⚠️ Hiking and scrambling are inherently dangerous activities. Please read my Disclaimer. ⚠️
“Our land is not just geography, our land is our mother.” –Narcisse Blood (source)
This was a trip that I’ve wanted to do for years, though for one reason or another, it has never worked out until today. A sacred place for the Siksikaitsitapi, or Blackfoot Confederacy, Ninastako (alternate: Ninaistako) is one of the most recognizable peaks in the region. Believed to hold “great power and ancient knowledge” and “considered the oldest spirit of any of the mountains,” Ninastako and the area around it, continue be used for cultural and spiritual ceremonies. (source) This is abundantly clear from the many ribbon trees alongside the trail and the presence of offerings on the summit. In short, venturing onto this mountain should be done with the same mindset and respect that one gives when visiting a church, temple, or mosque. Indeed, as one Piikani man notes, “Chief Mountain is a spiritual place. You have to be worthy to go up to Chief Mountain. See, I’m starting over here on [place name]. That’s a long way away, a long way. But in time, in time when the old ones think that I’m ready, then I’ll be able to go to Chief Mountain.”(source) Likewise, “Whenever trouble came to our people, whenever there was uncertainty, the men would go [to the mountains]…because they needed to hear from the Creator, they wanted to know, ‘How do we get out of this?'” (source)
In Stone by Stone: Exploring Ancient Sites on the Canadian Plains (2015), Liz Bryan highlights two Siksikaitsitapi legends connected to Ninastako or “Stands Alone”. The first involves Thunder, who lives on Ninastako and who one day, decides to kidnap an innocent woman and hide her in the mountain. Raven, who lives on Crowsnest Mountain, is then called on to rescue her and the two engage in an epic battle. (172) In the second story, Ninastako is the only piece of land not submerged by the great flood, and from its summit, Napi then creates the earth. (172) Perhaps the saddest legend is of a heartbroken young Piikani widow whose war-chief husband was killed in battle. Unable to endure the pain, she climbs the mountain with her baby before jumping to their deaths. She and her baby are then buried alongside her husband at the base of Ninastako and it is said that the outline of the woman and her child can be seen on Ninastako’s northeast face. It is also from this where the mountain becomes known as ‘Mountain of the Chief’ or ‘Chief Mountain’; however, it should be noted that there are other stories related to the origin of the name. (source)
Situated half in Glacier National Park and half on the Blackfeet Nation, Ninastako, like Crowsnest Mountain, is a an example of a klippe, where millions of years of erosion and tectonics have left the peak isolated from the surrounding rock. (source) That this is an ongoing process is exemplified by the dramatic events of 31 July 1972, when “thousands of tons of rock fell from Chief Mountain as the entire northeast corner collapsed… the resulting devastation was tremendous, and covered an area at least a half-mile in each direction from the base of the cliff.” (A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park, 1995 ed., 135) Indeed, the extent of the debris field when viewed from the summit is remarkable to see. It also doesn’t take a geologist’s eye to notice the continued effects of erosion on the narrow summit ridge.
Joining me today were my friends Charlie, Paul, Laverne, and Aiden. Charlie and I had previously been invited to join an overnight, guided trip up Ninastako, but neither of us could make it. However, the organizer still encouraged us to make the trip on our own and when Paul, Laverne, and their son Aiden heard we were planning to go, they were eager to come and we were equally glad to have them.
Though there are other approaches to the mountain that Edwards outlines (see also Andrew Nugara’s 2011 trip using the Lee Ridge Trail), the Humble Oil Road route is probably the most direct, but it also requires purchasing a $20 US permit though Blackfeet Nation Fish and Wildlife. As noted in the 1995 edition of Edwards’ A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park, this road has been closed to non-tribal members at various times in the past in order to “preserve the sanctity of religious practices.” (135) A phone call to Blackfeet Nation Fish and Wildlife confirmed that we could access the mountain using this route provided we had a permit, but it is probably best to get verbal confirmation before heading out. This was also the route that Sonny Bou had used in 2005 and whose route description proved invaluable.
