Where the Mountains Meet the Prairies...Part of the allure of climbing on Glacier's rugged, windswept eastern front is to tread where the mountains meet the prairies. Here the jagged, glacially-scoured landscape abruptly transitions to the rolling hills and endless fields of grass that comprise the mighty Great Plains. Summit views to the east are mesmerizing in both their vastness and sparseness. On clear days, the Sweet Grass Hills, a cluster of impressively prominent island peaks that curiously rise over 3,000 feet above the surrounding flatland, are visible on the horizon. Tree line is rather low, so there are often spectacular views at relatively low elevations. Wildlife abounds, with bear, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats gracing the barren slopes.
The small Blackfeet Indian community of Browning is also visible from these peaks. It is hard to ignore the Native American presence on Glacier's east side. Little Dog, Red Crow, Kupunkamint, and White Calf are just a few of the many place names with obvious native roots. The eastern front marks an entryway to what the Blackfeet call "The Backbone of the World". This has been a special place for quite some time, and to hike and climb in the area one must have a fair amount of both fortitude and humility.
What's In A Name?The wolf is a very important figure in Blackfeet culture. Before horses were introduced to the plains indians, the Blackfeet often performed as wolves both at camp and while stalking vast bison herds. "By becoming brothers to the wolf, Blackfoot could quickly discover effective means of manipulating bison" (1). According to Jack Holterman's Place Names of Glacier National Park, Mad Wolf was the name of a famed Blackfoot warrior whose recovery of a sacred albino bow case from a rival tribe immortalized him in tribal lore (2). The Blackfeet word saiyi (english: mad wolf) describes a crazy or rabid wolf or other animal. Interestingly, the traditional name was also used, albeit in a misspelled version, to name Mount Siyeh, the fifth tallest peak in the entire park.
See "References" section at bottom of page for a reference list.
Mad Wolf Mountain can also be accessed via a network of gravel Blackfoot reservation roads that climb to the top of Cut Bank Ridge. A Blackfoot Recreation Permit is required (available at local businesses and in nearby Browning) for parking and hiking on reservation land. Please inquire locally if you wish to attempt this approach, as I have not attempted driving any of these roads.
Route InformationNorth Ridge Approach
From Cut Bank Campground, look directly south and take note of the jagged north summit of Mad Wolf Mountain. The easiest routes to the summit exist to the southeast of this point. From the campground, near sites 6, 7, and 8 a series of well-worn trails lead steeply downhill to the south towards Cut Bank Creek. Ford the creek, and continue south. At least two more small tributaries need be forded within the first 15 minutes or so of hiking. A sparse meadow or two may be encountered, but eventually a thick, old-growth forest is entered and the bushwhacking fun begins! There really is no best route here; try to follow sparse game trails and plod uphill. The goal here is to simply gain elevation. About an hour or so after leaving the campground, a network of incredibly well-worn game trails should be encountered. It is my understanding that the condition of these trails can be attributed to a number of reservation horses that reside in the area. Continuing uphill, open meadows are encountered, and the bushwhacking thankfully comes to an end. Utilize the increasingly open views for reorientation, and gain the crest of Cut Bank Ridge. Enjoy the spectacular views to the west!!!
From here, above a thick grove of conifers, a prominent boulder field streams down from the north summit of Mad Wolf Mountain. The goal here is to climb towards the boulder field by detouring up and around the trees. There, the massive basin encompassing the north face of Mad Wolf comes into view.
Take note of the impressive, steep white cliff band that wraps all the way around this great basin at approximately 6,800 - 7,000 foot in elevation. Directly above the boulder field, a prominent scree field leads uphill through a safe break in the otherwise impassable cliffs. Slog up the scree field, where the climbing borders on Class III at the very top due to the extreme looseness of the terrain. The crux of the route involves identifying an obvious game trail that leads to the south between two large cliffs. Follow the trail for a couple hundred feet, and after passing around a rocky shoulder, the mountainside opens up and the going becomes very straightforward. Above the impressive white cliff band, the terrain is almost universally Class II, and one can simply make an ascending traverse across loose scree and talus towards the north summit ridge.
One the ridge is gained, the footing substantially improves, and its an easy walk to the broad summit block. I have personally climbed Mad Wolf three times, and this is far and away the fastest and easiest ascent route I have yet to discover.
*Boundary Trail Option*
If an hour plus of bushwhacking ain't your cup of tea, there is a trail along the park boundary that affords easy access to Cut Bank Ridge. The trail is not on any official maps, but simply start hiking south from the cattle guard at the park boundary on the Cut Bank Road, about 4 miles from Highway 89 and 1 mile from Cut Bank campground. I believe there is no parking near the entrance gate, but parking is available about 1/2 mile down the road at the Cut Bank Ranger Station. I personally have not attempted this trail, but know of two parties who have utilized it to great success in the past few years. After a ford of Cut Bank Creek, they reported a clear path and an easy route up to the ridge. I can only imagine that this trail receives very limited maintenance, so conditions may change annually.
