Chief Mountain

Chief Mountain
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Chief Mountain (also called Old Chief Mountain) is located in the U.S. state of Montana on the eastern border of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The mountain is one of the most prominent peaks and rock formations along the Rocky Mountain Front, a 200 mi (320 km) long overthrust fault, known as the Lewis Overthrust, which extends from central Montana into southern Alberta, Canada. Chief Mountain elevation is 9,080 feet.

The peak is easily seen from Montana and Alberta due to the rapid 5,000 foot (1,524 m) altitude gain over the Great Plains which are immediately east of the mountain. Despite the mountain’s being mostly in Montana, the distinctive eastern face quickly becomes hidden as one travels south into Montana, but remains very easy to see on clear days over much of southern Alberta. Hence, many businesses in the area (notably Lethbridge) have "Chief Mountain" in their name. Chief Mountain is one of the most photographed mountains in the region due to its unique nature.

Chief Mountain is an example of a klippe. It consists of a Precambrian block which rests directly above much younger Cretaceous gray shales. Having an older layer (Precambrian in this case) pushed up to the top is typical of thrust faults. The surrounding portion of the thrust sheet has been removed by erosion leaving behind this isolated block of Proterozoic rock.

"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 deamed their visions in the long-ago, and the animal helpers had made them strong in spirit and fortunate in war."

Chief Mountain is one of the most interesting peaks in Glacier National Park from three different perspectives; geological, historical and, of course, mountaineering. I will cover the geological and historical perspectives very briefly, including links and references for those who wish to do more reading on these subjects.

Besides being a unique and spectacular peak when viewed from the east, Chief Mountain is also an excellent example of a klippe or isolated erosional remnant of an overthrust. In this case of the much studied and documented Lewis Overthrust. The mountain consists mainly of Precambrian limestones thrust over the top of Cretaceous shales resulting in the anomaly of having some of the oldest rocks on earth sitting on top of some of the youngest.

The history of the mountain is as interesting as its geology. It is one of the earliest mountains in the area ever to be placed on a map, appearing as "King Mountain" on maps published in England in 1795 / 96. Meriwether Lewis observed the mountain on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and called it "Tower Mountain". In 1854, a state survey referred to the mountain as "The Chief or King Mountain". Some early German geographers dubbed it as "Kaiser Peak".

The present day name of the mountain is appropriately taken from the original Blackfeet Indian names of "Old Chief" or "The Mountain -of-the-Chief"

Early Indian legends about the mountain involve braves ascending the peak and staying on the top in their "medicine vision" ritual. The most popular of these involves a Flathead Brave who risked not only the long journey from the west, but also discovery by Blackfeet who were not on friendly terms with the Flatheads. He is said to have carried with him to the top a bison skull that he used as a pillow during his stay. The first white men to climb the mountain in 1892 discovered a weathered bison skull on the summit.

Henry L. Stimson who later became the Secretary of State under President Hoover and the Secretary of War under Franklin Roosevelt along with Dr. Walter B. James and William Kipp (a Blackfeet Indian) made the first ascent of the mountain by non-Indians on 8 September 1892. They did not want to merely scramble up the easy west side of the peak, so they pioneered a route up the spectacular east face. Amazingly, this fabulous route was not climbed again until 1951 when it was first repeated by Gordon and Alice Edwards.

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