We apply a point-scale energy-balance model to a small polythermal glacier in the St Elias Mountains of Canada in order to investigate the applicability and limitations of different treatments of the glacier surface temperature and subsurface heat flux. These treatments range in complexity from a multilayer subsurface model that simulates snowpack evolution, to the assumption of a constant glacier surface temperature equal to 0°C. The most sophisticated model includes dry densification of the snowpack, penetration of shortwave radiation into the subsurface, internal melting, refreezing of percolating meltwater and generation of slush layers. Measurements of subsurface temperature and surface lowering are used for model validation, and highlight the importance of including subsurface penetration of shortwave radiation in the model. Using an iterative scheme to solve for the subsurface heat flux as the residual of the energy-balance equation results in an overestimation of total ablation by 18%, while the multilayer subsurface model underestimates ablation by 6%. By comparison, the 0°C surface assumption leads to an overestimation of ablation of 29% in this study where the mean annual air temperature is about −8°C.