he was lonely. Then, as if the spirits wished it, from across the mountains, from the east, came a beautiful Indian woman by the name of "So-bahli-ahli." The two of them fell in love, and they began living life happily ever after. Happily, that is, until another beautiful Indian princess came up the Stillaguamish valley from the "Whulge"--the salt-water sound. She was called "Ska-dul-gwas."
Skadulgwas, by nature, also wanted a man--the only man in the valley--so she set out to charm Queest Alb. And indeed, she turned his head. His passion for her naturally made So-bahli-ahli quite jealous, and she was not the kind of woman who would stand idly by. A tremendous fight--a real "squaw-ble"--broke out between the two Indian maidens as they vied for Queest Alb's affection. It was a cat fight the likes of which has never been seen since. Hair and blood and torn clothing and even a piece of flesh or two filled the sky. The screams were deafening.
In the end, Sobahli-ahli was the victor, and Skadulgwas was vanquished. So-bahli-ahli was naturally distrustful from that moment on, and placed Queest Alb behind her so he could never be with Skadulgwas again.
Queest Alb is Three Fingers Mountain. Sobahli-ahli is Whitehorse Mountain. And to this very day as you drive the valley between Arlington and Darrington, you can still see to the north where Sobahli-ahli's fingernails dug deep scratches in Skuldulgwas (Mount Higgins, Middle Peak) during the fight, gouging out scars for eternity. Look for them.
Sobahli-ahli's scratches on Skadulgwas JR 10.15.1986
In his booklet, Indian Stories and Legends of the Stillaguamish, Sauks and Allied Tribes, first printed in 1926, Nels Bruseth tells the story a little differently: Skudulgwas wins, and the Indian man is not Queest Alb, but rather passive Quae-hae-eths --Round Mountain, but I've heard the story as told above. Decide for yourself whether you want "the other woman" to win.
Features bearing the above three names now show up on the 7.5-minute 1989 provisional USGS Whitehorse Mountain and USGS Mount Higgins quads, thanks to Harry Majors, Washington's most academic mountain historian, who resurrected these interesting legends. He had help from someone in the USGS office, however, since the Washington State Board on Geographic Names denied these names.
The Mount Higgins summits are a three-peak complex, and the first legitimate peaks of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. The western Higgins Lookout summit gives an excellent orientation to this entire valley from the Whulge to Whitehorse and beyond and is reachable by a 4.5-mile trail. The old 1956 USGS Oso, a 15-minute quad, had the name "Mount Higgins" splayed out along this 2-mile-long ridge. The new map more precisely locates Mount Higgins as the 5176-foot highest point to the east and introduces the new "Skadulgwas Peak" name on the 4985-foot middle peak of Higgins. The Forest Service lookout collapsed during the winter of 1964-65, so no name shows on the new map at the 4849-foot lookout site, even though most visitors to this area hike to this point.
Scratched Skadulwas on left, Mount Higgins on right, from HW 530 JR 03.06.1991
On October 24,1984, before I knew of the Skadulgwas story, she stunned me. Climbing Mount Higgins from the west via "the long way," Dick Kegel, Bob Tillotson and I ran into snow so low that we abandoned the trail before Myrtle Lake and went straight up the west ridge to the 4849-foot Higgins Lookout summit. Only a tilted piece of the roof of the cabin that was manned from 1926 to 1949 remained.
Dick Kegel and Bob Tillotson inspect the lookout remains 10.21.1984
From the lookout, we continued east, but were forced to lose 1200 feet to bypass the vertical north wall of the then-unnamed middle peak of Higgins. As we worked our way around it, this peak (now "Skadulgwas Peak") made our jaws drop.
It looked like a piece of counter-clockwise twisted taffy on end, pulled vertically and allowed to settle a bit, plastic almost, steep, but smooth, sporting a rounded top. The sheer north side is "impossibly steep," and the south side, the easiest route, looked very unlikely--bare, rocky, and slabby. I knew I'd be back someday to give it a try.
Skadulgwas from route to Higgins JR 10.21.1984
When the 1989 USGS Mount Higgins came out, the necessity of a visit was cinched. The North Cascades had acquired a "new" named summit--"Skadulgwas Peak"--which was not so labelled on the "old" 15-minute USGS Oso .
Since Dick and Bob and I had climbed all the way over to the highest Higgins (5142' on the old map, now 5176') and back on a snowy October day, I anticipated a quick trip to Skadulgwas/Middle Higgins on July 8, 1993 even though it would be a solo climb. But on this day, before I reached the elevation we'd driven to in 1984, I felt as though I'd been in the middle of that battle between the feuding Indian women.
The road approach started off as advertised. Turn east off I-5 at the Arlington exit on HW 530 (milepost 17). Arlington is MP 20. At MP 37 pay close attention to the odometer, and in 0.85 miles, turn left (north) on an unmarked dirt road (now labeled C Post Road in 2004). Or do as I usually do; miss the road and wait until you see MP 38, then do a U-turn back 0.15 miles to find it.
