On Thursday evening on September 12 2013, I met Liam, Eric, Ben and Steven in the Sunwapta Falls parking lot at 21:00 hours for yet another Rockies adventure. This year has been a good one for long treks, climbs and scrambles for me and in part this is due to my friendship with these crazy guys. On the long hike out of the Devon Lakes area, after summiting Mount Willingdon, we were already discussing our next trip! Eric had visited the Fortress Lake area years before, with his brother, and fell in love with the surrounding peaks. Ever since then he's had a hankering for the summits of Catacombs and Fortress mountain.
The issue with both summits is that they are so rarely ascended, there's very little beta on routes or approaches. As far as we knew, only the original ascent party had stood on Catacombs true summit (the grizzly group only summitted the lower, west peak) and we only knew of two previous ascents of Fortress Mountain (original party and the same grizzly group). Of course, this is the main reason we wanted to ascend these mountains in the first place! To be perfectly honest, when Eric first mentioned them, I'd never even heard of Fortress Lake before, much less any of the peaks in the area. But I like remote ascents and bushwhacking so he didn't have to ask me twice! Apparently I'm not the only (dumb?) one, because Ben, Liam and Steven didn't take much convincing either... We agreed to meet at the Sunwapta Falls parking lot on Thursday after work and get the 14.5km hike to the Athabasca Campground done in the dark - to give us more time for the Catacombs approach on Friday.
Eric is great at planning aggressive and remote mountain adventures. He spends hours on his web site, planning and scheming up new approaches, routes and summits to bag. This trip was no different. Using photos of Catacombs from other peaks, he scouted out a route up the south flank of the mountain that looked to be scrambling to the summit glacier cap. From there it would be a bit of an unknown to travel on the glacier to the summit - we had no idea if the glacier would be passable from our top-out point above the south face. We also weren't sure how to get into the valley between Fortress Mountain and Catacombs - we knew it would be a bushwhack but had no idea how bad it might be. Assuming we made it up and down Catacombs, we then planned on continuing on to Fortress Mountain via an unknown route over two cols between the two valleys. Awesome.
[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 3+ hour long hike into the Athabasca Crossing campground was long but passed by fairly quickly thanks to the darkness and our fresh energy. I'm always amazed at how much shorter approaches seem than depproaches, even though they're the same distance and we're usually walking quicker on depproach! We almost stepped on a number of huge toads before arriving at the camp site under a brilliant star studded night sky. As we set up our bivy sacks for the night, Eric mentioned that hopefully the flying squirrels wouldn't get into our packs on the bear poles. I never knew there were flying squirrels in Alberta but Eric was proved correct when we saw one early the next morning right above our bivy (they're nocturnal).
[A raging Athabasca River - thankfully with a bridge over it at this point...]
[Brilliant star-lit night above our bivy at the Athabasca Crossing Campground.]
After only sleeping 5 hours we were up and at 'er early on Friday morning. We had a long day ahead, with a lot of unknowns. Crossing the Athabasca River on the old hanging bridge was interesting - we all wondered what Parks Canada is going to do when this bridge has outlived its life. Crossing the Athabasca River at this point would have been impossible without the bridge, but the water was very high for mid September so maybe some years it could be done. (UPDATE 2015: I guess the bridge really was old as it collapsed in 2014 and there are no plans to replace it. This is very unfortunate and makes the area outlined in this report very difficult to access.) We were hoping to gain the valley between Fortress Mountain and Catacombs via a bushwhack, roughly following a stream up from the Chaba River, not too far past Dragon Peak and the Athabasca River crossing. We followed the trail for a kilometer or so before plunging into the bush on our right and heading for the Chaba.
[Dragon Peak from the small lake near the Athabasca Campground]
[Fortress Mountain glows in morning lighting from near the Athabasca River crossing.]
[The bridge over the Athabasca River. As you can see the river is not small here! I've heard of people crossing it further upstream later in September.]
[This bridge across the Athabasca River is getting a bit old, but it still worked for us in 2013. Less than a year later, it would collapse for good.]
