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Climbing Chief Mountain

There's still skulls on the summit of this ancient vision quest site

R.gif (924 bytes)ising abruptly out of the northern plains on the northeast side of Glacier National Park is a most impressive tower; Chief Mountain. While not one of Glacier’s particularly high peaks, (9080’ on the map, but 9056’ according to the survey marker on the summit), it is a spectacular mountain nonetheless. Besides its obvious visual amenities, it holds considerableEastChief.jpg (23139 bytes) additional allure to those interested in the historical and cultural aspects of the area.

Stories vary as to how the mountain got its name. Back in the old days when the Blackfeet Indians were more given to killing tourists than attempting to profit from them, their war bonnets consisted of upright eagle feathers, and the mountain does bear a resemblance to one of those traditional bonnets. Also, when viewed from a distance either north or south, it appears to be in a position of prominence, like a chief leading the tribe. Many of the peaks on the east side of Glacier were named by James Willard Schultz and a few companions, but I have seen no references as to his naming Chief Mountain. A bit more about Schultz; since anyone interested in the history of north central Montana and the Blackfeet Indians will find his writings fascinating. Schultz was one of a long line of relatively affluent white Easterners who have come to Montana seeking adventure, but he came earlier than most, led a fascinating life during his stay, and left a lasting legacy during his subsequent career as an author. He arrived at Fort Benton in 1877, became associated with trader Joe Kipp, and moved to Kipp’s trading post at Fort Conrad, at the confluence of the Marias River and the Dry Fork Marias. This was in the heart of Blackfoot country, and Schultz soon became acquainted with the natives. Not only that, he wound up marrying into and was adopted by the tribe, and accompanied them through their nomadic travels seeing things that very few whites were privy to. Not only did he record their everyday life, but accompanied them into battle with other tribes as well as on the hunt for the rapidly disappearing buffalo. A professed atheist, he listened to and wrote down much of the Blackfoot beliefs. He later wrote in the neighborhood of sixty books, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in that sort of thing, which I trust includes most who are reading this article. His stories chronicle a vanished way of life, from the standpoint of a first-hand participant. Throughout his stay with the Blackfeet, Schultz carried on a correspondence with, among others, Forest and Stream magazine. His writings attracted the attention of George Bird Grinnell and other eastern conservationists. Grinnell visited Schultz in Montana, and together they explored and named many of the features of what became, largely through Grinnell’s efforts in Washington, D.C., Glacier National Park.

It was Schultz’s writings that probably first kindled a fascination with and desire to climb Chief Mountain in me, finally brought to fulfillment on August 9, 1999. He makes brief mention of a local legend involving bison skulls on Chief Mountain. Apparently, at least one early-day native carried a skull to the summit, ostensibly for use during a vision quest. For those unfamiliar with this practice, most Plains tribes included a vision quest as a rite of passage for males entering adulthood. They would travel alone to some remote spot where they would fast for a number of days. Hopefully, they would receive a vision involving a creature or other talisman that would provide them power and protection during the rest of their life, usually referred to as their "medicine". Another mention, and possibly the source of the legend regarding a bison skull on the summit of Chief Mountain, comes from the memoirs of Henry Stimson. He was an early-day explorer of the area that is now Glacier Park, and in later life became Secretary of State for President Hoover. In 1892 Stimson and a couple of companions climbed the imposing east face of Chief Mountain, and found the remains of a bison skull at the top. Further mention of this is included in the fascinating book "A Climbers Guide to Glacier" by J. Gordon Edwards. A college biology professor and truly remarkable mountaineer who spent summers in Glacier as a Ranger/Naturalist, Edwards and his wife Jane, plus companions, climbed most of the peaks in the park during the forties and fifties which resulted in the aforementioned book. According to Edwards, it was a Flathead brave who left the bison skull on the summit. This seems plausible, since the Blackfeet felt the mountains were inhabited by inhospitable spirits, and generally preferred the neighboring plains. Imagine the fortitude required to cross the Rockies alone into enemy territory, not to mention carrying a bison skull to the summit of Chief Mountain and fasting there for several days! This ancient warrior must have been an exceptional individual, and I hope he found what he sought.

It wasn’t a search for visions or medicine that compelled me to climb theOn the top.jpg (18689 bytes) Chief (at least I don’t think so!), but I find this sort of history fascinating. Besides an appreciation for wild and scenic places, I get a visceral charge out of knowing that I am retracing the steps of history, standing in the same spot that a particularly driven ancient stood, and viewing a spectacular landscape that remains largely unchanged from what he saw. Say what you will about ancient, or even not-so-ancient beliefs, but this strikes me as "Good Medicine".