Skadulgwas from near Whitehorse Store JR 12/31/07
In 0.4 miles the Higgins road crosses the N FK Stillaguamish River and turns left. So far, so good, I thought on July 8, 1993. But 0.2 miles beyond the bridge, I ran into a series of problems:
(1) The DNR road was gated and locked! Elevation 313 feet. I'd have to climb the whole fr-higgin mountain. That meant a 2.5 mile (5 mi. RT), 1100 vertical-foot road-walk up the ridge between Rollins and Dicks Creeks to the 1450-foot trailhead. Feet already a little sore, I arrived at the trailhead in about an hour. It was unmarked but easily spotted immediately beyond a peculiar grassy lawn on the right. Here was problem 2.
(2) "Trail Closed" is what the sign said. How could that be? It looked like a fine trail, wide even, probably an old logging or mining road. I wasn't passing this up just because of a sign. About a half mile farther up this enjoyable path was the reason for the sign, and a major problem.
(3) Clearcut! Trees were jackstrawed everywhere. The trail exited pleasant second-growth woods to be buried in fallen trees, not yet harvested. The next hour was spent clambering up and down over logs and snags, swatting at bugs in the hot sun, grunting and grumbling. Bailing off course to Dicks Creek for a drink, I was wiped out by the time I relocated the trail again in old growth at 2500 feet.
That behind me, I ignored the spur trail to Myrtle Lake, skirted above a pleasant meadow on the trail, and sidehilled to a notch just north of and 200' below Higgins Lookout. Too tired to revisit this viewpoint, I left the trail here and contoured x-c ~0.15 miles east toward Skadulgwas where a small fault-cliff encouraged me to change out of running shoes into boots for a 20-foot class 3.5 down-climb.
The rock slabs of the twisting Skadulgwas obelisk didn't look any less steep as I got closer. And when one climbs alone, there's no friend to stoke the bravado and remind you that things are usually easier than they look. But I kept with my credo that "you don't stop until you can not make the next step."
How am I going to get up this? JR 07.08.1993
Ultimately the route led to the right skyline, and the steep-looking sandstone slabs weren't really so steep, and lots of little hand and footholds made the route a comfortable one. The top was soon reached, yielding that common, but most disappointing of summit discoveries: a broken-down cairn, but no register. Someone had been here, but only they knew who, or when.
From the summit, there were views down into Darrington and up the Sauk River. It was easy to imagine how this river and the N Fk Stilly were once one. White Chuck Mountain was cradled by Glacier Peak. The Seattle City Light powerline cut a very straight swath below, contrasting with the serpentine Stillaguamish River. Sobahli-ahli (Whitehorse) stood grand across the valley, fingernails still at the ready. Queest-Alb (Three Fingers) cowered behind her to the right. Salt water and the Olympics and Baker were all prominent.
On the return, I made the short side trip to the unimpressive 3515-foot Myrtle Lake. I avoided that awful clearcut by cutting high off the trail to intersect the road at a 2850-foot switchback on the Dicks-Rollins ridge where I ran across a "Skagit" steel spar pole that was prepared to yard up all those trees in the clearcut that had harassed me earlier in the day. Later during the summer of '93 a fire swept through this clearcut.
In mid-September 1994, Karen, Aaron, and I checked out this approach again, driving past a now open DNR gate to the 1450' Higgins trailhead. Expecting this nuisance to be forever gone, Howard Putter and I were surprised and miffed to find the low gate locked again on November 13, 1994 when we were hoping to drive high to snowline and ski-tour to the top of an unnamed 4200+ foot summit one mile NW of McGillicuddys Duck Pond.
The low locked gate changed our plans, but afforded us the excuse to walk the road again 2.5 miles to the 1450' Higgins trailhead to check if the trail had been improved since the previous year. And indeed, as P&P readers have reported, the trail has been resurrected. Though evidence of the burn remains, the jackstrawed logs have now been cleared. The trail connects without obstruction and is easily followed across the clearcut, traversing what seemed like quite a steep sidehill for those of us in slick-soled tennis shoes after a fresh snowfall.
There is a little controversy about the name origins in this area between friends and fellow historian-researchers, Robert Hitchman (in Place Names of Washington, 1985 ) and Harry Majors (in Exploring Washington, 1975 ). Hitchman states that Myrtle Lake was named in 1904 by Fritz Stolzenberg for a 7-year old who was the first girl to climb Higgins. Majors says Myrtle Lake was named by settler Frank Lawrence for his wife. Both agree that Dicks Creek was named for "Indian Dick" Smith who camped and fished the Stilly here.
Hitchman states that Walter Higgins homesteaded near Oso in 1887 and the peak was named in 1890 by Maliky Ryan. For several years in the 1980-90's a road sign labeled a small falls coming off Ebey Hill, just west of the award-winning bridge over the Stillaguamish, as “Ryan Falls.” Majors contends that Mount Higgins was first climbed in 1888 by a John Higgins (who lived at the foot of the mountain until 1899) along with Frank Lawrence and Al Baker. They left a Confederate flag on the summit.
Will F. Thompson, who made the first ascents of Luna and Fury, told me that the Higgins lookout was one of the first summits he ever climbed as a boy in the 1920's. His family had a cabin on the Stilly, and his mother hiked him up here.