Glacier National Park’s Chief Mountain
About 5 miles south of the Canadian border, his grandmother nudged him awake.
“Nináistko,” she said, pointing to an imposing limestone monolith, thrust like the broken end of a giant’s club into a rolling ridge on the eastern edge of the mountain range.
“I don’t like it grandma,” he told her.
She pinched the back of his neck.
“Kyiopok, my little bear cub,” she whispered, “since I heard no spirits asking for your opinion, that mountain is where you must go. You must cry for your vision and find your great love.” –Garden of Heaven
The 9,080-foot Chief Mountain in Montana sits on the border of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Sacred to the Blackfeet, the mountain is a prominent landmark for tourists and others traveling betweeen Alberta and Montana on State Road 17.
Directions and Location
From a car, the east face of Chief Mountain can be easily viewed thirteen miles north of Babb, Montana about five and a half miles south of the Canadian border.
If you’re visiting the park by car, head north out of Babb on U. S. 89, and then about four miles out, bear to your left onto MT 17. This road is also known as the Blackfeet Highway and the Chief Mountain International Highway.
You can also see Chief Mountain by taking one of the park’s red buses between Many Glacier Hotel and the Prince of Wales Hotel at Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta.
Chief Mountain, known as a klippe, or rootless mountain, was reported by Peter Fidler of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1792 and by Meriwether Lewis in 1805. Early explorers were told that Flathead, Kootenai and Blackfeet used the mountain for vision quests.
When Henry L. Stimson climbed Chief Mountain in 1892, he reportedly found the remnants of an old buffalo skull said to have been left there by a Native American on a vision quest. Billy Fox (the man’s exact name is disputed), who climbed with Stimson, called the skull “the old Flathead’s pillow.”
In my novel The Sun Singer, Robert Adams climbs this mountain in an alternate universe where it is named The Guardian. In Garden of Heaven, David Ward climbs this mountain, referring to it by its ancient Blackfeet name Nináistko. Both Adams and Ward climb the mountain for vision quests.
Both of them follow the East Face Route, described as “for experienced and patient rock climbers only” by Gordon Edwards in his widely known reference A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park. If you don’t have Edward’s book, Summit Post has basic climber’s information for Chief Mountain, including routes.
According to Jack Holterman, in his Place Names of Glacier/Waterton National Parks, the name “is both the name of the mountain and a personal and family name.” Nináistko (the Blackfeet name of Mountain Chief) was a prominent leader. His portrait was painted by artist George Catlin in 1832.
Chief Mountain is a pillar of Precambrian belt rock that was pushed some fifty miles east along the Lewis thrust fault. The fault itself can be seen in multiple locations throughout the park, perhaps most easily near Many Glacier Hotel. Chief, then, is an example of older rock sitting on top of the younger Cretaceous rock. The mountain displays good examples of Altyn limestone and Appekuny mudstone, two of the park’s more noticeable formations on the east side.
The Lewis Overthrust occurred 60 to 100 million years ago. While it’s fun to envision the mountains racing east as though they were on a roller coaster, the rock moved slowly over a long period of time; had there been a man to stand there and watch, he might not have noticed anything.
Personally, I like the Blackfeet story, as I note it in Garden of Heaven: Many said the great rocks that formed the backbone of the world were piled one upon the other and sculpted into shining mountains by Nápi, the Old Man who created the world from a ball of mud fetched up from the depths of the dark primordial waters by Muskrat.
A climber standing on the summit of Chief Mountain will be struck by the fact that the mountains of the Rocky Mountain front come to rather an abrupt end there they meet the plains. Westward, you’ll see Mount Merritt and Mount Cleveland. Slide Lake sits just southwest of Chief, and then farther away, Mount St. Nicholas, Red Eagle and Going to the Sun.
Eastward past the highway, you’re looking into the land of the Blackfeet Nation. On the horizon are the three main buttes of the so-called Sweetgrass Hills. According to legend, Nápi flung them out there. Geologists refer to them as island mountains.
A more accurate name would be Hills of Sweet Pines, the actual translation of the Blackfeet name Kâtoyísix. Unfortunately, the name “Sweet Grass” was inaccurately applied and is now pretty much engraved in stone.
Early British maps called Chief Mountain “Kings Mountain.” Lewis called it “Tower Mountain.” For awhile, it was called Kaiser Mountain, probably after freight-hauler Lee Kaiser. The official name, comes from the Blackfeet Mountain of the Chief, or Old Chief.
In their book Waterton and Glacier in a Snap, Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison write that they believe “the best view of this impressive mountain, which resembles a chief’s head looking at the sky, can be had from Alberta.” About that, they just might be right.
Malcolm R. Campbell
Author of hero’s journey novels