The Blackfeet still view the area around Chief Mountain as sacred, and in recent years the reservation land below the mountain was closed to non-tribal use. This complicated access, since the shorter routes all crossed tribal land, requiring a longer approach through Glacier National Park. I followed a route through the Park, which I will detail shortly, but in my explorations I noticed that signs posted on some of the access roads (and I use the term road loosely) that previously indicated they were closed to non-tribal use had been changed to say "Camping by non-tribal members is prohibited". I checked with Park Rangers about this and they indicated that the reservation area was still closed to non-tribal use, but upon my return a lengthy series of further calls to various tribal agencies revealed that this is no longer the case. As the signs indicate, camping is prohibited, but hiking is OK as long as you are in possession of a Tribal Recreation/Conservation License, available at the Tribal Offices in Browning or anywhere in the surrounding area where Tribal Fishing Licenses are sold (which includes most sporting goods stores in the vicinity). They said that they may still close the area at certain times due to ceremonial activity in the area, which will be indicated by posting signs, but generally speaking it is open to public hiking. This is a good development for anyone interested in climbing Chief Mountain, since it carves a number of strenuous miles off the trip.

Make no mistake, though, no matter your choice of route by the time you reach the summit, you will be aware that you have engaged in some serious calorie expenditure, although as mountain climbing goes Chief Mountain is not considered difficult. According to the previously mentioned book "A Climbers Guide to Glacier National Park", it is mostly Class 2 and 3 (strenuous but not dangerous) with the possible exception of some Class 4 (if you fall you are in a world of hurt) along the summit ridge. No technical climbing equipment or expertise is required, just a functional set of legs and lungs, along with a healthy degree of motivation and desire. Elevation gain is about 3500’, varying slightly with your choice of route, as does the distance, which runs about 4.5 to 8.5 miles (one way).

All of the practical routes are reached via the Chief Mountain Highway, which departs US 89 just over four miles north of Babb. The route I followed is entirely in Glacier National Park. Although it is the longest of several practical approaches, it makes up for it with gradual and steady elevation gain, as well as gorgeous scenery (but then none of the other approaches could be considered ugly!). It follows the trail up Lee Ridge to Gable Pass, and then cross-country below the Papoose and Ninaki (or for those not troubled by political correctness, the Squaw) to the west side of Chief Mountain. The Lee Ridge trailhead is not well marked, but is not difficult to find if you know where to look. About 1.75 miles after the Chief Mountain Highway enters Glacier National Park it crosses Lee Creek. It then gradually ascends to Lee Ridge 1.5 miles further northwest. This is a fairly broad ridgetop, but watch carefully along the south side of the road and you will spot a reflector nailed to a tree alongside a trail disappearing into the timber. There is nowhere to park right at the trailhead, but there is a pull-out about 200 yards further west with ample parking space. About a mile past the trailhead you reach the U.S./ Canada border crossing, so if you come to that, turn around a keep a closer eye on the south side of the road. Despite indications in some trail guides that the Lee Ridge trail is not maintained, it had been recently cleared when I used it, showed signs of considerable maintenance, and was in excellent condition. There are some remote weather sensing stations above timberline along the ridge, which could account for the apparently increased degree of trail maintenance. For the first three miles or so the trail passes through typically thick vegetation, first lodgepole pine giving way to mostly fir with thick undergrowth, and then whitebark pine as you approach timberline. While not particularly scenic, if it is a hot day you will appreciate the shade and coolness provided by this lush forest, not to mention the gradual ascent of the trail. After gaining about 600 vertical feet in three miles, the ridgetop opens up to spectacular views to the north of the Belly River, including glimpses of Cosley Lake nestled below Bear Mountain. Ahead to the south, the ridge ends at the foot of massive Gable Mountain, and to the east Chief Mountain lies across the Lee Creek valley. The trail becomes indistinct at this point, but stay near the ridgetop and follow a series of stone cairns to just below the cliffs of Gable Mountain, where you will intersect the trail from the Belly River Ranger Station to Gable Pass. Turn left (east) on this trail and in another mile you will reach Gable Pass. The distance from the trailhead to the pass is six miles. From the pass traverse the talus slopes along the east side of the Papoose and Squaw. These spires are much more impressive than their names would indicate, and picking your way through the boulders than have fallen from them over the aeons borders on strenuous, particularly on the return when your energy reserves will be somewhat depleted. AfterNW Chief.jpg (20213 bytes) you pass the Squaw, return to the ridgetop and keep an eye out for the Bighorn sheep that favor this vicinity. The great scree slope on the west side of Chief Mountain now lies directly ahead, and you have about 1500 vertical feet to go. Obvious trails lead upward through the scree, although as you near the top you will find it easier to stay in the larger rocks adjacent to the trails. The loose, small-diameter scree in the trails makes for an easy and rapid descent, but climbing through it is like climbing through several inches of loose marbles, and unnecessarily strenuous. As you near the top of the scree slope, watch for a notch through the summit ridge that appears toward the north end of the ridge. Ascend to and pass through this notch to the east side of the summit ridge. This notch marks the point where the climbing changes from merely strenuous to potentially dangerous, but if you proceed with caution and carefully choose hand and footholds in a few tricky spots you will have no problems. The actual summit lies a short distance to the south, and while you can travel on the actual summit ridge in places, for the most part you will find it easier going slightly to the east of the ridgetop. Take note of the route you follow from the notch to the summit, since for me at least it was slightly harder to find on the return.

