Overview of Chief Mountain via The Southwest Slope Route:
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Chief Mountain, saintgrizzly photo.
At Chief Mountain
We Are Visitors
To A Sacred Place,
The Epicenter Of The Blackfeet Religion,
Steeped In The Legend And Lore Of The Blackfoot Nation.
Please respect all prayer prints(the cloth wrapped around trees)and artifacts located on and around Chief Mountain; please do not destroy, deface, or handle them.
Vandalism may restrict access to this incredible area.
The Summit Ridge
Chief Mountain has been a sacred mountain to Native American tribes for hundreds of years. The Blackfoot name for the mountain is Ninastiko. The mountain was seen by white explorers in the late 1700s and was known as "Kings Peak" on maps produced in the United Kingdom in 1795. Meriwether Lewis, coleader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, saw the mountain in 1805 and called it "Tower Mountain". The name was changed in the late 1800s in reflection of Blackfeet naming of the mountain which was "Great Chief". When Glacier National Park was created in 1910, the summit and most prominent eastern slopes of the mountain were located within the park, leaving only the lower slopes within Blackfeet jurisdiction. From Wikipedia.
This route is featured in Edwards’ “The Northern Lewis Range” on pages 136-138 in A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park by J. Gordon Edwards.
View to The eastern edge of Glacier Natinal Park
The Southwest Slope Route leaves the saddle between Ninaki and Chief Mountain from about the 7,770 foot contour level and climbs a scree field for about 800 feet before reaching a band of class 3 cliffs that are covered with scree yet afford decent footing
……but perhaps it would be best to discuss how to get to the beginning of the route.
Topo of Approach Options
Taking A Break At The Saddle
There are four options that are available to climbers.
1) Lee Ridge Approach
The trail from Lee Ridge Trailhead to the junction with the Gable Pass Trail is 6 miles in length and is maintained by the Park Service. From this junction it is just a short distance to Gable Pass. Total elevation gain from the trailhead to Gable Pass exceeds 2,100 feet.
This trail leaves the Chief Mountain International Highway (Highway 17) about 1/2 mile south of the Chief Mountain Customs Station. There is no parking at Lee Trailhead but there is a pullout at the top of the hill about 450 feet up the hill near the sign that reads “Customs ½ Mile Ahead”.
From the junction with the Gable Pass Trail turn east (left) and follow it to Gable Pass. From there follow the ridge for about 1.25 miles around Papoose and Ninaki to the saddle below the Southwest Slope Route.
A Blackfeet Use Permit is not required for this approach since the entire route is located inside the Park boundary.
2) Gable Pass via The Belly River Ranger Station
Gable Pass can also be approached from the Belly River Ranger Station. The junction with Lee Ridge Trail is 3.8 miles and about 2,600 feet of elevation gain from the Ranger Station. The statistics provided does NOT include reaching the Belly River Ranger Station.
From Gable Pass follow the ridge for about 1.25 miles around Papoose and Ninaki to the saddle below the Southwest Slope Route.
3) Chief Mountain Highway to Slide Lake to Gable Pass Approach
Please Note: All persons, regardless of age, using this approach are required to possess a Blackfeet Tribal Conservation Permit. The $10.00 permit is available at most sporting goods stores.
From the park boundary a trail travels past Slide Lake to Gable Pass. The total distance to Gable Pass from the park boundary is about 3.7 miles. From Gable Pass follow the ridge for about 1.25 miles around Papoose and Ninaki to the saddle below the Southwest Slope Route.
This difficulty with this approach is locating the correct road and reaching the park boundary from the Chief Mountain International Highway (Route 17). The park service has published the following information to help locate the correct road.
The road is not marked by a sign and is reached by leaving US Highway #89 at Chief Mountain Junction and going 4.3 miles on the Chief Mountain Highway (Route #17). Look for a dirt road heading west/southwest and skirting just south of Chief Mountain.
“If you are unsure that this is the correct road look for the Chief Mountain Overlook, which is a signed pullout 0.3 miles northwest of the Slide Lake road at a point 4.5 miles from the Chief Mountain Highway junction. This overlook is known locally as Crusher Hill.
The distance from the Chief Mountain Highway to going west on the Slide Lake road to the trailhead at the Park Boundary is approximately 6.0 miles.
There is one major fork on this road a couple of miles from the highway. The left fork that leads down to Otatso Creek is the way to Slide Lake.
VEHICLES NOT RECOMMENDED
The park service also warns that the road to the park boundary is “very muddy, rutted and rocky. There is also significant damage due to flooding. This area is also heavily used by cattle.”
Perhaps it is best to either hike to the park boundary or ride mountain bikes. Even riding mountain bikes may be an ordeal. Depending on the conditions of the road and weather this road simply may be passable only on foot.
4) Chief Mountain Highway to Slide Lake to Southwest Slope Route
Please see all of the directions above for reaching the park boundary from Chief Mountain Highway.
Edwards wrote that it is possible to bushwhack from a spot about 4.6 miles along a lane that travels from the park boundary. He also elaborates that there is an overlook of Otatso Creek and an old cabin site. The cabin may or may not be there anymore. From this area bushwhack uphill to a narrow meadow below the south face of Chief Mountain. From the meadow traverse the slopes to the saddle between Chief Mountain and Ninaki.
Southwest Slope Route Overview:
View Up The Route From The Saddle.
Rating: Class 3 and 4 Elevation Gain from Saddle: 1,300 feet One-way Distance from saddle to summit: Less Than 1 Mile
The approaches to the beginning of the route are varied and once at the saddle between Ninaki (referred to as The Squaw in the Climber’s Guide) and Chief Mountain the route begins.
