Mount Siyeh is located in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana. The view from the 3,052-m (10,014-ft) summit is arguably the finest panorama in Glacier National Park. It is the fifth highest mountain in the park; one of six peaks to reach above 10,000 feet. It is part of the Lewis Range, which was formed 170 million years ago by the thrusting of ancient Precambrian basement rocks above more recent Cretaceous layers. This geologic event is referred to as the Lewis Overthrust, and has produced some of the biggest cliff faces in the entire United States.
Mount Siyeh is situated in a superb setting, about four miles from Logan Pass. From the top, it is possible to pick out virtually every main peak in Glacier National Park. While it appears to be an obese hump when viewed from the south, the foreboding north face of Mount Siyeh is a sheer 4,100-foot drop to the turquoise waters of Cracker Lake. This side of the mountain has only been climbed twice – the first time in 1979 by Jim Kanzler and Terry Kennedy, who described it as “a death route.”
This article refers to an ascent of the south face in September 2014. For navigation, we used A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park written by the acclaimed local mountaineer J. Gordon Edwards. Originally written in 1961, this comprehensive guidebook was long considered the Bible for climbing the great mountains of Glacier.
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 20th, 2014
Early in the morning, Giselle and I awake in the aspen forests of St. Mary Campground near the eastern gate of Glacier National Park. We would have camped closer to the trailhead, but the Going-to-the-Sun Road is strictly patrolled for this type of prohibited tramping. We’re not exactly complaining, though: St. Mary Campground is in a nice location at a comfortably low elevation of 4,500-ft. From our site we have a full view of Napi Mountain with its beautifully-displayed horizontal stratigraphy.
We pack up the tent and begin driving west along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is considered one of the most scenic drives in the country. Following the north shore of the elongated St. Mary Lake, I do my best to keep one eye on the twisty cliffside road and the other eye on the majestic scenery across the valley.
We follow Going-to-the-Sun Road until the great hairpin curve called Siyeh Bend. From this point, the roadside tourist can glimpse the massive southern hump of Mount Siyeh – not nearly as impressive as the north face. We park in the small turnout and start up the steep Siyeh Bend Trail to join the famous Continental Divide Trail. The sun is only just peeking over the top of Matahpi Peak (9,365-ft) and the autumn air is brisk.
At the forested 6,300-ft junction, we head north in the direction of Mount Siyeh. We follow the Continental Divide Trail for a couple miles until we reach Preston Park, an expansive semi-forested plain at 7,000-ft. From here, the south side of Mount Siyeh presents itself for us to study.
We follow the Siyeh Pass trail through the idyllic basin of Preston Park, turning into the forest on the left when we see an opportunity.
The two of us spend twenty minutes bushwacking through thick spruce to the base of the talus slopes. We’re exhausted when we arrive there, and find ourselves intimidated by the steep terrain above. Nothing but bare cliffs and loose slopes. There’s a significant cliff band to be navigated – the guidebook says to pick the easiest-looking gulley.
We climb up several hundred feet on a talus slope before realizing that the cliffs above are not a suitable route. Therefore we traverse delicately across the steep scree until we see an easier gulley. The glacier-carved pinnacles of the Logan Pass area serve as a magnificent backdrop.
The going is smooth up our chosen gulley as we scramble up 3rd class shale ledges, leaving a string of glittering alpine tarns below us.
However, we reach an impasse at the 8,600-ft mark, finding ourselves beneath a serious cliff of black diorite – a geologic sill of magma that was injected between the crumbly shale layers. It’s a defeating feeling to be turned away after so much work (a 1,500-ft ascent from Preston Park already) but we have to brainstorm for another way to the summit.
While looking around, I notice a mountain goat, just a tiny white speck, clambering around on the cliffs to our right not much lower than ourselves.
We decide to try a promising-looking gulley to our left. The top is hidden from our view; as far as we can see, it is relatively gentle-sloped but filled with snow. We spend half an hour descending to about 7,800-ft and then traversing across to the bottom of the shadowed gulley. Feeling confident, we start upwards on a third class stairway.
Considering that we are running out of time, we realize that this gulley is our last shot at reaching the summit. We climb upwards, avoiding snowpatches and squeezing up 4th-class chimneys to achieve each successive ledge. The diorite sill is weak in the gulley due to snowmelt erosion, and we are able to scale it to the top of the gulley.
Finally back in the gorgeous sunshine at 8,700-feet, we cut diagonally up a vast scree slope. This brings us to the saddle west of Mount Siyeh, at the edge of a 3,000-foot precipice.
From there it’s a thousand feet of easy scrambling to the summit. I build a chain of cairns (rock ducks) along the way so that we can use the same route to descend. We follow the 4,000-foot ridgeline for the last 50 meters to the top. I find a seat on the edge and revel in the scenery.
Once on the 10,014-foot summit itself we behold an astounding panorama of western Montana. Deep glacier-filled valleys radiate around prominent Mount Siyeh. To the east, the colourful foothills of the Rockies fade into the endless Central Plains of the U.S. To the south and west, an uncountable number of pyramid-shaped mountains fill the landscape. Undoubtedly the most impressive sight is to the north: a 4,100-foot vertical drop to Cracker Lake.
We spend half an hour picking out summits on the horizon, and half an hour resting in the calm sunshine. Carefully we pick our way off of the great summit pyramid, down to the scree and to the edge of the cliffs at 9,000-feet.
This time we choose a different path – most importantly one in the sunshine because it’s getting late in the day and our ascent gulley is now a deep chasm of cold shadow. We descend a thousand feet of 3rd-class sedimentary rock using surprisingly good handholds. A resistant layer of green shale dishes out a nervy 4th-class challenge.
Past that obstacle, we chase the sun down to the scree slopes and then whack through the forest to Preston Park. Looking up at Pigeon Mountain, we notice an Ice Man sliding down a chute. He’s the first human being we’ve seen since the trailhead – save for the bodies that we were able to spot from our lofty summit perch.
We jog downhill through Preston Park as the sun casts a beautiful pink glow on Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. It’s dark by the time we reach my vehicle Misti at the trailhead. On the trail down we encounter two deer; on the highway east of Logan Pass we encounter two bears.