When I reached the summit I was thrilled and delighted to find a couple of skulls, although my excitement was diminished slightly when I noticed that one was a cow and the other a horse. Not to complain, while from aSkulls.jpg (14762 bytes) historical standpoint a buffalo skull would have been preferable, anyone with the fortitude to pack a skull of any sort to the summit of Chief Mountain has my respect. Much neater, to my way of thinking at least, there were a large set of shed mule deer antlers up there also. Needless to say, the view from the summit is out of this world. To the east the plains extend away into seeming infinity, while on all other sides the rugged grandeur of Glacier surrounds. Dozens of incredible peaks in far-flung parts of the Park are visible. The farthest peak I could identify was the Matterhorn-like spire of Mount Saint Nicholas near the southern edge of Glacier in the remote Coal Creek drainage.

Accuse me of cheating if you must, but I used horses to reach Gable Pass and hiked from that point. I’ve got ‘em, I use ‘em, and you would too. The Lee Ridge route makes for about a 17 mile round trip, which in conjunction with climbing the peak makes for a longer day than I would care to tackle completely afoot. I think an excellent option for backpackers would be to make this trip an overnighter, camping near Gable Pass. There are some springs in this vicinity to provide water. These are not established campsites, but the Park Service approves backcountry camping outside of established campgrounds on a case-by-case basis, and if you practice no-trace camping and present your case in a reasonable manner, I feel sure they would approve. Of course, for safety reasons it is always a good idea to register with the Rangers when entering the backcountry, and it is required for any overnight stays.

Speaking of safety, I bent one of the cardinal rules of backcountry safety in Glacier since my ascent of Chief Mountain was a solo endeavor. In all honesty, this is not really advisable, since the classic scenario for a casualty in Glacier is a young male, travelling alone. In my own defense, though, I have a great deal of experience in the backcountry, by myself and otherwise, and am always cautious, particularly when I am by myself. I also carried a cell phone, and remarkably enough it is possible to pick up a roaming signal out of Canada in the Chief Mountain vicinity. Additionally, the odds of a grizzly attack are much reduced when horseback, especially when the horses are wearing bells. The circumstances surrounding my climb were fairly typical for me; I decided to go on short notice, and none of my usual companions were available or interested in going. Having someone else along is clearly preferable from both a social and safety standpoint, but I also know that I would have missed out on many memorable adventures if I stayed home whenever no one else was available to go.

The other routes involve roads that leave the Chief Mountain Highway before it enters Glacier National Park. Be warned, these are very low-standard roads, requiring vehicles with good ground clearance, and perhaps even marginal for those. There are two main possibilities, both marked with the aforementioned signs prohibiting camping by non-tribal members. Arguably the best of these is the westernmost one, which leaves the highway in the vicinity of Crusher Hill (on the 1968 1:100,000 Glacier National Park topographical map, which you will want to have, availableSummit.jpg (20754 bytes) from Ranger stations and visitor centers in the Park). It crosses a ridge before descending and following above Otatso Creek to the Park boundary. From there it is a short hike of about 1.6 miles to Slide Lake, where there is a backcountry campground. From Slide Lake a trail leads to Gable Pass, ascending 1200 vertical feet in just over a mile, after which you would follow the route past the Papoose and Squaw I described earlier. For those who aren’t interested in camping at Slide Lake, it’s possible to bushwhack straight up from Otatso Creek in the vicinity of the Park boundary to Chief Mountain. Edwards covers this route in the "Climbers Guide To Glacier" book. It is also mentioned in another highly recommended book "Glacier’s Secrets" by George Ostrom. Ostrom is another remarkable mountaineer, among many other things, who has climbed many of Glacier’s peaks. He expresses no desire to repeat his climb of Chief Mountain on that route, comparing it to his military service. For those who want to climb Chief Mountain in a day trip, I think a better alternative would be to strike off from the Otatso Creek road in the middle of section 26, where a trail leads west and north to a high ridge northwest of the Chief. From there you could follow open slopes around the north side of the mountain and then climb to the saddle between the Squaw and the Chief, and use the previously described route from that point.

For those with considerable mountaineering experience seeking a real adventure, it is possible to climb the imposing east face of Chief Mountain. This route is described in "A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park". Edwards variously describes it as "really quite easy" and "not really as difficult as anticipated". Since this nearly vertical 1500’ face is nearly all Class 4, his standard of easy is clearly vastly different from mine. I think the route up the northwest side I described will be sufficient adventure to satisfy nearly everyone who attempts it. I know I am tremendously gratified to have been granted a safe passage to the top and back, and feel my life has been enriched considerably by having attained not only the summit, but the fulfillment of a long-standing dream in the process.

See you on the trail.

 

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