The Southwest Slope Route is straightforward and enjoyable once the cliffs above the scree field are reached. Total elevation gained from the saddle to the summit is about 1,300 feet and the distance is less than 1 mile.
It may be best to describe this route in sections:
Along The Route
Lower Cliff Bands
The Gully and the Notch
From the saddle locate a climber’s trail that begins a moderate ascent through the lower portions of the scree field. Initially footing is good. As the slope gets steeper footing become more difficult and caution MUST be exercised to avoid sending loose rock bounding down the scree fields if there are other climbers below your position.
The trail angles across the slope until nearly directly below the couloir that must be climbed above the lower cliffs that can be seen from the saddle.
Lower Cliff Band
Upon reaching the lower cliff bands more enjoyable climbing will be found on Class 3 cliffs that are partially covered with loose scree. There are plenty of options to avoid the ledges that are loaded with scree. Climb through the lower cliff band and locate the couloir that is hidden by a wall of cliffs.
This couloir is most easily climbed by staying on the climber’s left. There is a great place to wait for slower members of your party about halfway up this couloir.
Edwards wrote “Near the north end, a very deep notch appears in the summit ridge. Scramble up the scree to the bottom of that notch and walk through it to the east side of the ridge.”
Climb to the top of the couloir and prepare to climb through and around the Upper Cliff band that guards the summit ridge by following a climber’s trail.
After climbing through the couloir the deep notch at the top of the couloir a flat spot is reached and some climbers may want to turn right towards the southwest cliffs of Chief Mountain. The actual route traverses along the northeast side of the mountain to the False Summit.
Top Of The Gully
Through Class 3 Cliffs
Upper Cliff Band
The remaining 200 feet of this route is comprised of climbing through a series of Class 3 ledges and scree slopes that have much better footing than the lower slopes. The route is marked occasionally with cairns and is well traveled.
Approaching False Summit
The Nine-Foot-Deep Notch
The Second Notch
Accessing The Summit Ridge
After reaching the false summit the true summit can be seen in the distance.
It is a little over 1/10th of a mile to the summit cairn. A slight bit of elevation must be lost and then regained while traversing to the summit.
Edwards described the route along the summit ridge, “A nine-foot-deep notch in the ridgetop is the only obstacle. The descent into this notch involves great exposure, but if care is taken in seeking good handholds, the descent into the notch can be made with safety.” He also encourages that packs should be handed down lest “climbers plunge head-first down the west face of the mountain”.
Above the Second Notch
The Summit Block
The Summit Cairn
FlatheadNative’s take on the summit ridge:
Perhaps there has been some time since this route was updated.
First of all leave your pack on the false summit. It is wide and safe. There is plenty of room there to stretch out and eat lunch or have a summit nap. There is no need to take any more than absolutely necessary to the summit of Chief Mountain. Take a camera and leave the rest.
There are actually two breaks along the summit ridge.
The first one is described by Edwards as the nine-foot-deep notch. The rating is Class 4 as there is a chance of death if something went tragically wrong while climbing through this section.
When I read the route description I expected something more challenging than I experienced. Nevertheless, there is a chance of falling, but by carefully climbing down the west-side of the ridge the drop is reduced to about six feet. There are both adequate hand and footholds and the group I was with (all of them experienced Glacier mountaineers) easily navigated this problem. There also is a moderate scree slope at the bottom of the gully. When I climbed through this notch I jumped down to the scree after working to the east under the overhang. (See photo) It felt safe and the landing was on small scree with little slope.
If you are climbing with inexperienced climbers a belay would perhaps be a good idea at this point but is probably not even necessary here. A 40 foot section of rope would more than suffice.
The second technical portion of the traverse to the true summit lies about 2/3rds of the way along the summit ridge. It is easily descended by locating a chute on the eastern side of the ridge. At its narrowest point the chute is about 16 inches wide and is about 20 feet in length. It leads all the way down to a Class 3 move to the bottom of the break in the summit ridge. When returning from the True Summit it is not difficult to climb up on the east side of this gully as well.
After climbing down the chute there is some nice Class 3 scrambling back up to the summit ridge and the climber’s trail leads to the summit cairn that is located at the top of an island of rock. There appeared to be many different ways to climb to the top of the pinnacle that holds the summit cairn. There is a USGS marker on the top of the cairn.
The summit cairn is adorned with a few antlers and a cow skull. Please do not handle them as they were placed there for a purpose not for amusement.
Unless you are a member of the Blackfeet Nation please do not venture further down the ridge. It would be tempting to go to the next pinnacle on the ridge. There are prayer prints and other artifacts that have religious significance and this area must be respected even if you may not agree with or support the Blackfeet religious beliefs.
Special Considerations: The rock in Glacier Park is widely varied and it is not unusual to find several different types of rock on any given route. Know your rocks and be certain of your safety. J. Gordon Edwards has an excellent section in his guidebook on rock and climbing safety. Be safe and know your limitations as well as those who are climbing with you. Also refer to the following links for further details: GNP Rock and Grading System and the GMS Climbing Guidelines.
Looking To Gable Pass
Belly River Country
Climb down the same way you climbed up. After reaching the saddle there are multiple options to return to Slide Lake if used for the approach, perhaps bushwhacking to an area below the lake is the easiest. This writer has never done that but Edwards wrote that it is not too bad, but easy to Edwards may be arduous for others.
Obviously if the approach was from Gable Pass return via the same route around Ninaki and Papoose to reach the pass.
When to Climb:
This route, like most in Glacier National Park, is weather dependent.
Typical months to climb are July through September. Depending upon the amount of snow those dates can either move earlier and later. Many of the approaches cross through glacier moraines which are frequently loaded with dirt which results in large amounts of mud with snow melt or rain.
Please see the Chief Mountain main page for Red Tape, Gear Recommendations and other important factoids that are not provided here.