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Catacombs Mountain – Possible 2nd Ascent

Summit Elevation (m): 3330
Elevation Gain (m): 2100
Round Trip Time (hr): 36
Total Trip Distance (km): 60
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break your leg
Difficulty Notes: A long approach including crossing the Chaba River, bushwhacking and scrambling just to reach the mountain. Loose, steep scrambling to a high ice field from the bivy, that contains many crevasses – bigger than you’d expect.
GPS Track DownloadDownload GPX File
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (II)
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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.

Catacombs Mountain Route Map

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.


Interesting Facts on Catacombs Mountain

Named by Arthur O. Wheeler in 1920. The mountain has an alcove formation, which Arthur Wheeler felt was like the recesses in an underground burial tomb. Official name. 

First ascended in 1927 by W.R. Maclaurin, Alfred J. Ostheimer, J. Weber, guided by Hans Fuhrer. Journal reference CAJ 16-23.


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 Approach

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 the egress, even though they’re the same distance and we’re usually walking quicker on exit. 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).

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. 

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.
This was COLD! Crossing a small side channel of the Chaba River with Mount Quincy in the background.

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 as impressed with the Chaba River crossing. 🙂 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.

Liam crosses the Chaba River with Quincy on the left and Fortress Mountain towering above.

After crossing the Chaba River 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.

A small falls along Catacombs Creek – the water was very refreshing after a hot bushwhack up steep slopes.
Looking across at Catacombs from our bivy at the upper Catacombs Lake. The summit at upper left and our ascent gully just to the right of it. These alpine meadows were some of the prettiest I’ve ever stayed at.
Incredible scenery from our bivy at the upper Catacombs Lake. An outlier of Catacombs at left here.

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.

The Climb

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.

The two Catacombs Lakes beneath us now with Fortress Mountain looming at right of center.

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. Views are stunning already.
Finally on the upper shoulder of Catacombs looking south and east. The glacier is behind me on this shot. Fortress at right.

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 darn 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.

The upper ice field is much bigger than we were expecting! We could hear seracs thundering down from the lower 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, WoolleyDiadem, Alberta, North Twin, Twins Tower, Columbia, Smythe and King Edward beckoned with their towering summits.

Views south and east (L) off the summit include Quincy, Columbia, The Twins, Alberta, Woolley, Diadem and many others.
Looking west (R) and south (L) off the summit of Catacombs. Fortress is the mountain in the foreground with Quincy behind it. Our bivy valley in front.
Getting ready to descend, looking north (L) and east (R).

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.

The moon rises over the upper Catacombs Lake.
Sunset over the Catacombs Meadows. Mount Alberta at center-left.
The Milky Way lights up over the darkness of the Catacombs Meadows at around 02:00.

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.

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