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Fortress Mountain

Summit Elevation (m): 3020
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
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)
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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 her 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.
Tiny figures under the hulking mass of Catacombs. The 2nd attempt was made from this side but didn’t make the true summit.
Looking back over old ice from the col – Fryatt visible at distant right here.

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.

Traverse from Catacombs Lake to Fortress Mountain
The morning haze was very thick each day.
The morning haze was very thick each day.
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.
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.
Under the steep and loose gully to the pass.
Under the steep and loose gully to the pass.
The other 4 guys head up the right side of the left branch of the gully.
The other 4 guys head up the right side of the left branch of the gully.
The very steep, loose and hard-pack slopes to the col.
The very steep, loose and hard-pack slopes to the col.
Liam comes up from the left side of the photo - I ascended the right side of the buttress in the gully.
Liam comes up from the left side of the photo - I ascended the right side of the buttress in the gully.
The guys come up to my position.
The guys come up to my position.
Almost there!
Almost there!
Looking back over Catacombs Meadows.
Looking back over Catacombs Meadows.
This hidden gem of lakes and alpine meadows is not visited by humans easily or often.
This hidden gem of lakes and alpine meadows is not visited by humans easily or often.
The gang starts down into the valley west of Catacombs.
The gang starts down into the valley west of Catacombs.
This hidden gem of lakes and alpine meadows is not visited by humans easily or often.
This hidden gem of lakes and alpine meadows is not visited by humans easily or often.
This hidden gem of lakes and alpine meadows is not visited by humans easily or often.
This hidden gem of lakes and alpine meadows is not visited by humans easily or often.
Mount Fryatt (L) is still a favorite 11,000er
Mount Fryatt (L) is still a favorite 11,000er
Gorgeous lake in the valley behind Catacombs.
Gorgeous lake in the valley behind Catacombs.
Hiking towards the second col under the west ridge of Catacombs
Hiking towards the second col under the west ridge of Catacombs
Ascending loose terrain to the second col.
Ascending loose terrain to the second col.
The moraine / loose scree that we ascended to the second col. Catacombs on the right.
The moraine / loose scree that we ascended to the second col. Catacombs on the right.
Heading up to the Fortress col in the hot sun.
Heading up to the Fortress col in the hot sun.
The 2nd attempt on Catacombs was made from this side but was unsuccessful.
The 2nd attempt on Catacombs was made from this side but was unsuccessful.
A short but steep ice / snow slope to the col.
A short but steep ice / snow slope to the col.
Views over old ice from the col. Fryatt at distant right.
Views over old ice from the col. Fryatt at distant right.
Huge, loose, shifting boulders at the Fortress Col.
Huge, loose, shifting boulders at the Fortress Col.
The guys come up the narrow pass behind me
The guys come up the narrow pass behind me
One last look back at Fryatt.
One last look back at Fryatt.
First glimpse across the pass.
First glimpse across the pass.
More loose terrain as we descend the col.
More loose terrain as we descend the col.
We traversed well around this lake and slopes to the right.
We traversed well around this lake and slopes to the right.
Coming down the pass - thankfully a lot easier than the first one!!
Coming down the pass - thankfully a lot easier than the first one!!
Asters thrive everywhere.
Asters thrive everywhere.
Back on grassy meadows at the Fortress Creek headwaters.
Back on grassy meadows at the Fortress Creek headwaters.

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.

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.

