The Ascent of Chief Mountain by Henry L. Stimson


In the most northern corner of the Piegans' country, in northwestern Montana, almost grazing the Canadian border with its abrupt side, stands a turret-shaped mountain. Behind it the great range of the Rockies, which for hundreds of miles has been trending steadily northwood, bends sharply away toward the west, leaving the corner on which the mountain stands a huge protruding pedestal for its weird shape. Ninety years ago Lewis and Clarke saw it from far to southward as they passed along the dwindling Missouri and called it Tower Mountain; but to the Indians it has always been The Chief Mountain. Even those prosaic German geographers to whom we owe so much for information about our own and other lands have either seen it and fallen under the spell of its strange power, or have taken their nomenclature directly from the Piegans, for they have crowned it Kaiser Peak.

For more than a year we had been numbered with the Chief's subjects. During the previous summer we had been seeking the acquaintance of the mountain goat; not the shorn degenerate which throngs the slopes of the Cascades and straggles among the southern peaks of Montana, but the true snowy buffalo of the northern Rockies; and from the ledges of the St. Mary Mountains, where we had sought him, could be seen still further to the northward the Piegans' Chief. Of the range, yet not in it, like a captain well to the front of his battle-line, he pressed out into the broad prairie, as if leading a charge of Titans toward the far distant lakes. And through the long months of an Eastern winter, and the still longer months of an Eastern summer, above all the memories of that wondrous land where every butte and mountain peak teems with legend, and where every bison skull on the prairie tells its story, had towered the clear-cut image of that Northern mountain, a worthy sovereign of any man's allegiance. Now, as inevitably as an antelope returns to its lure, we had returned for a closer look at our mountain. Down deep in our hearts, battling with the awe which we felt for him, was the almost unspoken hope that perhaps in some way we might struggle up his sheer sides and make him, in a way he was to no one else, our king.

We were a party of three, the Doctor and I, and our faithful packer, Fox. A cold storm was blowing spitefully across the open foothills and out on to the prairie as we broke camp under the high banks of Kennedy Creek on the morning of the last stage of our journey. The clouds, driving over the range from the northwest, swung so low that they hid the peaks, and the great pedestal of the Chief met them all uncrowned, indistinguishable from the others about him. It was one of those doubtful mornings with which the mountains love to warn off strangers, or to greet their friends—one which might presage a week of storm or usher in a fortnight of surpassing beauty.

We had camped for the night at the last of those ranches which stretch along the bottom lands of the St. Mary River, and just as we started, its owner, Indian Billy, decided to go with us.

Even he had never been to the foot of his tribe's famous peak, and the dark-skinned idlers of the ranch who gathered about us as we flung the lash ropes over our horses could tell us little more than legends of it. Several Bloods from across the Canadian border declared that the boundary line ran, not where the white men had marked it on the prairie with their insignificant piles of stones, but through the deep cleft in the Chief's wall, where the Great Spirit himself had placed it; thus giving to the Bloods, who knew it best, their proper share of the mountain. And, getting warmer in their enthusiasm, they reminded Billy of their standing challenge to his tribe, the Piegans—fifty horses to anyone who should run around that wall, small as it seemed, in half a day.

For our part it was hard to realize even on that cold September morning that the long dreaming was over and the reality before us. It took all the straining of the pack ponies on the wet lead-ropes to remind us that we were at last climbing the foothills of the great peak. Our presence there, far from breaking the long enchantment, surrendered us bodily to it, and Billy, riding over the successive slopes before us, swaying in the saddle with the hawk-like motion of the prairie Indian, seemed a fit ambassador to lead us to his king. As the day passed, the clouds gradually lightened; and finally, just as we surmounted one of the higher foothills, at the summit of the long, sloping, forest-clad pedestal before us broke through the crown of the Chief. Toward us, on the east, it showed a black rectangular wall 2,000 feet in length, 1,500 in height, and from its sharp corners the broken mists streamed away southward like tattered garments.