As someone who sees Ninastako almost everyday as I ride my bike to work, it was a great honour to finally stand on the summit. While reaching any summit is a gratifying experience, there is definitely something about climbing a mountain that has been visited on a regular basis for thousands of years and which has played such a central role in the history of the area and its people. Finally, having such great company to hike with made the experience even more special.
To get to Ninastako from Lethbridge, drive south on Highway 5 to Cardston, then take Highway 2 to the Piegan-Carway Border Crossing. Once across, continue on Highway 89 for ~9.7 km until you come to the turnoff for the Chief Mountain Highway. Turn onto it and proceed for another ~15.5 km you arrive at the unmarked junction with the Humble Oil Road on your left (south). This is a rough road that requires a high clearance vehicle and if you don’t have one, you will have to hike or bike the ~5.8 km to the trailhead. We ended up parking in a large clearing beneath the trailhead and then hiking the remaining ~195 m up a rough section of road.
The trail is very easy to follow, although it bifurcates when you reach two small ponds at base of the mountain. We didn’t know this, and on the way in, ended up taking the left fork which eventually becomes less distinct as it meanders through the meadows on the northwest side of the mountain until it eventually joins the main trail that is reached by taking the right fork. At the end of the day, the main trail is what we followed back.
From the trailhead it is ~4.7 km (~420 m elevation gain) to reach the southwest scree slope that leads to the summit ridge. A fairly distinct trail leads up the scree to a notch (~1.5 km distance; ~353 m elevation) where a couple short sections of scrambling brings you onto the north side of the mountain where it becomes a short hike to reach the westernmost summit. A ~460 m ridge walk along that includes two down-climbs – the first being somewhat awkward – will bring you to the actual summit. We returned the same way.
Our total roundtrip distance was ~12.8 km (I cleaned the GPS track, but there is still extraneous data so it may be closer to 12.5 or 12 km) with total elevation gains of 1097 m. Our total time was 6 hours and 19 minutes and it took us exactly 3 hours and 30 minutes from car to summit.
Gearing up in the clearing beneath the trailhead. The entire Humble Oil Road and the first couple kilometres of the trail belong to the Blackfeet Nation and a permit must be purchased to use this route. From this point, we would hike the continuation of the road (not pictured) for another ~195m to reach the trailhead.
Aiden passes some ribbon trees located near the trailhead.
Paul follows the trail through a vibrant patch of alpine flora.
Arriving at the base of the mountain where the trail bifurcates shortly after reaching two small ponds. We would take the left path that led up the slope in the centre before eventually rejoining the main path. However, we would return using the main path that uses the slope on the far right.
Following the trail up to the north end of the mountain.
Just before reaching the meadow, we came across this interesting sediment formation.
Another view of the sediment formation.
The northeast face and the northern end of the mountain from the trail.
After rejoining the main trail, we followed it through a lush meadow as we worked our way around the mountain.
The west end of Ninastako offers some nice views of Gable Mountain (far left), Mount Merritt (left of centre) and Mount Cleveland (far right).
Ninaki is the impressive pinnacle located immediately to the southwest of Ninastako.
The trail became less distinct as we neared the first boulder field on the western side of the mountain.
Aiden and the others navigate their way through the rock, which thankfully, was quite stable.
Laverne stands next to an impressive boulder.
The view back after crossing the first boulder field. The giant rock from the previous picture is in the centre.
Gazing southwest toward Ninaki (left), Gable Pass (centre), and Gable Mountain (right). On the way back, we followed another trail (probably the correct one) that dipped partially toward the valley in the foreground.
Making our way through the second boulder field as we begin to head southeast and towards Ninastako’s col with Ninaki. In the background is Bear Mountain (left), Sentinel Mountain (centre), and Sofa Mountain (right).
An interesting piece of argillite.
Looking back at the group as we make our way onto the col.
Ninaki is even more impressive from the col.
Looking at our ascent route up Ninastako’s southwest slope. The key is to find the notch (marked in yellow) that will give you access to the summit ridge. Fortunately, there is a fairly worn path in the scree, though on our way down, we did see a group of climbers veer too far to the west and miss it.
The notch is clearly visible though to reach it, we will enter a gully that is hidden behind the small red wall in the centre.
