For someone who loves the thrill of solitude and rarely-climbed summits, Wyoming's Absaroka Range offers countless peaks that are remote and see only a handful of ascents every year. Fortress Mountain is one of these; its location in the heart of the range offers views of a vast sea of mountains and takes anyone who would climb it through some spectacular, wild, and dangerous country.
Fortress is the 4th-highest peak in the SW section of the Absarokas, and its distinct summit prow is easily seen from most of the important mountains in the area. It is really the highpoint of the massive Sheep Mesa, which is a high plateau over 11,000 feet and has several long fingers that extend north, separating the headwaters of Sheep, Blackwater West Fork, and Blackwater creeks. In his book Select Peaks of the Greater Yellowstone
, Thomas Turiano likens the experience of being on the summit to "standing on the bow of a huge ship cruising through the ocean of Absaroka peaks."
Another added bonus of climbing this great mountain is a wonderful view of the Blackwater Natural Bridge, which is a huge arch located near Coxcomb Mountain. This formation is so remote and difficult to reach that no one really knows how big it is, with estimates ranging from 70 to 240 feet, which would make it one of the largest in the world.
Getting There and Climbing Information
Head west from Cody, Wyoming towards Yellowstone Park on Highway 16. Start marking miles after you exit the third and final tunnel next to Buffalo Bill Dam and travel for about 32 miles. Just after passing Rex Hale Campground, you will see a sign on the left for the Blackwater Creek Ranch; near this sign is the large brick memorial for the firefighters who died in the 1937 fire on Clayton Mountain. Drive across two bridges and park at the trailhead on the right side of the road before it heads up the hill to the gate. If this 4WD road is open it will cut 2-4 miles off of your round trip, but it was not open in late June of 2014; inquire with the Forest Service before you head out and want to drive the road.
On the Fire Memorial Trail
Follow the trail as it climbs up to meet the road; do not wade Blackwater Creek here, as there is a bridge that is well-signed after about a mile of hiking on the road. Once you cross the bridge, follow the Fire Memorial Trail for a couple of miles until you see a sign marking the cutoff of the Natural Bridge Trail. Do not follow the sign, as it will leave you high and dry without a trail in a meadow; instead, stay on the lower trail for a few hundred feet until it splits and then take a right - this is the true Natural Bridge Trail, which follow the West Fork of Blackwater Creek to its source.
Trail Sign Deadfall
I have been on many trails, and I won't lie by saying that this one is pleasant, as it actually sucks - a lot. The first reason it sucks is that you really don't get any views other the trees for the next five or six miles, and the second is that many (or as it seems at times, most) of the trees are fallen across the trail. I have never seen so much deadfall on a trail anywhere, and it seems as if trail maintenance hasn't taken place in decades! Be prepared for lots of gymnastics and hopping over and under huge logs; the first three miles seem to be the worst.
Blackwater Creek Crossing
At 9100 feet the trail crosses to the east side of the creek. In late June this stream was a raging torrent that would have been a tricky wade, but fortunately there was a good log spanning the water about 50 yards downstream. The trail meets the stream again at about 9700 feet, where there are finally some nice spots to set up camp. The views of Sheep Mesa are wonderful once the treeline is reached around 10,000 feet, and are a welcome relief after the monotony of the trail. Once in the bowl at the end of trail, the most direct route to Fortress is to follow grassy slopes up the west (right) side, but in early season, overhanging cornices above may force you up the left side, which does add about half a mile to the ascent.
Once on top of the Mesa, look due east to see the vertical cliffs of Coxcomb Mountain and the Blackwater Arch, which is truly massive! Head south up the gentle slopes of Peak 11,590 (Note to peakbaggers: this is a ranked summit) and then descend to the saddle to Fortress, which you will now see for the first time.
Coxcomb and Blackwater Arch
The traverse is Class 2 for the most part, with one easy Class 3 downclimb; I climbed this peak in early season, and the snow on the way up the other side around the little rock pinnacle to Fortress was much too dangerous, so descend on steep scree slopes to the right and then up to bypass this obstacle if needed.
Traverse to Fortress
Hike up the last steep section to reach the easy grassy plateau leading to the summit, which is farther than it looks. The summit has a rock wall enclosure facing east, much like nearby Avalanche Peak, and as mentioned before, the views are tremendous! In early season it is possible to glissade much of the descent back into the bowl; my climbing partner and I did one of almost 600 feet on the west side.
Climbing Fortress Mountain entails a round trip hike of approximately 20 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain.
Summit View SE
Red Tape, Camping and When to Climb
There are no fees or permits required to hike the Fire Memorial Trail or the Natural Bridge Trail. As much of this hike takes place in the forest on a trail with limited visibility, be extra cautious in looking out for wildlife. This area boasts one of the most dense populations of grizzly bears in the entire U.S., and black bears, moose, and mountain lions can present danger to hikers as well. There are rumors that some trail maintenance in the area has ceased due to bears harassing the workers; I would not even consider hiking this trail alone or without an ample supply of bear spray!
Camp near Blackwater Creek
There is one established camping spot at around 8500 in a meadow along the trail; other than that, the only feasible spots are at or near the treeline.
This peak would be a serious winter mountaineering challenge before June. Depending on snow levels, the earliest time to climb would be mid-June and then run through mid-September.
External LinksFortress Mountain on listsofjohn
Blackwater Natural Bridge
Blackwater Creek Ranch
Forest Army Blog
Army Cutworm Moths and Grizzlies
Shoshone National Forest
Wikipedia entry for the Shoshone National Forest
Fortress from Clayton Mountain