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Catacombs Mountain and Fortress Mountain

Mountaineering and Scrambling
Elevation [m]: 
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
YDS Difficulty: 
Really horrible above Fortress Lake, less bad but still very dense near the Chaba
Thursday, September 12, 2013

After succesful multi day trips up Recondite Peak and Mount Willingdon in the recent seeing a good patch of September weather it was time to get that crew back together (we would also be joined by Liam an awesome guy from Jasper with plenty of experience and tons of enthusiasm) for a trek to another remote location, this time near Fortress Lake (just west of the BC border a little south of Sunwapta Falls).

Day 0.5

We wanted to get a head start on the initial part of the trek, the hike down from the Sunwapta Falls parking lot to the Athabasca Crossing campground so set out just after sunset on Thursday night getting to the camp around midnight for a quick snooze. Not much to say about the trail except doing it at night is a good plan, 90 percent of it is in the trees so you arnt missing many views. Watch out for toads though, we almost stepped on a whole whack of them while plodding along!

Day 1

Waking up at the campground we were treated to clear skies and warm air, it was going to be toasty out today! After a quick breakfast it was time to brave the oh so secure suspension bridge across the Athabasca River before crossing the (very high for this time of year) Chaba River. We broke off from the Fortress Lake trail a long way before the recommended crossing due to our intended route which ended up with a more interesting crossing experience. The water was initially frosty, which moved progressively into damned frosty, and then near-vomit inducingly frosty as our time with immersed legs lingered on. Thankfully the water was never waist deep (though did get very close on occasion!) and after slowly picking our way across the river we came to the other bank, dry land has never felt so sweet.

From the other side of the Chaba we weaved our way upwards following a ridge to treeline. The bush here was quite thick in places so progress was slow but steady, already at this point it was getting hot out and we were all excited to break into the alpine for a breeze. There were a few pleasent points up the bush, a shady waterfall being the most memorable. Leaving the trees behind we emerged into a postcard perfect area of tall peaks, colorful grass, and blue skies, and best of all our bivy site was right in the middle of it!

From the bivy site on the higher of the two lakes below Catacombs we ditched a bunch of gear and set up the gully that we had decided 'should probably work' from a far away picture Eric took in ages past. The route turned out to be great with only moderate scrambling (though much of it loose) up to gain the prominent bench which marks the edge of the glacier, which is big enough that it should be called an icefield.

Once on glacier we decided to split into two rope teams with Liam, Eric, and Vern up front and Steven and I hanging back as a rescue rope. The glacier is fairly benign at the start as we countored northwards avoiding the sketch parts directly above before heading up to see a wider part of the glacier with huge crevasses! Big props to Liam for leading up on the glacier avoiding any holes and eventually snaking back up to the summit.

The summit itself was actually bordered by a crevasse so we were forced to take turns up top getting pictures so safety. Views were pretty fabulous with the Winston Churchill Range and Columbia Icefied peaks dominating the skyline, well that and Clemenceau and some more BC peaks, views were great all around actually! Being a glacier capped summit no sign of a register, there was a rocky bench 20m below but it required traversing ice to get to and didn't seem worth it to build a cairn. After rotating through everyone for time on the true summit we headed back down retracing our steps back to the bench, deglacier-gear-ified and headed back to camp.

Spirits were high back at camp, we were a half day ahead of our original schedule (which proved essential on Sunday) and after some delicious dehydrated grub it was time to bask in sunset views and enjoy the starry skies above.

Day 2

After having been successful on Catacombs we woke up with the sun and moved into the second part of the journey, heading up two cols to get over to the Fortress Lake side of Fortress Mountain. We knew the second col would work out from an ACC journal entry but the first was beta-less. It turned out the first col was probably the sketchyest part of the trip, super loose, a little climbey in places and with rock chutes funneling boulders every which way possible. After gingerly working our way upwards we eventually were mere meters from the top of the col when I was leading and got into a pickle. Kicking steps up the dirt lower in the col was a valid method but a patch of nasty dirt/rock was not amendable to this technique at the top, after the holds I used to gain the position fell away I was left with no way up or down! Thankfully we were well equipped with climbing gear so the boys found a bypass scrambled up and dropped me a rope which I climbed up hand over hand, batman style! From the top of the col a pristine alpine environment greeted us with no less than 8 lakes glittering in what felt like summer sun. The journey down the other side of the col was considerably easier and soon enough we were regaining elevation to the fortress col, which other than a short snow slope was free from complications. Passing over to the other side of the Fortress Col green grass and more lakes awaited us, what luxury!

Given the tropical temperatures water was an ever-present concern and as we approached our ascent route up Fortress we were getting pretty thirsty, luckily we knew that water awaited us above so after stashing our overnight gear amidst some rocks we started to ramble up steep grassy slopes towards our ascent gully (which thankfully had a trickle of water an hour up or so which was quite restorative).

Fortress Mountain can be descried in a word as 'loose', in two words as 'very loose', or in three words as 'everything is loose', be prepared! After working our way upwards we eventually gained the ridge crest where the option of ascending a scrambly section or traversing more loose slopes presented itself, we chose the scrambling on the way up and the loose stuff on the way back. Once on the top of the ridge the elevation eased up to a nice wide rubbly plateau with a summit cairn visible in the distance! Just below the summit there was also a small pool of melting glacial ice which was perhaps the best water I've ever tasted!

Up on the summit views were excellent location wise but were somewhat mangled by haze and the position of the sun. Looking in the register we were the second party to have signed it, the first being Glen Boles's "Grizzly Group" back in the 90s. Taking a break up on the summit was great but we were ever mindful of the setting sun and swiftly began our descent back in the loose ascent gully. Thankfully the rock was loose enough the by sticking nose to ass we were able to 'ride the rock river' most of the way down. Once back at our gear we lost a little more elevation and set up camp near the creek, not the most ideal bivy location but after a long day it felt swell!

Day 3

After getting both of primary objectives "all" that was left for Sunday was getting back to the car, amidatbly that was some 31km away but most was on good trail, once we got down to Fortress Lake....

The descent to Fortress Lake was only 2.2km in length but it took almost three hours to complete as the bush was horrible, not as bad as Coral Creek but still horrible. After a tedious eternity amidst broken branches, tight bushy blockades, and prickly plants we eventually emerged out into the light hitting Fortress Lake at one of the campgrounds.

Fortress Lake is lovely. The views immediately greeting us from the lake shore were splendid, glimmering water beneath while the towering peaks like Chisel grant a great sense of scale, and Serenity Mountain at the west end of the lake looks picture perfect. After the bush thrash we all agreed to take a break before heading on and took the opportunity for a refreshing plunge into the lake.

The trail on the way back was great, a bit swampy in places but logs were around to allow for less soggy travel. Before long we were back at the Chaba and found a good line across the river that was only knee deepish. The rest of the way back to the car was a slog with limited views (glad we did this in the dark on the way in), but slowly but surely we put the km behind us and after seeing some poorly equipped tourists ahead (who knows where they were going...) knew that the end was near.

Awesome trip! Big thanks to Eric for thinking up the route and all the other guys for being a great crew! Have to for sure head back to Fortress Lake in the future!


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