Glancing back as the slope becomes increasingly steep.
A quick look towards Mount Cleveland (left) highlights how steep the slope has become.
Charlie takes a break after arriving at the first rock band.
The impressive cliffs that tower above the southwest slope.
Now above the rock band, Charlie heads toward the gully that leads to the notch.
Looking up to the notch from the base of the gully. Note the red wall (left) that hides it from view.
The view back from part way up the gully.
I came third in this year’s NHL playoff pool at work and used my winnings to buy a new little summer pack. 🙂 This was the first journey for my Gregory Stout 30.
Another view back down the gully, this time from below the notch.
Laverne prepares to make the quick scramble up the right side of the notch.
Paul and Aiden arriving on top of the notch.
Once above the notch, we headed climber’s right and followed the base of the cliff for a short distance until we came to an opening that led to this small step. It looks trickier than it is.
The view back from the top of the step to the opening.
A short distance beyond the step we found ourselves on the north face of the mountain and looking up at the summit ridge.
Charlie and Aiden follow me up the relatively easy slope to the summit ridge.
On the westernmost summit and looking toward the true summit.
The narrow summit ridge. Save for two down-climbs – the first one being somewhat awkward – the ridge walk is pretty straightforward.
With everyone else content to remain on the west summit, I set off for the actual summit.
The view back to the first down-climb from the other side with my route marked in red. This was the crux of the trip.
Looking toward the second down-climb from the other side. This was not too difficult, though on the way back, I discovered a large crack (not pictured) on the the other side of the ridge that was quicker to use.
Approaching the interesting looking summit.
My route scrambled straight up the centre, though on the way back, I discovered a more moderate approach that can be found by keeping to climber’s right and following the cliff.
A pano from the summit of Ninastako (2760 m) to the southeast.
A pano to the southwest.
The view to the northwest.
Gazing north and along the debris field from the 1972 landslide.
A telephoto to the east with Duck Lake in the background. In the foreground are some small cairns that people have placed on a series of small pinnacles.
A telephoto of Divide Mountain (distant centre) and Yellow Mountain East (foreground right).
A telephoto of Yellow Mountain West and Slide lake.
A telephoto with Ninaki in the foreground and Gable Mountain in the centre. In the distance is Mount Merritt and the Old Sun Glacier.
A telephoto of Mount Cleveland (centre) with Kaina Mountain and Bear Mountain on the right. Cosley Lake can be seen to the left of centre.
A telephoto to the northwest shows… Charlie waving back at me! 🙂 The interesting thing was that while I experienced little to no wind on this end of the mountain, the rest of the group was taking a beating from some intense gusts. In the background is Sofa Mountain.
After snapping a few pictures, I left the summit and headed back to the others. This is the view back to the summit after ascending the second down-climb.
This is the crack that I used to ascend. This would’ve been quicker than losing elevation on the second down-climb and so look for this to climber’s left when you are heading to the summit.
Another view of the debris field from the 1972 landslide. Our vehicles are parked in the clearing on the far left.
One last look back to the summit. The ongoing erosion of the ridge is quite obvious.
Aiden stops to enjoy the views as we make our way off the summit ridge.
Laverne arrives back at the small step.
Paul and Aiden make the easy down-climb from the notch while Charlie and Laverne start down the gully.
A colourful cairn and one last look at Ninastako’s southwest slope. By this point, the wind had become atrocious – but what else is new in this part of the world? 😉
On the way back we followed what is probably the real trail and avoided the second boulder field.
Despite the wind, we couldn’t help but to pause and take in some of the gorgeous scenery on the west side of Ninastako.
A late day shot of Ninaki and Gable Mountain.
A profile of Ninastako exemplifies why the southwest slope is used for ascent.
Arriving back at the first boulder field.
Following the trail across a meadow and down to the small ponds.
A happy group of hikers!
Arriving back at our vehicles after 6 hours and 19 minutes and a total distance of 12.8 km. After waiting so long to climb Ninastako, it was great to finally stand on top of this special mountain. Also, a huge thank you to Charlie, Paul, Laverne, and Aiden for the amazing company!