Fortress Mountain


Trip Details
Mountain Range: 
Mountain Subrange: 
Attained Summit?: 
Trip Date: 
Friday, September 13, 2013 to Sunday, September 15, 2013
Summit Elevation (m): 
Summit Elevation (ft): 
Elevation Gain (m): 
Total Distance (km): 
Quick 'n Easy Rating: 
Class 4 : you fall, you are almost dead
Difficulty Notes: 

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 incidents.

Trip Report

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 yetThis renders accessing the Fortress Lake area very difficult on foot. :(]


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.


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.


[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. The right branch had ice in it.]

[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 very steep, loose and hard-pack slopes to the col]


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 rock fall) 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.


[Liam comes up from the left side of the photo - I ascended the right side of the buttress in the gully. Note the clouds of dust from rock fall caused by the 4 guys coming up!]

[The guys come up to my position]

[The guys prepare to lower the rope to Ben (out of sight on lower right of photo)]

[Ben is stuck! He had to balance there while a rope was lowered - even braving a rock fall event caused by the guys getting into position to help him!]

[Almost there!]

[Looking back to our bivy lake in the distance from the col]

[The gorgeous valley on the west side of the col. ++]

[Mount Fryatt (L) is still a favorite 11,000er]

[The gang starts down into the valley west of Catacombs.]

[Gorgeous lake in the valley behind Catacombs]


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


[Heading up to the Fortress col in the hot sun]

[Hiking towards the second col under the west ridge of Catacombs]

[Ascending loose terrain to the second col.]

[The moraine / loose scree that we ascended to the second col. Catacombs on the right.]

[Grunting up to the second col]

[A short but steep ice / snow slope to the col]

[Another look back as I gain the col]

[The guys come up the narrow pass behind me]

[First glimpse across the pass.]

[We traversed well around this lake and slopes to the right. ++]

[Coming down the pass - thankfully a lot easier than the first one!!]

[Looking back - the pass is just out of sight to the right]

[Asters thrive everywhere.]

[Back on grassy meadows at the Fortress Creek headwaters.]

[A panorama of the pristine and very beautiful valley between Fortress Mountain and Fortress Lake. ++]


Here we had 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.


[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.]


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 west over Fortress Lake up the Chisel Creek valley to Mount Clemenceau. The fishing lodge keeps a trail open up Chisel Creek which can be used to access Clemenceau. Chisel Peak at right.]

[Looking over the valley we descended from the col that is out of sight at center right.]

[In the lower, loose gully]

[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!]

[Looking back.]


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. 


[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. ++]

[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.]


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.


[Ben tops out from the difficult section with gorgeous views into Catacombs valley. ++]

[Steven approaches the summit of Fortress Mountain. ++]

[We've been told that 'lots of parties' ascend Fortress Mountain but frankly, I don't buy it. The summit register had one entry and we know that this group built the summit cairn - why no more signatures? And sure, some people don't sign registers but there was ZERO sign of human traffic on this mountain and I've ascended enough peaks to know that even one ascent party / year is enough to make small human signs / trails on a mountain. I think maybe people are confused with The Fortress in Kananaskis. :)]

[The gorgeous Catacombs Mountain with its lovely meadows and lakes far beneath us now. ++]

[Summit panorama from Fortress Mountain looking north and east (Catacombs on L and Quincy on R in foreground). ++]

[Mount Quincy is an impressive and rarely climbed peak to the south of Fortress. ++]

[Quincy's glacier doesn't look like an easy ascent route!]

[Looking over Gong Lake towards Gong Peak and Glacier with Sunwapta and Smythe to the right and Confederation, Weiss and Mitchell to the left.]

[Panorama from Diadem / Woolley on the left to Alberta, North Twin, South Twin, Columbia and Quincy to the right. ++]

[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. ++]

[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. ++]

[Vern on the summit of Fortress Mountain with Catacombs in the background.]


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. 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.


[Descending under the difficult summit ridge, Fortress Lake stretching out below. ++]

[Liam waits for us after doing the moderate traverse back to our main ascent gully.]

[Late day light as we descend Fortress.]

[Looking up the Chisel Creek valley at Mount Clemenceau with Chisel Peak on the right.]

[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. ++]


[Looking back up at our ascent route (gully rising L to R under the devil's horns to the R. It's much darker than it appears on this photo - almost completely dark.]


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.


[Starting the long walk back from our bivy]

[There were brief openings in the bushwhack descent where I could snap a photo!]

[A nice shot of Quincy and our descent valley.]

[Dense bushwhacking begins...]

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

[Bushwhacking over and around Fortress Creek.]

[The occasional views were stunning - Quincy at upper left and Chaba in the far distance.]

[Hours of this...]

[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!]

[The trail has been recently maintained on this end (by the lodge?)]

[Another hot late summer day.]


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 back packing to the lake for these camp sites - if the weather is good. 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.


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

[Serenity Mountain looks impressive at the far end of the lake.]


We crossed the Chaba 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.


[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 and JNP is not planning to replace it any time soon making the entire Fortress Lake area very difficult to access by foot. :(]

[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. ++]

[It's tricky to find all the most shallow channels to cross.]

[Quincy is a very impressive peak when seen from the Chaba River.]

[Finishing up the almost 1km wide river channel crossings!]

[Fortress Mountain seen from the Chaba crossing]

[A long walk back with some questionable sections that could be problematic in higher water.]

[A glimpse of Catacombs from the trail]

[Recrossing the Athabasca bridge - on hindsight we're lucky it didn't collapse while we were gone...]

[Back at the Athabasca Crossing campground.]

[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 yet.]


Wow! First group to expose the summit register to daylight since '98...way to go! Finally got a chance to read this report (at work) and really enjoyed it. My friends who live in New York, from Jasper, really like your website. Awesome pics as usual.


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