A few hasty pictures, taken while Fox mended a broken pack cinch, and we pressed on toward the foot of the mountain. Some benign influence was with us even thus early, and we were guided into the easiest way. Streaks of burned forest, bristling with windfalls, were slowly but successfully threaded, long rock slides luckily avoided, while we mounted steadily slope after slope; until finally, late in the afternoon, we pulled our panting horses out, just above timber line, upon the comparatively level summit of the pedestal. The foot of the great crown wall was still a mile away and 1,000 feet above us, but we were near enough and high enough for our purpose; and in a deep basin, sheltered from the wind and carpeted with softest mountain grass, and with the only water in the neighborhood sparkling up from a spring in the bottom, we found a perfect camp. As soon as the tents were pitched, Fox set about preparing dinner, while the seven horses, freed from their loads, buried their noses in the grass in perfect contentment.

As he sat in the door of the tent, the Doctor's eyes seemed glued to his field glass, while the object lenses ever pointed in the one direction, westward; under the brim of the Indian's broad hat, as he lay apparently dozing before the fire, I could see his black eyes fixed on the same point; and even Fox, constantly shifting his position about the fire, rarely took one which placed his back toward that black wall behind which the sun was now gradually sinking. For myself, all the longing of the past year had concentrated itself into a desire to rush over this last remaining distance; to get to that magic crown, to feel it with hand and foot, and to see whether, as the Piegans aver, it denied even a single foothold for a mortal man.

After dinner the Doctor and I did go to it. We clambered out of our little basin on to the higher portion of the domelike pedestal, and from this platform, on which rests the great crown, looked past its two edges at the vast mountain range behind it, stretching north and south. Then we picked our way toward it, through the loose boulders and broken rock; saw the summit hang further and further over us as we advanced into the gloom at its foot, and after finally reaching it and pressing ourselves against it where it rose sheer from its pedestal, we hurried back to camp through the twilight, thoroughly awed by the solemnity of the place.

The storm of the morning had cleared into a most perfect night; and, as we lay about the fire, Billy told us all that the old men had told him of the Chief. A full-blooded Piegan, in his new life as a ranchman he had not lost touch with the traditions of his tribe. Only one Piegan, he said, had ever attempted to climb the mountain. Years ago a hunting party of their young men had been encamped on the opposite side, where the cliffs do not overhang so much, and ledges run temptingly up for a distance; and one of them, the youngest and most ambitious of the band, declared that he would go to the summit. He started, and his companions watched him from below until he passed along one of the very highest ledges, out of sight. Then the spirit of the mountain must have met him; for, though they waited many days, and searched for him all around the base, he never came back. And the Piegans, being a prairie tribe and not over fond of the mountains at best, thereafter avoided any close acquaintance with their king.

A story had come to them, however, from the Flatheads across the range—a tribe whose prowess they always respected in war, as they believed in their truthfulness in peace—and as the story related to their mountain, they had treasured it among their own legends. Still earlier, many years before even the oldest Piegan was a boy, there had lived a great Flathead warrior, a man watched over by a spirit so mighty that no peril of battle or of the hunt could overcome him. When at last in his old age he came to die, he told the young men his long-kept secret. Many years before, as the time approached for him to go off into the forest and sleep his warrior sleep, in which he hoped to see the vision which should be his guide and protection through life, he had decided to seek a spot and a spirit which had never before been tried. So, carrying the usual sacred bison skull for his pillow, he had crossed the mountains eastward into the far-off Piegan country. Then, with none to aid him save the steady power of his own courage, he had ventured upon the ledges of the Chief of the Mountains, and, choking down each gasp of panic when at overhanging corners the black walls seemed striving to thrust him off and down, he had finally forced his way to the very summit. For four days and nights he had fasted there, sleeping in the great cleft which one can see from far out on the prairie. On each of the first three nights, with ever increasing violence, the spirit of the mountain had come to him and threatened to hurl him off the face of the cliff if he did not go down on the following day. Each time he had refused to go, and had spent the day pacing the summit, chanting his warrior song and waving his peace pipe in the air as an offering, until finally, on the fourth night, the spirit had yielded, had smoked the pipe, and had given him the token of his life. None of the young Flatheads, however, said Billy, had dared to follow their great warrior's example; so that to this day he was the only man who had braved the spirit of the Chief and made it his friend.