Fortress Mountain
A panorama of the pristine and very beautiful valley between Fortress Mountain and Fortress Lake.
A panorama of the pristine and very beautiful valley between Fortress Mountain and Fortress Lake.
Working our way into the major gully that would take us right up to the summit ridge on Fortress. Note the two 'devils horns' above.
Working our way into the major gully that would take us right up to the summit ridge on Fortress. Note the two 'devils horns' above.
Looking west over Fortress Lake up the Chisel Creek valley to Mount Clemenceau.
Looking west over Fortress Lake up the Chisel Creek valley to Mount Clemenceau.
In the lower, loose gully.
In the lower, loose gully.
In the lower, loose gully.
In the lower, loose gully.
There were some solid sections on either side of the gully that were fun - but they were short lived
There were some solid sections on either side of the gully that were fun - but they were short lived
Back to kicking rocks down on each other!
Back to kicking rocks down on each other!
Back to kicking rocks down on each other!
Back to kicking rocks down on each other!
Bailing the lower ascent gully.
Bailing the lower ascent gully.
A steep snow slope in the gully, near the top out before the difficult scrambling
A steep snow slope in the gully, near the top out before the difficult scrambling
Just before the difficult ridge, looking back at the Fortress Lake Lodge with Clemenceau rising behind. The Chaba River at left.
Just before the difficult ridge, looking back at the Fortress Lake Lodge with Clemenceau rising behind. The Chaba River at left.
Popping out on the ridge, looking over a Catacombs and the valley we bivied in.
Popping out on the ridge, looking over a Catacombs and the valley we bivied in.
Starting the difficult section (moderate section out of sight to the right.
Starting the difficult section (moderate section out of sight to the right.
Loose, blocky terrain near the summit ridge.
Loose, blocky terrain near the summit ridge.
Ben tops out from the difficult section with gorgeous views into Catacombs valley.
Ben tops out from the difficult section with gorgeous views into Catacombs valley.
The gorgeous summit ridge of Fortress Mountain.
The gorgeous summit ridge of Fortress Mountain.
Steven approaches the summit of Fortress Mountain.
Steven approaches the summit of Fortress Mountain.
The gorgeous summit ridge of Fortress Mountain.
The gorgeous summit ridge of Fortress Mountain.
The summit register had one entry and we know that this group built the summit cairn.
The summit register had one entry and we know that this group built the summit cairn.
The gorgeous Catacombs Mountain with its lovely meadows and lakes far beneath us now.
The gorgeous Catacombs Mountain with its lovely meadows and lakes far beneath us now.
Mount Quincy is an impressive and rarely climbed peak to the south of Fortress.
Mount Quincy is an impressive and rarely climbed peak to the south of Fortress.
Mount Quincy is an impressive and rarely climbed peak to the south of Fortress.
Mount Quincy is an impressive and rarely climbed peak to the south of Fortress.
Mount Quincy is an impressive and rarely climbed peak to the south of Fortress.
Mount Quincy is an impressive and rarely climbed peak to the south of Fortress.
Looking over Gong Lake towards Gong Peak and Glacier with Sunwapta and Smythe to the right and Confederation, Weiss and Mitchell to the left.
Looking over Gong Lake towards Gong Peak and Glacier with Sunwapta and Smythe to the right and Confederation, Weiss and Mitchell to the left.
Views towards the Endless Chain.
Views towards the Endless Chain.
Columbia and South Twin beyond Quincy.
Columbia and South Twin beyond Quincy.
Panorama from Diadem / Woolley on the left to Alberta, North Twin, South Twin, Columbia and Quincy to the right.
Panorama from Diadem / Woolley on the left to Alberta, North Twin, South Twin, Columbia and Quincy to the right.
Listening Mountain is the foreground summit at center (wolf's ears) and Somervell in the background on the right.
Listening Mountain is the foreground summit at center (wolf's ears) and Somervell in the background on the right.
Too bad this is the best views of Clemenceau (R) and Tusk (L) due to haze in the atmosphere.
Too bad this is the best views of Clemenceau (R) and Tusk (L) due to haze in the atmosphere.
Another view, slightly below the main summit from the east end of the ridge.
Another view, slightly below the main summit from the east end of the ridge.
Views towards Wolf's Ears and the Chaba Icefield.
Views towards Wolf's Ears and the Chaba Icefield.
Vern on the summit of Fortress Mountain with Catacombs in the background.
Vern on the summit of Fortress Mountain with Catacombs in the background.
Liam waits for us after doing the moderate traverse back to our main ascent gully.
Liam waits for us after doing the moderate traverse back to our main ascent gully.
Late day light as we descend Fortress.
Late day light as we descend Fortress.
Looking up the Chisel Creek valley at Mount Clemenceau with Chisel Peak on the right.
Looking up the Chisel Creek valley at Mount Clemenceau with Chisel Peak on the right.
Quincy at left and Sadlier at right over Fortress Lake.
Quincy at left and Sadlier at right over Fortress Lake.
The 'devil horns' are lit - a key landmark to finding the scramble gully on Fortress.
The 'devil horns' are lit - a key landmark to finding the scramble gully on Fortress.
Quincy and Sadlier with the Chaba River and Fortress Lake under the rising moon.
Quincy and Sadlier with the Chaba River and Fortress Lake under the rising moon.
Clemenceau and Chisel Peak.
Clemenceau and Chisel Peak.
Setting up another late night bivy.
Setting up another late night bivy.

The Egress

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.