North Basin Approach
Bushwhack from Cut Bank Campground or follow the park boundary to Cut Bank Ridge as described above. Instead of heading towards the north summit of Mad Wolf, continue on horse trails through boulder-strewn meadows towards the true summit. The goal here is to aim for the southernmost point of the impressive white cliff band that wraps around the entire north face of the mountain. At least two routes exist through these towering cliffs; caution must be taken with route finding, and both routes are Class III with enough exposure to warrant double checking all hand and foot holds. Fortunately, the rock is quite solid here, and keen eyes will be able to identify paths that animals and people alike have previously used to negotiate the cliffs. Make sure to mark your route with a cairn if you plan to return in this direction; otherwise, you are likely to spend a bunch of time along the top of the cliff band searching for the safest way down. Once the cliff top is gained, its a very tiring, yet straightforward Class II slog towards the summit block. As the summit block is neared, gain the ridge the stretches out to the east. From there, a short, obvious Class III gully leads safely to the summit.
Mad Wolf Circuit
From the summit of Mad Wolf, it is hard to ignore the amazingly broad, open ridge that leads westward towards Eagle Plume Mountain. For those willing to undertake a 10+ hour route, it is possible to follow the ridge from Mad Wolf all the way to the top of Eagle Plume, then to continue northward to Bad Marriage Mountain. Gordon Edwards refers to this route as "The Mad Wolf Circuit", and it affords the hardy mountaineer with solitude and unbelievable views on the high ridges that link the three peaks. Be forewarned that many groups find great difficulty in descending from Bad Marriage Mountain. I am aware of several parties who have taken anywhere from 13 to 18 hours to complete this route! After descending into the wild valley encircled by all three mountains, it is very challenging to identify the safest way down around a great waterfall that drains the basin. The only route exists just southeast of the falls and is quite difficult to locate due to extensive cliffs, krumholzt, and brush. I recommend attempting this circuit route with someone who has experience successfully descending in this direction.
I know of at least one account of a group descended the west flanks of Bad Marriage towards the Cut Bank Pass Trail. Apart from some bushwhacking and a ford of the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek, they described much less difficulties than other parties who descend Bad Marriage to the east. I personally have not attempted this route.
Summit ViewsViews from the eastern border of Glacier National Park are always spellbinding, and Mad Wolf is no different. To the east, the Great Plains stretch out for what seems like forever, and on clear days the Sweet Grass Hill are visible on the horizon. Views to the southwest are particularly appealing; serene and remote Lonely Lakes and Running Crane Lake perch in the shadow of impressively huge Red Mountain. Mount Stimson towers in the far distance behind Eagle Plume Mountain, and views to the north include the mighty tops of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and Mount Siyeh.
When To ClimbDue to extreme winters along the Continental Divide, problematic snow can linger on trails and mountain slopes well into July and August. Hence, the climbing season in Glacier is rather short, and often begins in June and can last into October, weather permitting. However, some lower peaks and southern facing slopes can be safely attempted much earlier in the season. Your best bet is to inquire locally about snowpack and weather conditions. I use the NOAA for detailed weather forecasts for the greater Glacier area; check out the website here.
Mad Wolf can likely be climbed as early as June. The only factor that may complicate either of the northern approaches would be lingering snow in and around the prominent white cliff band at the 6,800 - 7,000 foot mark. The Class II terrain above this cliff has so many safe routes that any snow could be easily detoured around. There are great views of Mad Wolf from a pullout on Highway 89 a few miles north of the turnoff to Cut Bank Campground. This is probably the best place to assess the terrain prior to any ascent.
Where To Staypage for more information regarding car camping in the park.
Other places to stay in the general area:
Two Medicine Campground - 100+ sites, beautiful setting, approximately 20 mile drive from Cut Bank Campground.
St. Mary - The small, bustling tourist village at the east entrance of Going-to-the-Sun Road has multiple lodging options. Approximately a 25 mile drive to Cut Bank Campground.
Browning - Multiple lodging options exist in the Blackfoot Reservation town of Browning. Approximately 17 miles from Cut Bank Campground.
Red Tape, Wildlife, etc.here.
Glacier is subject to extreme winter weather conditions, and as such, much of the park is virtually innaccessible for the majority of the year. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is completely only open from mid-June to mid-September, and as such, many of the civilzed areas of the park (including the historic lodges and many of the campgrounds) operate for a short window as well. All of the services in Many Glacier are closed by the end of September, and after it starts snowing, the road is not plowed until May, so plan your trip accordingly.
The ancient rock in Glacier National Park tends to be quite crumbly and rotten; as such, a special rock grading system has been developed to help climber's safely approach peaks throughout the park. Refer to the Glacier Mountaineering Society's website for detailed information.
The park is home to lots of potentially dangerous wildlife, including moose, black bear, grizzly bear, and mountain lions. Hike loud, carry bear deterrant spray (and know how to use it!), and let someone know your intended route before heading out into the park.
Pick up a copy of J. Gordon Edwards classic A Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park. It's an absolute must for anyone who wants to safely venture to one of the park's many accessible mountain summits. His route information is often invaluable, and it will introduce you to many exciting climbs and off-trail hikes scattered all throughout the park.
Visit the FANTASTIC Glacier National Park page, a labor of love by late Summitpost member sainitgrizzly (R.I.P.), or the NPS page for more detailed information.
References1. Barsh, R.L. & Marlor, C. (2003). Driving Bison and Blackfoot Science. Human Ecology, Cornell University, 31 (4). Retrieved from http://www.biomedsearch.com/article/Driving-bison-Blackfoot-science/112318510.html.
2. Holterman, J. (2006). Place Names of Glacier National Park (3rd Edition). Helena, MT: Riverbend Publishing.