Fortress South Outlier

Summit Elevation (m): 2840
Elevation Gain (m): 950
Round Trip Time (hr): 5.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 19.5
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2 – You fall you sprain a thumb
Difficulty Notes: No difficulties – this is a steep scree hike.
Technical Rating: OT4, RE3
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

As the scrambling season for 2021 comes to an end I found myself with a nice day off on Friday October 8th with no firm plans. There were more than a few options I could have targeted but to be perfectly honest I wasn’t totally feeling like a big trip for some reason. As I drove to the Rockies early in the morning to tackle a ~40km day I changed my mind and took the turnoff to Kananaskis instead of continuing up hwy 1 as originally planned. The week before KC and I had hiked the Headwall Lakes to Chester Lake route in bad weather – I was hoping to take her up The Fortress but low clouds and snow kyboshed those plans. As we hiked through the upper Headwall Lakes valley I noticed a track on Gaia heading up to the right to a peak labelled “Fortress South Outlier” and wondered if that might be worth a ramble some day. As these things tend to do, that day ended up being sooner than later thanks to my low mojo. Thankfully KC and my gloomy day was more than made up for a few days later with a fantastic hike up Smutwood Peak with clear views and many larches.

Our gloomy, snowy, cold day was salvaged somewhat with great views over Chester Lake as we hiked down towards it.

I arrived at the Chester Lake parking lot much too early and slept for 30 minutes in the truck before it finally got light enough to hike without a headlamp. I knew this objective wouldn’t take long and it was -10 with snow at the parking lot so I wasn’t in a huge hurry to get going before daylight even broke. I was wishing for my boots as I started up the trail but since I was originally planning on a much longer hike I’d only brought my approach shoes and was stuck with them.

The Fortress – South Outlier Route Map.

I think there’s a shorter approach from the Smith Dorrien road to access the network of snowshoe (“Snowdrift”) trails to the start of the Headwall Lakes trail but accessing it from the Chester Lake parking lot works well and is easy enough so that’s what I did. It might add 1-2 kms at most. It was pretty darn chilly – winter is certainly coming to the Rockies! A light skiff of snow on the trails didn’t slow me down much and soon enough I was at the cairn and ribbons marking the start of the Headwall Lakes trail branching off the much larger “Snowdrift” trail.

The trail up to the Headwall Lakes was rudimentary but fairly easy to follow. I was annoyed by snow falling down my neck from the surrounding trees in the narrower sections along Headwall Creek but the snow wasn’t an issue anywhere else. The trail steepens considerable near treeline and below the first lake but once again between ribbons and cairns it was obvious and straightforward to follow even with the fresh snow.

Headwall Lake with The Fortress at distant center and the south outlier to the right.

I was wearing all my layers as I hiked around the lower Headwall Lake in blue morning shade. On hindsight this wasn’t the brightest objective for this particular day since most of the approach hike is in deep shadow from Headwall Peak at this time of the year. The only sunlight I could see on approach was in the distance on The Fortress and on the south outlier ahead. As I passed the upper lake I could clearly spot the rest of my route up to the south end of the outlier. The scree slopes looked like they could be either frozen solid or brutally loose. There was only one way to find out which of those two pleasantries awaited me.

The class II route up scree to the right before traversing left to the summit. The Fortress at left with the route to the Chester col visible at left.

Unfortunately the slopes were brutally loose scree. I was in approach shoes but boots would be a better choice for this type of terrain where you pretty much have to kick steps in the scree – it’s that loose. I was already looking forward to the descent as I labored my way upwards. As usual, it didn’t take as long as I thought it might before I was on the upper ridge. The good news was that I was in sunlight at this point. The bad news was that I was also now in strong winds. It was freaking cold! Views were really good in every direction thanks to the clear skies. As I ascended a small false summit I took in the rest of my route to the top looking very straightforward.

Views of the summit from a high point along the south ridge. The Fortress at left, Kidd to the right and the Fortress ski area at lower right with The Wedge rising over it.

I made my way over to the top of the outlier in strong, cold winds with excellent views over the Kananaskis Valley to my right and towards peaks along the Smith Dorrien and Spray valleys to my left. The Fortress featured the most prominent of course. After snapping a bunch of summit panoramas I dug around in a small cairn just under the summit and was surprised to find a register. Apparently this is a geocache site that doesn’t see many visitors – or at least not folks who find or sign the register. I was only the 3rd in the past 11 years or so.

L to R, Headwall, Jellicoe, Smith Dorrien, Murray, CEGFNS, Robertson, Sir Douglas, Chester, Birdwood, Smuts, Gusty and The Fortress (R).
L to R, The Fortress, Sparrowhawk, Bogart , South Kidd, Kidd, Baldy, Wasootch, Kananaskis, Old Baldy, Limestone, The Wedge, Opal, Fisher, Denny, Evan-Thomas. The Fortress ski resort and runs visible at lower right.

The summit winds were bitterly cold so I didn’t linger longer than necessary. I made my way up the small false peak before starting down into the Headwall Lakes valley. At first I wondered if the descent might be awful in shoes but the scree was loose enough to ensure a quick and relatively painless exit. 

Descending towards the north end of Headwall Peak with views over hwy 40 at left and over the Smith Dorrien road at right.

The sun was still not shining in the valley bottom as I wandered back past the Headwall Lakes. Finally, just as I passed the lower lake the sun penetrated the valley and things warmed up considerably.  The rest of my exit went quick. 

As I wandered back along first the small Headwall Lakes trail and then the much larger Snowdrift trail to the Chester Lake parking lot I reflected on all my 2021 scrambles and trips and the ideas that I’m considering regarding explor8ion and lifting all of the restrictions I put in place last year. For me it’s come to a point where being grumpy and upset about others using, or even overusing and/or oversharing (whatever that means) the landscape gets more tiring and depressing than the actions themselves. I’m more interested in encouraging others to behave properly in the backcountry and have a good and safe time there than dissuading their presence altogether. If I can help people travel safely and efficiently through the mountain landscape why wouldn’t I? Rather than try to shut it all down or only allow people to pay others for access to certain landscapes, why not help alleviate overuse issues by encouraging folks to spread out a bit? By giving people different trip options with safe routes, helpful advice and education I think I can be a positive influence rather than a grumpy old NIMBY, standing around with a frowny face as others explore and enjoy shared public lands. In this spirit, I have removed all restrictions on my trip reports and you’re going to notice GPS tracks popping into many of them again. I’ve run into enough people getting lost while following Gaia / AllTrails breadcrumbs to realize that there is a need for reliable tracks that don’t charge money to lead nowhere great.

2 thoughts on Fortress South Outlier

  1. Many thanks Vern for letting download your GPX files, I have used them extensively over the years as a reference / backup and always felt safer when hiking / scrambling alone.

  2. I did not want to comment when you brought “restrictions” last year; I thought it was lame but it’s your site and content; you have the right to do as you please. But I will comment now. I am glad reason and overall IQ prevailed and influence from little Liverpool sidekick is not clouding your mind. The answer to problem (which is real, nobody denies that) is exactly what you wrote: Educate, spread awareness – and when you are out reduce damage (leave no trace after wild bivi, pick-up garbage others left, etc).

    Thanks for Fortress idea; I’ve done Headwall – Fortress – Chester loop many years ago, but this will motivate me to revisit the area next yr. Cheers

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