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A try at Fortress Mountain

Posted by joeabbott on October 3, 2008

As the season wore on, my body wore down … mostly my ankles. Compliments of a motorcycle accident back in college, I can only do so much on my feet before I start to hobble. The guidelines I’ve found for myself are 10 miles on the trail or two days of full court basketball or a four day backpacking trip. I can usually go for lots and lots of short training hikes, one-day weekend outings, or cragging, but anything that puts load on my ankles over an extended period of time will eat me up. And so I was actually looking forward to a little rain. J


That said, the weather this past weekend was coming in as picture perfect and I still had a few peaks that were reasonably near that were on my list. Fortress Mountain was the one I targeted.


The main\basic\most direct route up Fortress involves heading up the Chiwawa River trail, navigate around some cliff bands below it and Chiwawa Mountain, and do a bit of class three (with a small class four move at the top) scrambling up from the SE to the summit. Another route, and the one I chose, is a bit longer but you have trail a large portion of the way and then it’s just a class three scramble up the SW face to the ridgeline and onto the summit. I liked that way as it allowed for minimal route finding and seemed a bit quieter. And I was in a contemplative mood.


Actually, I wasn’t really gunned up for the peak … my body was a bit achy from a couple four-day trips I’d done, I had a bunch of unfinished projects at home, and guess I just felt tired. Still, the weekend planned to be the best we may see in a while and if I needed to suck it up, I thought it’d be just a long walk. And so I headed out.


Friday at 4 PM came and I closed up work a bit early and was on the road before a quarter after. Traffic was a bit of a knot to work through but by around 7:30 I was pulling into the Trinity parking lot. Unfortunately, it gets dark darned early these days and I was under full headlight power and my plans to scout the lot to see where the actual trailhead was had to be postponed.


For those who haven’t been to the Trinity lot, or those who know it really well, this probably seems like an odd comment. Coming in under the cloak (tarp?) of darkness and seeing private property signs, parking “stalls”, and several rows of spaces I was a bit confused. Still, that just meant I’d get to sleep in and wouldn’t be taking off as early as I thought I could.


And without much fuss, I hopped into the back of my car and tried to sleep.”Tried” being the operative word. What a mess.


I’d hoped that with the back seats down I could find enough space and comfort in the back of my modest SUV (it’s a Saturn VUE) to do the job. It was cramped, the temps too high, and I was aware the slick sleeping bag wasn’t going to stay put on the sloped deck. I tossed around for a few hours before crawling into the front seat to an equally disappointing experience.


The seat didn’t recline as much as I wanted and by now (10 PM-ish) the temps were getting low enough that my bald head and outstretched arms were getting chilly. I fumbled about and endeavored to find a position that worked, but two thirds reclined is really annoying. So, an hour or so later, I returned to the back. This time I positioned my head down, mashed myself into a wad of humanity, and let blood pooling in my brain and general fatigue usher me into sleep.


I woke a few times in the night and again before it was light out but, against all expectation, I wasn’t stiff, sore, or destroyed by the night’s contortions. It was pretty surprising.


So, with the morning chill deep in the air I dressed, checked my GPS (yup, fresh batteries, way points marked, and a better knowledge of how to use it), and had my half muffin. Then I locked the car and under heavy skies I started toward the obvious trailhead and down the path.


The Buck Creek trail is a masterful bit of work. You start heading NNW along the Chiwawa River trail but you depart to the NW roughly a mile and a half along the way. In five and a half miles you gain less than 2000’ but then you start to work a bit thereafter.


Over this section I enjoyed deep cloudy skies obscuring Buck Mountain and the surrounding ridges, the trail pops out now and then for peek-a-boo glimpses into the valley, and the nip in the air allowed me to make reasonable time and still feel at ease. The entire time the trail remained in good shape with easy creek crossings. I saw two people who had bivied within a mile of the trailhead and that was the last of the people I’d see until I returned to the parking lot at the end of the day.


About a month earlier I had been rained on an entire day as I trudged up the Chilliwack River basin and several  weeks ago, while all of Seattle enjoyed high temps and beautiful weather, I was rained on again as I headed through the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, and so I kept a wary eye on the sky. The clouds only showed potential to clear off but no real intent. Additionally, I started to see the end of the basin I was heading up and I could see clouds piling in from the north as well as from the west. Not good. But on I strode.


I was happy that my legs were equal to the challenge with no signs of flagging and my body held no aches or pains from the night’s “sleep”, but before I started up toward Pass No Pass my feet were talking to me.


I’d been holding internal conversations the entire way and often found myself on the defending side of continuing on. Now that I was realizing an actual issue, I found myself on the cajoling side of pretending my feet weren’t already at the giving up point.


On I rolled and up the switchbacks toward Helmet Butte. I stopped shy of my cut off and filled my water bottle; unsure of what a really nice summer had done to the water up high. I got up and after another quarter mile saw Fortress Mountain.


The rocky ridge sticks up like the fin on some great fish and, from the angle I was at, didn’t show immediate promise of a class three scramble up. I continued to find my eyes drawn to it, or where it would have been without the clouds, and was happy that I was able to start pulling the route together. Before long, I left the trail and headed toward Pass No Pass.


Although I said you “leave the trail’, there’s still an obvious scratch in the face of the earth that treats your boots well enough and brings you across a good-running creek and to a cove of trees in a protected basin beneath the cliffy sides of Fortress’ southwest flank. It’s a beautiful area and it was here that I rested and ended up turning back.


By this time my feet\ankles were causing me problems and I had about 2000’ and another mile and a half of work before I topped out. I knew that if I went I’d be blowing the time I told my wife I’d be done and I’d have to negotiate steep rock in a compromised state. I knew I could pull it together and make it happen, but that didn’t seem to be how I wanted to climb this, or any mountain. Maybe I don’t have the killer instincts or the drive to make it at all costs … but I sure do enjoy the wonderful breezes you get as you crest a ridge, the smell of a high meadow under the summer sun, and the feel of rock and trail passing beneath my hands and feet as I confidently negotiate my way to a summit.


And stumbling up a steep bit of stone some eight miles from the trailhead by myself didn’t feel like any of the things I like. But neither did leaving before I was taxed.


So I sat and watched the heavy clouds. I ate my sandwich and I enjoyed the last of the wildflowers. I stretched out and found a balance between the cold coming off Pass No Pass blowing the clouds around with the sun that was poking through. I did all of this while talking to my feet and asking them what was the right call.


And so I tagged my current position on my GPS, sent an “I’m OK” signal on my SPOT, packed my small rucksack, and headed back to the trail, the long walk back, and my car.


On the way I waffled between kicking myself for being so close and not finishing it off, with applauding as the darkening clouds, for a time, massed heavier in the south. I found myself stopping often and resting and, as expected, limping as I got up from stiff feet and ankles. I spent about 4 hours on the way in, up, and at lunch. The way down took about 3 hours with lots of stops. From my pictures I could tell I was getting tapped by the many shots of the trail, stray trees, and ultimately pictures of pine cones and mosses.


I do plan on returning and bringing bivy gear for the camping spot below Pass No Pass. I’ll summit then and can’t imagine I won’t be thankful for a chance to return. It’s a gorgeous spot and one that would be marvelous to spend any amount of time at.


Pictures are out on my Flickr site.


One Response to “A try at Fortress Mountain”

  1. Hi. I am a long time reader. I wanted to say that I like your blog and the layout.

    Peter Quinn

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