Fortress Mountain (Lake)

Summit Elevation (m): 3020
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
Trip Date: September 14 2013
Round Trip Time (hr): 36
Total Trip Distance (km): 60
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3/4 – you fall, you break your leg or worse
Difficulty Notes: A long approach including crossing the Chaba River, bushwhacking and scrambling just to reach Fortress Lake and the mountain. Avoidable crux on ascent involved some very steep and exposed scrambling – avoided on descent by traversing under the summit ridge instead of on it but this increases risk of rockfall.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

Late in the afternoon on August 17 1892, Toronto geology professor, Arthur P. Coleman, his rancher brother from Morley AB, L. Q. Coleman and Toronto surveying professor L.B. Stewart set off up the Whirlpool River in a mythical quest for the rumored giants – Mount Brown and Hooker. Except this wasn’t the Whirlpool River,  it was the Athabasca River they were struggling up. Having no idea that they were way off course, eventually they arrived at a junction with another river that they dubbed “Chaba” after the Stony word for “beaver” – it was choked with their dams. On the 4th day of their expedition they ascended out of the valley to take in the surrounding views, naming “Fortress Mountain” for it’s soaring vertical walls and “Mount Quincy” which stole the show back over the Chaba River below. (Fortress wouldn’t be ascended for another 4 years, R. L. Barrett in 1896.) It was only on rounding the lower cliffs on Fortress Mountain that they encountered stunning views of what they assumed must be the Committee’s Punchbowl on Athabasca Pass with the huge triangular face of Mount Hooker visible far to the west. It was only on returning to camp that they realized that reality wasn’t aligned to their beta. The lake did not conform to the Punchbowl’s shape or size and none of the surrounding peaks matched either.

After a few days of exploration they finally realized that they were not at Athabasca Pass and that Mount Clemenceau wasn’t Mount Brown. They named the lake “Fortress” after the striking mountain and continued to puzzle over the absence of two giant 15,000 foot peaks that should be visible somewhere nearby. After initial disappointment with their obvious directionally challenged predicament they realized how beautiful their so-called predicament actually was! With sunlight reflecting off the blue waters of a lake never seen by white men before, they also realized that the maps were wrong on the current delineation of the two provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Judging the local flora, Coleman realized that they were in BC, not Alberta as the maps indicated they should be. This discovery bent a previously straight provincial boundary 8 miles to the east. After more days exploring the wonderful lake, they made the long journey home and planned yet another expedition seeking out the always elusive Brown and Hooker.

After a successful summit bid on Catacombs Mountain we woke up on Saturday with lots of energy to tackle our next objective – crossing two passes before attempting to summit Fortress Mountain via southwest slopes. UPDATE 2015: The bridge across the Athabasca River, near the Athabasca Crossing campground collapsed in 2014 and there are no plans to replace it. Rumor has it that the Athabasca River can be crossing roughly 1km upstream of the old bridge location but I haven’t verified this yet. This renders accessing the Fortress Lake area very difficult on foot.

Fortress Mountain Route Map
Map of our trip. Blue line is Thurs night / Fri to Catacombs’ summit. Orange Line is Sat, traverse two passes and Fortress Summit. Yellow is Sun, our exit.

The first order of the day, after packing up camp, was heading over a completely unknown col / pass to the valley just northwest of Catacombs and Fortress. This first pass had no beta that we could find, so we were taking a huge chance that it would go. If it didn’t work out we’d have to descend all the way to the Chaba before attempting a bushwhack back up under Fortress Mountain’s SW face – a prospect we weren’t looking forward to at all! The slopes to the col looked intimidating, but as usual in the mountains you have to get your nose in things before you really know what to expect.

Interesting Facts on Fortress Mountain

Named by Arthur P. Coleman in 1892. The mountain resembles a fortress. Official name. First ascended in 1896 by R.L. Barrett (alone). Other reference Wilcox Pg. 174.

In this case we found out pretty quickly that we should expect tons of rock fall (literally, tons) and very steep, hard slopes to the top of the gully. I choose the left hand lower gully while the other 4 choose the right hand side. I struggled up some VERY loose boulders / chock stones / gullies before topping out way above the other guys who had even looser, steeper and crappier terrain than I did. I could hear the rock fall and see clouds of dust coming up from under the guys as they climbed – even though I couldn’t see them. Eventually they made it to my position – dusty but safe.

Looking ahead to the col – we took the left branch and I took the left side while the other 4 took the right side of the branch. The right branch had ice in it.

Above this position we tried to climb up the center of the gully on hard dirt, but this proved too difficult – there was simply no way to gain traction! 4 of us bailed onto steep (loose) rocky ledges on climber’s left while Ben tried to go a bit higher on the dirt. Before he knew it, Ben was completely stuck – unable to move for risk of falling all the way down the gully! Eric, Liam and Steven carefully traversed above him on the ledges (almost knocking him off balance with unavoidable rockfall) before lowering a rope and assisting him up. I followed up the ledges and we found ourselves breathing a huge sigh of relief while gazing down gentler terrain into the pristine valley to the north of the pass.

Now we had to contour climber’s left to gain the lower part of Fortress Pass and then cross this pass under the SW face of Fortress Mountain’s NW ridge. This was much easier than our ascent of the Catacombs Pass! There was even some old sn’ice that we cramponed up over, before heading through the narrow, rocky pass itself. Here we found our first sign of other humans since crossing the Chaba to Catacombs – a cairn.

The gorgeous valley on the west side of the col.
This hidden paradise between Catacombs, Lick and Brussels has numerous ponds, lakes and tarns like this one that we passed.

