Located in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Fortress Mountain is one of the highest peaks in Washington State. At 8760 feet, Fortress is number 30 on the Bulger List, or 33rd following the 400+ feet of prominence rule. It would be nice now to describe the first ascent of the mountain and how it was named. Unfortunately, the master of mountain research, Fred Beckey, makes no mention of these pertinent details. Apparently it still remains a mystery. But Beckey does mention that the peak was observed as early as 1911, and the general impression given of Fortress at that time, was that it was "unscalable from any angle".
Scrambling Near The Summit
In fact, in modern times, there are two commonly used routes to attain the summit. The easier of the two is the Buck Creek approach. But most people who climb Fortress set out to do nearby Chiwawa Mountain in the same trip. This requires going in through the Chiwawa River Basin.
Fortress Mountain can be described as having three main faces divided by three radiating ridges. Pass No Pass is located on the west face and there is a large snowfield at the base of the north face. The Chiwawa River Basin lies below the southeast face. There are multiple high points on the Fortress massif, which are above, or just slightly below 8000 feet.
Fortress Seen From The South
The best views from the summit include nearby Glacier Peak, Bonanza, Fernow, Seven Fingered Jack, Maude, and most of the volcanic summits. This area is also rich in wildlife. You are likely to see some combination of bear, deer, marmots, ptarmigan, and mountain goats. The climb itself is nothing more than a rock scramble in mid summer. Steep snow in early season requires the use of an ice axe.
The West Face Above Buck Creek
Getting There / Driving Directions
Both approaches make use of the same parking lot. The difference is that one begins on the Buck Creek trail while the other starts on the Red Mountain trail.
Paul Klenke On The Summit
From Highway 2, look for the exit signs to Lake Wenatchee and then proceed to the bridge over the outlet stream from Lake Wenatchee and bear right. Find the signs to Chiwawa River Road and proceed to the end at about 24 miles.
As mentioned above, those who desire the easiest route should choose Buck Creek while those who plan to do the fortress Chiwawa combo should take Chiwawa River.
In Memory Of My Friend Ed Miller
The Buck Creek approach has a lot to offer. A well maintained approach trail gets it's fair share of traffic, but most if not all head to the buck creek pass area. Scenery ranges from towering Buck Mountain to the many creeks coming off the sides of the buck creek valley.
At about the 4,500 feet on the Buck Creek trail, come to a large avalanche debris area (lots of large downed trees) be cautious here as the trail switchbacks more to the east side of the valley. In early season the trail may be covered with deep snow here. Continue on and reach a junction with the Pass No Pass trail (not marked) that bears right at about 5800 feet, right after crossing a bog bridge (covered in early season).
Reach Pass No Pass at 6,400 ft with camping spots. From there head east by northeast, going up and to the right of a minor rock knob and towards the upper benches and more camping spots. From these benches, you get the first glimpses of Fortress and can pick your line from that area to the summit. It will depend on the season for which line to take. Expect talus and loose rock.
Above Chiwawa Basin
To reach the basin, follow the Red Mountain trail for 3.7 miles. Watch carefully for the junction where a smaller less developed trail cuts slightly downhill to the left. If you come to multiple switchbacks going uphill, you have gone too far. From the junction, follow the Chiwawa Basin trail as it loses a few hundred feet to reach the meadows.
The trail will eventually peter out where it intersects the headwaters of the Chiwawa River. You will have to cross this river twice. Once on the way in and once on the way out. It is cold but less than knee deep. You may wish to make your camp on the far side so that you don't have to cross it again to return to camp. Plan accordingly.
Nearing The Scramble Section
Beyond the river, the next aim is to reach the broad flat basin located south of the summit at 5500 feet. In Chiwawa Basin, two creeks converge to become the Chiwawa River and between them there is a minor ridge. The easiest way to reach the upper basin is to stay near the northern most stream along the east side of the ridge as this is where the trees are least dense. Do not follow the ridge crest here for dead fallen timber is thick. At 4900 feet another creek, which is not shown on maps, comes down from the upper basin. Continue ascending in a northwest direction keeping this creek on your right until you reach the upper basin.
Below The Crux Chimney
Many consider this next portion of the route to be the hardest. The head of the upper basin is a mix of slabs, gullies, talus, and heather slopes. Ascending from the right side of the valley will take you into dense scrub trees and a maze of avalanche chutes. It's better to ascend the left side of the head of the basin picking your way up towards the crest of the protruding ridge.
The usual time to climb is whenever the Chiwawa River Road melts out. Being at a relatively low elevation (start 2,800 ft), and more towards the east side of the cascades, it should be free by June on the average year.
Near The Summit
Car camping is available at multiple campgrounds along the Chiwawa River Road. The primary spot is Phelps Creek and also next to the trailhead.
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