After we were rolled in our blankets, and the late moon, rising from the prairie ocean behind us, had turned the dark, threatening wall to cheering silver, we thought again of the old warrior's steadfastness and longed to make his example ours.

The Doctor's thermometer marked 20 degrees Fahrenheit when Fox called us, and the morning bucket which he dashed over us was flavored with more of the spirit of duty than usual. But otherwise the weather had been made for us. Yesterday's storm had beaten down the smoke from Washington forest fires, which had clouded everything for the past month, and the Sweet Grass Hills twinkled across one hundred miles of prairie as if at our feet; and yet there was hardly a breath of wind. Under the lee of the wall itself absolute stillness brooded over ledges which even a moderate breeze could have made dangerous. We did not make an early start. The thing could be done quickly if it could be done at all, for there was only 1,500 feet of cliff.

Our men did not give the attempt to reach the summit from this, the eastern side, even the scant compliment of a doubt; in their minds its failure was certain, but they were willing to see how far we could get up. The Doctor, too, had at first suggested, and with perfect correctness, that to try a difficult side of a mountain before reconnoitering the other was bad mountaineering, to say the least. But, on the other hand, this east side was the famous side of the Chief—the side which every passer-by on the prairie saw and wondered at. With our glasses we had mapped a course which seemed not impossible; was it not better to meet our king face to face than to steal on him from behind? Besides, this wonderful weather might not last long enough for us to reach the other side. And so our final conclusion was to try the east face.

Half way up the sheer face of the cliff was divided horizontally by a broad, steep shelf which ran nearly the length of the mountain. That shelf could clearly be crossed at any place; the difficulty would lie with the walls below and above it. The lower one was bad enough at best, but it was easy to recognize as least bad a place where a slope of shale abutted against it, shortening it some 300 feet. The upper wall in general seemed even worse, but it was furrowed by two deep chimneys, side by side, one of which led into the mountain's well-known cleft. The other chimney seemed to lead directly to the summit, but its lower mouth was inaccessible—cut off by overhanging cliff. Our plan, therefore, if we could ever reach the halfway shelf, was to use the first chimney in the beginning, then try to find a way around the dividing shoulder into the second, then follow that to the top. And at 9 o'clock we began on the lower wall.

Of course, the work which followed was not so difficult as it had promised from below—rock work rarely is—but it thoroughly taxed our slender experience, and, for a single man without a rope, must have been far worse. The Doctor and I took turns in leading, carrying up or having thrown to us from below a rope, on which the others then ascended. Most of the difficulty was thus confined to one man, and he could often be assisted from beneath. We were not skilled enough in the use of the rope to risk tying ourselves together.

Two hundred feet up came our first trouble, perhaps the worst of the day. We were sidling along a narrow shelf, with arms outstretched against the wall above, when we reached a spot where the shelf was broken by a round protruding shoulder. Beyond it the ledge commenced again and seemed to offer our only way upward. I was leading at the time, and, after examining it, turned back to a wider portion of the shelf for consultation. It was not a place one would care to try if there was an alternative.

We braced the Indian against the wall, and his skillful hand sent the lariat whirling up at a sharp rock above our heads. Time after time the noose settled fairly around it, but found no neck to hold it, and came sliding down. Then, almost before we knew it, the Doctor had run out along the ledge to the shoulder and had started around. For a moment he hung, griping the rounded surface with arms and knees; then a dangerous wriggle and he was on the other side.

Under his coaching the Indian and I followed; but Fox, when half way, lost his head, and barely succeeded in getting back to the starting point. He would not try again. The poor fellow's moccasins had lost some of their nails and he had slipped once or twice that morning, thus destroying the nerve of one who had at other times shown himself a good climber. But of the Indian's companionship for the rest of the day we were now sure.