The alpine meadows under the pass were gorgeous and the sun was hot as we traversed under the NW ridge to our planned ascent gully.

The Ascent

It was time for us to make a decision. We were almost completely out of water (all water sources were dried up along the meadows under the ridge) and starting to worry about daylight since it was after 14:00 already. We decided that we could melt snow at the summit if we had to and after ditching all our heavy gear and taking just the basics (including a stove, fuel and climbing ropes / harnesses) we started up the SW slopes in an obvious gully system. The rock on Fortress made Catacombs look solid– it was brutally loose once we got into it. We stuck close together and even managed to find a tiny trickle of water half way up to satiate some of our thirst – I was getting dehydrated in the heat and seriously needed some liquid at this point!

Looking SE from the col. Fortress rises out of sight at left with Fortress SW3’s long ridge at center and right. Quincy, Sadlier and Chisel in the hazy distance.
Chisel obvious at left as we start ascending Fortress and look back over the Fortress Meadows. SW3 at right.

Near the top of the SW gully we had a choice – go straight up some steep and difficult scrambling (very exposed on the NW side) or traverse very loose gullies to our right before going up to the summit block. We chose to take the steep and solid rock up to the summit ridge, which was probably the best ‘climbing’ (other than the glacier) we had all weekend.

From the top of the scramble, the traverse to the summit of Fortress Mountain was about 1/2 a kilometer with glorious views in all directions in the late afternoon sun. There was a lot of haze, but just like on Catacombs, the views to the north and east were very respectable too. The huge summit cairn was a surprise until we read the register and realized that the 2nd ascent party was composed of a lot of people who must have spent some time building it. We signed the register, took photos and headed back down.

Incredible summit ridge views as Steve is barely visible nearing the apex of Fortress Mountain at left. The Chaba River and Glacier visible at center distance with Chisel Creek leading to Clemenceau at right.
Views to the south off the summit include Quincy at center right and Gong Lake at left of center.
The gorgeous Catacombs Mountain with its lovely meadows and lakes far beneath us now.
The Chaba Icefield and peak on the left, with Listening Mountain is the foreground summit at center (wolf’s ears) and Somervell in the background on the right.
The Chaba River Valley runs far below the 3020m summit of Fortress Mountain. Mount Quincy at right.

For descent, we traversed the loose gullies rather than down climb the difficult and exposed rock (we were all tired and didn’t want to make any fatal mistakes). The gullies were crappy but we made it back to our ascent gully. From there we very carefully descended – sticking close together while releasing tons and tons of rock down the gully below.

Tiny figures on vast fields of rock and scree as we descend Fortress Mountain.
Quincy (L) and Sadlier (R) with the Chaba River and Fortress Lake under the rising moon.

It was getting dark as we got to our packs and Ben and I quickly kept descending to the valley below– hoping to find a nice bivy spot by Fortress Creak. Unfortunately we didn’t find a great spot, but we managed to get a reasonable site before darkness settled in.


On Sunday it was time for the long trek back to Sunwapta Falls via Fortress Lake and the trail along the Chaba River. The first order of business was the descent to Fortress Lake via Fortress Stream. This looked pretty easy on the map but was far from easy – it ended up being the toughest part of our trip!

It took us over 2.5 hours to descend the 2.2km from our bivy to the lake through alders, fallen timber and thick spruce. By the time we finally stumbled out at the Fortress Stream campground along Fortress Lake we were tired, dirty and a bit grumpy. A swim in the perfectly clear and cold lake cured us of all memories of that bushwhack – most of them anyway. After our swim and scouting around the delightful camp site we very reluctantly started the long trek back on a good trail along Fortress Lake.

Gorgeous Fortress Lake with Sadlier on the L and Chisel on the R. Serenity off in the distance to the R.

When we arrived at the junction to the first camp site on the lakes east end we made a little detour to go check it out (it’s slightly off the main trail). This camp site is another awesome one – it really is worth backpacking to the lake for these campsites – if the weather is good.

View of Fortress Lake with Sadlier, Chisel, Serenity and Fortress from L to R.

While we were getting ready to leave, two boats from the fishing lodge came up to us. We spoke to two guys from the lodge who were there to pick up fishermen hiking in from Sunwapta to save money on the normal flight to the lake. The lodge guys gave us some good beta on Chisel Peak, Sadlier and even access routes for Clemenceau from behind the lodge. They indicated that they have picked up more than one backpacker or climber and ferried them across the lake with advance planning – an interesting option and one we filed away for future use.

Getting ready to cross a wide, deep, fast and COLD Chaba River! Stunning views define this entire valley.

We crossed the Chaba River at the recommended place (marked with metal triangles on trees on either side of the braided river) in knee to mid-thigh deep water. The river was very fast and quite deep for September. I wouldn’t want to cross it in July or August based on how fast it was going for us– water scares me when I have a huge pack on! The rest of the trudge back to the cars took a long time but we eventually waded our way through the tourons at Sunwapta Falls and collapsed on the pavement near our cars before eagerly getting out of our heavy boots.

I really enjoyed this trip. It was tough and my toes barely survived the combination of the icy Chaba and my very uncomfortable mountaineering boots but the area around Fortress Lake is a wild and beautiful place that makes the pain of getting there, worth it. UPDATE 2015: The bridge across the Athabasca River, near the Athabasca Crossing campground collapsed in 2014 and there are no plans to replace it. Rumor has it that the Athabasca River can be crossing roughly 1 km upstream of the old bridge location but I haven’t verified this myself.

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