Distance: 18 km
Elevation gain: 1245 m View map Download GPS track
We didn’t set out to scramble up The Fortress today. We’d anticipated severe smoke and as such our plan was a dull forest plod not even remotely in the same league as The Fortress, but as we drove south on Highway 40 the unusually low level of smoke had me quickly rethink our plans. I still wanted something simple, and after a bit of pondering I decided that a very rare repeat ascent was in order. The Fortress seemed like an ideal choice, and as I’d last been up it in 2010 – just my 6th ascent at the time – I hoped the hike today would be novel enough to keep me interested. (I don’t normally repeat hikes as I prefer exploring new areas; once I’ve been to a place I tend to remember nearly everything about it, making a return visit somewhat uninspiring).
The Fortress can be ascended via either the Headwall Lakes or Chester Lake trails, but as I did in 2010 we chose to ascend via Headwall Lakes and descend via Chester Lake. This loop option is only marginally longer than a direct in-out ascent via Chester Lake (the shorter direction) and would allow us to avoid the hordes at Chester Lake for half the trip as well as provide a bit of scenic variety.
We started hiking on the Headwall Lakes trail around 8:30 am, making quick work of the first 3 km or so of trail that follows a snowshoe route/road that runs nearly parallel to the Spray Lakes Road until it reaches Headwall Creek. We crossed the creek on a new bridge, then after a short ascent on the snowshoe trail/road, picked up the good trail heading up Headwall Creek. It’s marked by two cairns, flagging, and a trail camera, and the snowshoe trail/road has a line of rocks across it to discourage zombie hikers from going too far.
The trail was in very good shape and any areas that had been affected by the 2013 flood were overly-well cairned, although these sections were so short that cairns weren’t really necessary. I’d been expecting greater damage and routefinding difficulties since I’d heard of a few groups getting lost on the trail, but the trail was about as obvious as possible without being a veritable highway like the path to Chester Lake.
We reached the lakes after about two hours of easy hiking, then continued to the base of the Headwall-Chester col to have a snack in the sun; the Headwall Lakes valley had been entirely shaded and subsequently cool as we’d passed through. After lunch we started up the rubble to the col, which we reached in just 30 minutes. I’d anticipated it taking much longer, but the rubble was far better than I’d remembered it, or perhaps more accurately, my definition of terrible rubble has been moderated by the trips I’ve done since my last time on The Fortress!
From the col it was an easy plod to the base of the summit block where we had to scramble up a 3 m cliff band to reach the summit. I’d remembered it being easy, and it was, but both of us found the scramble mildly awkward; the boulders just weren’t in the right places! The view from the top was as spectacular as I’d remembered it, and while it was smoky, it wasn’t as bad as it has been for much of the summer.
Despite a gusty wind on the summit we managed to eat lunch behind a small windbreak, then retraced our route back down to the col. In 2010 the descent down the Chester Lake side of the col had been a blast. We’d plunge-stepped in soft, almost sandy, scree nearly the entire way down to valley bottom. This time, however, the formerly soft scree was hard-packed mud with short sections of chunky scree! The descent was quite miserable, actually, and the kilometer of rock and boulder hopping through the valley bottom to reach nicer trail was equally annoying.
We reached Chester Lake and the insane weekend crowds about an hour after departing the col, then quickly made our way down the trail and past dozens of others to the car. It was an easy and scenic way to spend the day, and certainly more scenic than what we’d originally had planned.