White Man’s Dog raised his eyes to the west and followed the Backbone of the World from north to south until he could pick out Chief Mountain. It stood apart from the other mountains, not as tall as some but strong, its square face a landmark to all who passed. But it was more than a landmark to the Pikunis, Kainahs and Siksikas, the three tribes of the Blackfeet, for it was on top of Chief Mountain that the blackhorn skull pillows of the great warriors still lay. On those skulls Eagle Head and Iron Breast had dreamed their visions in the long-ago, and the animal helpers had made them strong in spirit and fortunate in war. – from Fools Crow by James Welch

More than a landmark.
Chief Mountain is the peak that has fascinated me the most over the past several years. Although it is not the tallest mountain in Glacier Park, its unique shape and the way it stands alone on the eastern edge of the Rockies make it one of our state’s most majestic mountains. Unfortunately Chief is in an area seldom traveled by most Montanans – Its summit lies 5 miles south of the Canadian border, straddling the boundary between Glacier Park and the Blackfeet Reservation. The Blackfeet and other tribes of their confederacy believe the mountain holds special power. For millennia it has helped define their homeland, and its summit has served as a place where powerful visions are sought through fasting and prayer. Another aspect of Chief that made it appealing to me is its unique geologic past. It is a classic example of a “klippe”; a feature associated with the same overthrust fault that formed Glacier Park – I explain more about this in the Photo Tour.

The big day.
Needless to say, I was pretty excited as a couple friends and I approached the Lee Ridge Trailhead less than a mile from the border crossing on the morning of Sunday, July 30. The weather was perfect as we started the 18.8-mile (round-trip) 11-hour journey at 7 am. For the first 4.7 miles we walked southward, gradually uphill through a “green tunnel” – not much to see except trees. Once out of the tunnel, we were treated to great views of the northern part of the park, the Belly River, Chief Mountain, and the ridge that would lead us to its summit – views that got even better as the day went on. At the 6-mile mark we turned east onto the Gable Pass Trail, following it for over a mile before embarking on the difficult off-trail portion of our hike. Using directions I’d printed out from Summitpost.org, we followed the rugged ridge below Papoose and Ninaki to the saddle below the southwest side of Chief. From there it was a challenging ascent through scree to a band of cliffs, where we started a more pleasant type of climbing to the summit – once again relying on directions from Summitpost.org.

Best hour of the summer.
For the three of us (ages 58, 59, and 67) this was about as much was we could handle in one day and still consider the experience to be “fun”. But it was VERY fun, and our time on the summit of Chief exceeded my expectations – no wind, clear skies, and such an interesting place to be! We were respectful of the sacred nature of the place as we enjoyed our time on the top. Highlights included the unique shape of the summit, as well as exhilarating views of Glacier Park, the Blackfeet Reservation, southern Alberta, a landslide that happened in the 1992, and Slide Lake. This was the best hour of my summer so far – I did not want to come down.

Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.