The views of Fortress Mountain from the river flats were flat-out amazing! Eric had certainly picked a nice objective for our second peak! We were all very impressed. We weren't impressed with the Chaba though! :) Since we were just winging it - we had to wade up stream and down stream, trying to find the safest channels to cross. This meant more time in the frigid glacial runoff and more time meant more PAIN. I'm serious. My feet were so sore by the time we finally got out of the river that it took over 30 minutes of hiking to get the blood flowing properly in them again! Yikes! It was a great way to wake up though...
[Dragon Peak rises above the Athabasca River near the bridge crossing point.]
[We get our first impressive glimpse of Fortress Mountain from near the Chaba River flats]
[This was COLD! Crossing a small side channel of the Chaba. Quincy in the background.]
[Liam crosses the Chaba with Quincy on the left and Fortress Mountain towering above. ++]
After crossing the Chaba we headed up through the bush, trying to stay on a small ridge, climber's left of a rushing stream. By staying on the ridge we managed to avoid any real bushwhacking for the first half of the ascent to the valley. After that we paid our dues. For about an hour we were in pretty thick bush but after a final, steep grunt we found ourselves in the alpine with only small trees and scrub to contend with, between long stretches of delightfully open meadow. We also started getting our first glimpses of the looming bulk of Catacombs itself, rising steeply above us with an impressive cap of snow and ice.
[Entering the bush...]
[The bush wasn't too bad at first, while ascending to the valley between Fortress and Catacombs]
[It quickly got worse...]
[We got hopeful that the worse was over.]
[We ended up in some REALLY thick stuff for a short stretch - thankfully short!]
[Dramatic views of Fortress Mountain - our peak for the next day.]
[Fall is in the air.]
[Ben enjoying the fact that we're done the bushwhack.]
[Sticking climber's left of the stream coming down from Catacombs Lakes]
[A small falls along Catacombs Creek - the water was very refreshing after a hot bushwhack up steep slopes.]
We were planning to bivy near a small lake under the south face of the mountain and ascend from there. The views from the bivy location were astounding, especially the very impressive northeast face of Fortress Mountain and it's steep outlier. The haze from the warm weather was a bit depressing but of course the clear skies were a bonus. Our original plan was to ascend Catacombs early on Saturday but with 7 or 8 hours of daylight left (it was only 13:30) we decided to attempt the peak right away.
[Fall colors are coming out - my favorite time of the year.]
[Catacombs meadows and ice-capped summit come into view.]
[Some of the loveliest meadows I've ever walked through were beneath Catacombs. ++]
[The Catacombs Lakes are two pristine gems nestled between Catacombs and Fortress Mountains that must see very few human visitors. ++]
[Our bivy lake with Catacombs rising at top right. Our 'escape col' is just left of center in the distance. ++]
[Looking across at Catacombs from our bivy. The summit at upper left and our ascent gully just to the right of it. ++]
[Hiking beneath the impressive bulk of Catacombs Mountain.]
Ascending our chosen gully up the south side of Catacombs worked like a charm. Grassy slopes led to loose rock ledges on climber's right of a steep gully with water running down it. When the main stream diverged to the left (it is generated from the glacier high above near the summit) we crossed into the almost-dry gully, or stayed on the edges to avoid the worst rock fall. I'm really impressed that nobody got hurt from rock fall on this trip. Fortress was worse, but Catacombs had its share of really rotten rock and with 5 guys ascending and descending the same lines, we had to be very cautious with our hand and footholds. Huge slabs would shift when you pulled on them (you learn to push before pulling...) and many hundreds of smaller rocks would go hurtling down the gully with each few meters of height gain from the group. Climbing like this, you learn pretty quick to stay off the fall line of the guys above you and stick really close together so there's less velocity in any rocks that do end up hitting you!
[Starting up the lower slopes of Catacombs.]
[The grassy slope slowly got steeper]
[Loose and very steep terrain demanded careful attention with 5 of us ascending the gully.]
[Liam on some loose terrain - you can see the two Catacombs Lakes far beneath now and Fortress Mountain on the right.]
[Hot, dusty and very loose terrain.]
[What a view!! ++]
[Looking down our ascent gully.]
[Everything we touched, moved or came crashing down! We had to stay close to be safe.]
Eventually we found ourselves in a high rocky bowl with old glacier on our left and cliffs on our right. We could also spot an escape route through the cliffs on the upper left, just off the glacier and we headed for that break. The route worked out beautifully and soon we were standing next to an impressively sized ice field, steeply rising above our position on the upper ridge.
