Mt. Custer is the chossiest peak I know of in the Cascades. Total choss. Ruler of chossdom. Sisyphus' choss purgatory. Mt. Chosster.
Mt. Custer is in the far north of North Cascades National Park about a mile south of the Canadian border. The peak is due north of its loftier neighbor Mt. Spickard and about a mile southwest of Mt. Rahm. Rahm and Custer reside on a long, high ridge called Custer Ridge. Apparently, according to Beckey though, Custer Ridge is the whole Chilliwack-Skagit River watershed in that area. I'm not sure what he means by that.
The peak is among the Washington Top 100 (ranking approximately 40th on that list depending on the qualifying parameters). As such, the peak sees a fair amount of visitation. The summit offers astounding views for the area--especially of Silver Lake, Mt. Spickard, the Mox Peaks, and Mt. Redoubt. The easiest route to it is not all that difficult, but the loose rock makes it less aesthetic.
So why is the rock so despicable? It's mostly volcanic rubble (breccia). It's greatly fractured and oxidized, making for some nice red coloration but also some tedious scree slopes. And yet, scree is not everywhere. Two glaciers mantle the north side. The small Custer Glacier reaches high toward the summit while the larger Maselpanik Glacier fills the cirque lower down.
The peak was named after Henry Custer. As a topographer, Henry Custer surveyed the U.S.-Canada border in this area in the 1850s. The first recorded ascent was in 1958 (Frank Dawe, Roy Mason, and Karl Teichman).
Mt. Custer lies at the heart of the Chilliwack Mountains, which extend into Canada. Although a one-day (car-to-car) climb could be possible, it really is a two-day climb. Or if you have the means to stay another day you can visit other mountains nearby. There are two approaches worth mentioning here. One will keep you in the U.S. but it is longer. The other requires an entry from Canada. I have only the done the latter. See below for the descriptions for these.
Silver Creek Approach
Note: I have not done this approach so can only speculate and paraphrase information found in Beckey's Cascade Alpine Guide. This approach leads to the east side of the mountain at Silver Lake.
Hire or rent a boat for a trip up Ross Lake (or down Ross Lake if coming from Canada). A water taxi can be hired at Ross Lake Resort at the south end of the lake. Call (206) 386-4437 to reserve the taxi. See their information page for directions on how to get to the resort. The resort is located next to Ross Dam. The trail to the dam is 13.5 miles east of Newhalem and 29.5 miles west of Washington Pass on the North Cascades Highway (SR-20).
Have the taxi drop you off at Silver Creek. The mouth of Silver Creek dumps into Ross Lake (1,600 ft) about two miles south of the Canadian border. Expect the trip from the resort to the creek to take at least two hours. It is about 25 miles.
There is apparently a trail up Silver Creek on its north side. As the crow flies it is six miles from Ross Lake to Silver Lake east of Mt. Custer. The trail ends in 2.5 miles (c. 2,900 ft) at a cabin. The route, now cross-country but there may be blazes, then crosses several slide slopes and forest slopes high above the creek. You want to take the northerly fork of the creek, which splits at 3,440 ft. From here on stay close to the stream (outflow of Silver Lake) but avoid cliffs as necessary. Above about 4,000 ft the terrain should be semi-open so you should be able to see where you're going (unless it's foggy).
The whole time you're doing this approach you'll be asking yourself why you didn't go the Depot Creek way.
Depot Creek Approach
This is by far the easiest approach to the mountain once you leave your car. Getting to the trailhead is another matter. Note: If entering by car from the U.S., it is advisable you tell the customs agent at the border that you are on your way to climb in Canada. Make up some Canadian peak if you have to (Slesse Mountain is a good choice). Don't tell the agent you're using Canada to access peaks in Washington. This kind of unsanctioned/unpatrolled crossing is technically illegal. It is unlikely the agent will know where Mt. Custer is, but you never can tell. It's your typical "Don't Tell When Asked" policy.
First find yourself in Canada driving either east or west on the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy 1). Get off of that four-lane behemoth at Sardis (Vedder Road). This exit is about 30 km east of Abbotsford or 45 km west of Hope. Drive south through town for three or four miles (last chance to gather supplies except for a mom and pop on right outside of town). The road will turn left at Chilliwack River Bridge (Vedder Crossing?). Mileages are measured from this turn. Follow the paved road for a long time. Pavement ends in 25 miles at the north end of Chilliwack Lake where there is a new provincial park on the right. Continue straight ahead. There may be a "Road Closed" sign in the road. Simply drive around this. I'm not sure its intent. It's been there both times I've been up there. The road continues along the east side of the lake. BE PREPARED FOR POTHOLE HELL! I think this road is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the Most Potholes per Mile of Road. Low-rider cars highly not recommended.
At 32.6 miles at the southeast end of the lake Depot Creek Road forks off on the left. (There is another fork just before this fork that you don't want to take; so be sure you get the right one.) The initial bit of road looks overgrown and is somewhat rocky. A normal car should be able to make it, however. In about 0.8 miles a short spur on the right leads to a parking area (c. 2,200 ft). If you have a 4WD vehicle, you may be able to continue another 0.8 miles to a new washout. (Before the October 2003 floods, you could drive past this washout for another 0.4 miles or so.). If you do continue to this washout, hope that there's not another vehicle parked up there as there is only enough room for one vehicle to turn around and park. You may have to back up a good distance to find a place to turn around. Advise you turn the car around when you get there. Don't wait until you get back.