Again, when near the top of that first wall, and when the halfway ledge seemed almost within our grasp, the shallow cleft—up which we were scrambling—ended in a deep pocket in the cliff's face, with no outlet above. The Doctor tried it at one corner, but the treacherous crumbling rock warned him back. I tried it at another, but was stopped by an overhang in the cliff. No help for it but to go back and try to find a way around.

Fifty feet below we landed on a small shelf running horizontally along the mountain's face, and, after following it northward a few moments, we found another channel leading up. The Doctor started to investigate it, while Billy and I continued on slowly looking for a better. Almost immediately, however, we heard the Doctor shout "All right," and, following him, came out at last upon the great halfway shelf of the mountain.

This was a steep slope of shale, which seemed in places quite ready to slide in an avalanche of loose rock over the edge of the cliff below; but the relief of being out upon it, and able once more to stand upright without the sensation of a wall against your face, apparently trying to shove you outward from your slender foothold, was simply indescribable.

After crossing the shelf and eating our lunch in the mouth of the first or left-hand chimney, we attacked the upper wall. Following up the chimney a short distance, we found at last a narrow ledge leading to the right, and, creeping around on it, I looked into the right-hand chimney above its forbidding mouth. It led as a broad, almost easy, staircase clear to the top of the wall above, and for the first time we felt as if our king were really ours.

Six or seven hundred feet more of steady work, and we could feel the summit breeze beginning to blow down the narrow mouth of the chimney. Billy was then sent to the front, and at half past one the first Piegan stepped out on the summit of the Chief Mountain.

It is a long ridge of disintegrated rock, flanked at either end by lower rounded turrets, and at its highest part is no wider than a New England stone wall. On the opposite western side the cliffs fell away as on our own, but they seemed shorter, were composed of looser rock, and far down below we could see steep slopes of shale meeting them part way. After we had picked out our various landmarks in the wonderful outlook about us, and I had made my record from compass and barometer, we pushed our way carefully along to the highest point of the narrow ridge, in order to mark it with a cairn of rocks. Just as we reached it, the Indian, who was still in the lead, suddenly stopped and pointed to the ground. There, on the very summit of Chief Mountain, safely anchored by rocks from the effect of wind or tempest, lay a small, weather-beaten bison skull. It was certainly one of the very oldest I have ever seen. Even in the pure air of that mountain top it had rotted away until there was little else than the frontal bone and the stubs on which had been the horns. Billy picked it up and handed it to us quietly, saying with perfect conviction, "The old Flathead's pillow!"

We left the skull where it had been found. Much as we should have treasured it as a token of that day, the devotion of the old warrior who had brought it was an influence quite sufficient to protect this memorial of his visit. We shared his reverence far too much to allow us to remove its offering. And then, too, as Billy suggested, we were still on top of the Chief, and the Chief had certainly been very forbearing to us. Those long walls, now darkened by the afternoon shade, those narrow ledges whence the downward climber could no longer avoid seeing the stone he dislodged bound, after two or three lengthening jumps, clear to the pedestal below, loomed very suggestively before his mind. But the Chief still remained gracious, and Billy worked even more steadily and sure-footedly going down than in the morning. We had all gained confidence, and besides we were certain of our course. By 5 o'clock we had reached the last bad place—where Fox had left us—and, after avoiding that by swinging down hand over hand on the rope from a ledge above, it was only a few moments to the bottom.

That night, after we were all safe in camp, and the great cliff beamed down on us more kindly than ever in the moonlight, the Doctor and I decided that we had been more favored than the old Flathead warrior, for the spirit of our mountain had been with us even before we reached its top.

And for our success an explanation beyond our physical powers seemed necessary to others also; for, when a few days later we returned to the ranch in the St. Mary's Valley, Billy, who had preceded us, met us with the mien of the prophet who is denied by his own, and told us that his cousins, the Bloods from across the border, had suggested that, when next he returned from a trip to the range, he should bring them a likelier story than that he had climbed the east face of the Chief Mountain.