Sticking to Fortress Steam was a good idea for navigational purposes but a bad idea for terrain / bushwhackiness.

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!

Recrossing the Athabasca bridge – on hindsight we’re lucky it didn’t collapse while we were gone.

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.

Egress from Fortress Mountain & Lake
Starting the long walk back to hwy 93 from our bivy.
Starting the long walk back to hwy 93 from our bivy.
The bushwhack out to Fortress Lake.
The bushwhack out to Fortress Lake.
There were brief openings in the bushwhack descent where I could snap a photo!
There were brief openings in the bushwhack descent where I could snap a photo!
The bushwhack out to Fortress Lake.
The bushwhack out to Fortress Lake.
Dense bushwhacking begins.
Dense bushwhacking begins.
Sticking to Fortress Steam was a good idea for navigational purposes but a bad idea for terrain / bushwhackiness. :)
Sticking to Fortress Steam was a good idea for navigational purposes but a bad idea for terrain / bushwhackiness. 🙂
Bushwhacking over and around Fortress Creek.
Bushwhacking over and around Fortress Creek.
The bushwhack out to Fortress Lake.
The bushwhack out to Fortress Lake.
The bushwhack out to Fortress Lake.
The bushwhack out to Fortress Lake.
Gorgeous Fortress Lake with Sadlier on the L and Chisel on the R. Serenity off in the distance to the R.
Gorgeous Fortress Lake with Sadlier on the L and Chisel on the R. Serenity off in the distance to the R.
An incredible campsite on Fortress Lake. Doesn't get better than this!
An incredible campsite on Fortress Lake. Doesn't get better than this!
The trail has been recently maintained on this end (by the lodge?)
The trail has been recently maintained on this end (by the lodge?)
Even a biffy. The luxuries!
Even a biffy. The luxuries!
The trail has been recently maintained on this end (by the lodge?)
The trail has been recently maintained on this end (by the lodge?)
Fortress Lake Campsite.
Fortress Lake Campsite.
Another hot late summer day.
Another hot late summer day.
Hamber Provincial Park.
Hamber Provincial Park.
At the first campsite on Fortress Lake.
At the first campsite on Fortress Lake.
View of Fortress Lake with Sadlier, Chisel, Serenity and Fortress from L to R.
View of Fortress Lake with Sadlier, Chisel, Serenity and Fortress from L to R.
Chisel at left with Serenity in the far distance.
Chisel at left with Serenity in the far distance.
Serenity Mountain looks impressive at the far end of the lake.
Serenity Mountain looks impressive at the far end of the lake.
Walking back from Fortress Lake before the Chaba crossing.
Walking back from Fortress Lake before the Chaba crossing.
An excellent trail for the most part - surprisingly so but probably deteriorating since the Athbasca River bridge collapsed in 2014
An excellent trail for the most part - surprisingly so but probably deteriorating since the Athbasca River bridge collapsed in 2014
Muddy in spots before we get to the Chaba.
Muddy in spots before we get to the Chaba.
Getting ready to cross a wide, deep, fast and COLD Chaba River! Stunning views define this entire valley.
Getting ready to cross a wide, deep, fast and COLD Chaba River! Stunning views define this entire valley.
It's tricky to find all the most shallow channels to cross.
It's tricky to find all the most shallow channels to cross.
Quincy is a very impressive peak when seen from the Chaba River.
Quincy is a very impressive peak when seen from the Chaba River.
Finishing up the almost 1km wide river channel crossings!
Finishing up the almost 1km wide river channel crossings!
Fortress Mountain seen from the Chaba crossing.
Fortress Mountain seen from the Chaba crossing.
A long walk back with some questionable sections that could be problematic in higher water.
A long walk back with some questionable sections that could be problematic in higher water.
A glimpse of Catacombs from the trail.
A glimpse of Catacombs from the trail.
Dragon Peak from near the Athabasca River crossing.
Dragon Peak from near the Athabasca River crossing.
Recrossing the Athabasca bridge - on hindsight we're lucky it didn't collapse while we were gone.
Recrossing the Athabasca bridge - on hindsight we're lucky it didn't collapse while we were gone.
The trail is excellent from here back to the highway.
The trail is excellent from here back to the highway.
Back at the Athabasca Crossing campground.
Back at the Athabasca Crossing campground.
One last glance back at Catacombs.
One last glance back at Catacombs.

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 1km upstream of the old bridge location but I haven’t verified this myself.

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