From the washout, continue along the overgrown road for several hundred yards to a junction. The rightward road goes over an old bridge. Stay straight. In another 100 yards or so past the junction a road goes left into thicker forest. THIS IS THE CRITICAL JUNCTION. You must go left here. DON'T continue straight on the flat road.
The road in the woods climbs for about 100 yards to a T-junction at a higher overgrown road paralleling the one you left moments before. Go right (southeast) and follow the road through mud bogs for about two miles to the international border. Canadian logging took place right up to the border. On the other side is nice old growth. It's like night and day. The trail comes to a boundary obelisk and shortly thereafter a North Cascades National Park register box.
In 2004 the continuing trail up Depot Creek was full of new windfall. These will slow you down. You still have about 5.5 miles to go to get to the standard camp at Ouzel Lake. The first 4 miles is relatively flat and uninteresting. All that changes when you arrive at one of the most spectacular if not THE most spectactular waterfall in Washington: Depot Creek Falls.
The trail crosses two brushy swathes (some awkward steps) then makes its way up and through a streamcourse before arriving in a roar at the base of the falls. Be quick or be prepared to get wet from the spray. The "trail" approaches a wet 8-ft rock step on its left then climbs up it on that side. There may be a handline here. It is easier to climb up than down. You may wish to have 20m of rope on hand to get down this on the return. A big boulder allows for an anchor. It can be downclimbed but it isn't easy because it is so slick. Once past that step you will then be in the full brunt of the spray for the next 100 feet as you scramble slabs and boulders directly below the slabby plummeting falls. The trail continues on the left side of the falls up a steep break into the brush above (look for a permanent handline).
This part of the trail is the steepest of the day. With grunts and groans, make your way up the east side of the falls. The trail angles across a talus slope for a short stretch. It can be lost here so keep keen. Above this the trail becomes obvious again all the way to the top of the headwall (4,800 ft).
A direct route to Custer's summit can be done from the top of the headwall. This will be described in the next section. If camping in the area (to do other peaks as well), then read the next paragraph.
Atop the headwall, the trail descends a few feet then crosses swampy ground leftward (east) to the east side of the flat area. Keep on the east side of the valley between talus and the stream for about 0.5 miles until the trees end. The next stretch used to be very brushy but the October 2003 floods changed all that. Now all you have is a rocky scoured streambed to deal with. There is one chancy area where the creek nears the bank on its east. Once past that, the continuance to Ouzel Lake is open but exhausting (lots of many depressions and boulders to walk through and around). There are several sandy campsites available at the north end of the 5,700-ft lake. From the lake, continue to the summit by way of the South Ridge Route.
Direct Route to Summit
This is the route you'd want to take if you've decided to try climbing the peak car-to-car in a day. Instead of continuing from the top of the falls headwall (c. 4,850 ft) to Ouzel Lake, leave the creek and climb eastward up Custer's west slopes. The slopes are semi-open at first, turning to alpine at about 6,200 ft. There will be minor cliffbands to climb around but it shouldn't be harder than Class 3. Keep climbing up until you reach the obvious SW basin (c. 7,700 ft) below the summit. Continue up to the 8,260-ft notch immediately south of the summit then follow the remaining chossy South Ridge to the summit.
Time from car to lake = 5-6 hours; Distance = 8-9 miles depending on where you park; Gain = ~3,500 ft. Time from car to summit by direct route = 6-7 hours; Distance = 8-9 miles depending on where you park; Gain = ~6,100 ft.
Mt. Custer is located within North Cascades National Park. As such, standard park policy applies. Leave no trace; take no natural objects back with you. The Park Service would like you to obtain a permit for the area. Yet, a permit is not so easy to obtain unless you don't mind going out of your way to get one in the park offices in Sedro Wooley or Marblemount. If you'll be coming from the north via Canada, you may not be going anywhere near those offices. I'm not sure why the don't allow for self-issue permits at the border register on the Depot Creek Trail. It's not like you're going to see many people while in there.
I believe a Trail Park Pass is required at the Ross Dam Trailhead on the North Cascades Highway. No parking permit is required for the Depot Creek Trailhead.
When To Climb
The best time to climb Mt. Custer is May through the first signifcant snowfall of Autumn. The earlier in the season the more snow you'll have to contend with (this could be good and bad depending on what it covers). The later in the season the icier the glaciers will be. However, crevasses are more obvious later in the season.
For the Silver Creek Approach, if you can make it all the way to Silver Lake then the best camping is there. Otherwise, I can't say.
For the Depot Creek Approach, the best camping is at Ouzel Lake. Mt. Custer can be climbed from that lake in a day. However, if you would like to add Mt. Rahm and Mt. Spickard to your itinerary and you are not speedy like we were, you may do well to transfer your camp to the 7,380-ft Depot Creek-Silver Lake saddle. It will take about two hours to climb from lake to saddle.