[Exiting the main gully into the upper scree bowl under the glacier. ++]
[Looking up the scree bowl to the exit gully under the glacier.]
[Grunting up loose scree.]
[A nice Trilobite fossil.]
[Incredible views already and we're not nearly at the top. ++]
[Finally on the upper shoulder of Catacombs looking south and east. The glacier is behind me on this shot. ++]
With no way to know if we could make the summit, we prepared for glacier travel and set off up the ice, Liam leading Eric and I with Ben and Steven as the 'rescue group' following us. Thankfully the glacial ice soon became snow (most of us only had light aluminum crampons) as we traversed over small holes and around to the north east side of the summit cap. Here's where we got a surprise! The ice field on Catacombs was pretty big! Liam had some careful navigating to do, winding his way through some pretty serious crevasses and a few big 'schrunds before we finally figured out that our route would probably work. We curved up a moderate slope and under a massive 'shrund before crossing it on climber's left and then following more snow slopes to the glacier-capped summit itself. Due to crevasses all over the narrowly ridged summit, we took turns taking photos while the others waited or held the rope tight!
[On the east ridge, getting ready to rope up for the glacier on the left. ++]
[The upper ice field is much bigger than we were expecting! We could hear seracs thundering down from the lower right. ++]
[Negotiating the north side of the glacier to the summit.]
[We had to be very careful crossing the large 'schrund. ++]
[The upper glacier on Catacombs is beautifully textured in the late afternoon lighting.]
[Ben and Steven were the 2nd rope team]
[Just under the summit bump, waiting for Eric to take photos. This is the view west, north and east. ++]
[Brussels Peak is striking to the north with Christie to the right.]
The views were incredible in all directions, even with a smoky haze over the western peaks like Clemenceau. Other peaks, like the 11,000ers around the Columbia Icefields were in perfect evening light. Incredible peaks like Quincy, Woolley, Diadem, Alberta, North Twin, Twins Tower, Columbia, Smythe and King Edward beckoned with their towering summits.
[Mount Fryatt with Edith Cavell just behind]
[Christie on extreme left with the Kerkeslin at center.]
[Looking west and south off the summit of Catacombs. Fortress is the mountain in the foreground with Quincy behind it. Our bivy valley in front. ++]
[Eric scopes out peaks from the summit of Catacombs Mountain.]
[The mighty Mount Clemenceau looms over Chisel Peak.]
[Gazing over the summit of Fortress Mountain towards the Chaba Icefield.]
[Gazing over Fortress Mountain at lower right towards Mount Quincy with Mount Columbia (L) and Kind Edward (C) in the background.]
[From L to R in the distance, North Twin, South Twin, West Twin, Columbia and King Edward.]
[The Stutfields and Mount Alberta along with North and South Twin.]
[Gong Glacier at left with Smythe, Thorington Tower, GEC, Mushroom Peak, Diadem, Woolley, Engelhard and East Stutfield from L to R.]
[Different colored mountains to the east.]
[Incredible summit panorama from the Endless Chain at left to the Chaba Icefield at right. ++]
[Pointing out peaks to the west and north. ++]
We couldn't enjoy the summit too long because the shadows were lengthening already and we knew it was going to be a very loose descent. Surprisingly, the descent went pretty quick and painless and we made it back to our bivy well before sunset where we enjoyed some good conversation, views and supper. We all turned in around 22:00 in anticipation of a long next day, but very content with our first major objective completed safely and well within our budgeted time / route.
[Leaving the summit in late afternoon.]
[A pleasant walk down the glacier. ++]
[Under some seracs]
[Nice evening light as we descend the ice field. ++]
[Liam takes off his crampons as we exit the glacier.]
[Looking down at the Catacombs Lakes and our bivy with Fortress behind.]
[Fortress Mountain looks huge from this angle!]
[Ben looks impressed with the loose descent gully. :)]
[Looking down the steep gully - thankfully there were lots of ledges to work our way down.]
[Evening light is fading as we descend.]
[Nice evening light]
[Fortress Mountain and the moon.]
[Evening light from out bivy looking east. ++]
[Dinner time at the bivy site.]
[The moon rises over Fortress Mountain in the evening light. ++]
[An amazing night sky above the bivy.]