September 21-23, 2012

Southwest Johannesburg Loop:  South Johannesburg Creek to Pincer Creek

Johannesburg Mountain attempt (8200′+)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: North-Central Cascades

Starting & Ending Point: South Fork Cascade River Road Gate

Way Points: Pincer Creek & Middle Fork Cascade River & South Johannesburg Creek & South Johannesburg Cirque & Upper Pincer Creek & Pincer Creek slope (hike & bushwhack)

Campsite: South Johannesburg Cirque

Summit Attempt: Johannesburg Mountain (climb to 7100-foot notch via Southeast Arete)

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

Anyone who has been hiking near Cascade Pass has admired Johannesburg Mountain––the Colossus of the Cascade River Valley––but relatively few seem to fall prey to its climbing allure.  My own climbing attempt last weekend was the product of naive expectations and misguided optimism.  In return, the mountain dealt out a three-day thrashing that I’ll not likely forget.  The only redeeming aspect of this trip was having Fay and Kevin K to share the misery with me.

Day 1 – Road Gate to High Camp:

We parked at the South Fork Cascade River gate and hiked 2 easy miles up the old road-trail.  Upon reaching a junction, we turned left and headed up the Middle Fork Trail.  This trail burned out in 2003 and has not been maintained since then, but we figured it couldn’t be that bad.  In fact, the slogan for our whole trip was “How bad could it be?”  If only we’d known.

Old Trail Jct Sign

The Middle Fork Trail has been completely obliterated by deadfall and tall weeds.  It took us 3.5 hours to cover a measly 2 miles, and along the way we had numerous close calls with stumbles or falls.  Kevin nearly broke a leg when a boulder rolled onto him.  While groveling through vine maples, a branch permanently stole my eyeglasses, and I later had a mild panic attack when I found myself in the middle of a large field of nettles and devils club.  Both Kevin and I, with our bare arms and legs, thought we might die the death of 10,000 nettle stings.

Shortly after the trail reappeared in a valley-bottom forest, we headed cross-country due north along the right side of “South Johannesburg Creek,” a major stream that drains the south face of Johannesburg Mountain.  This slope is a maze of burned-out jack-straw trees and limbs intermixed with brush.  Progress was painfully slow, and it took another 4 hours to reach meadowland above the burn zone.

Kevin Traversing Thru Burn

We made camp on a gravel wash at 5600 feet (9.3 hours from car), directly east of an obvious 5100-foot basin.  This area provided a marginal campsite, but at least there was a steady flow of water close by and a good view of the mountain’s Southeast Arete.  All day long, the atmosphere had been hazy and gray due to east-side forest fires, which compounded our gloomy mood.

Southeast Arete From Camp Area

Valley Fog Below Mount Buckindy

Day 2 – Summit Attempt:

With hopes that our struggles were mostly behind us, we arose at first light and were heading eastward to the Southeast Arete shortly after 7:00am.  Heather slopes transitioned into talus slopes, which ended abruptly at the base of the arete.  We first tried a direct climb to the crest via a grassy slot and heathery slopes, but we retreated after one spooky roped pitch of Class 4 dirt and heather.  Our alternative route went up a lower (southerly) gully to the crest and then worked around the east side per Beckey’s recommendation.

Camp Basin From Talus Slope

Fay and Kevin In Lowest Slot

We scrambled up a series of steep green slopes and dirty gullies to reach a 7000-foot notch at the base of a large gendarme fin.  All of the terrain had been uncomfortably steep and sketchy to this point, such that Kevin decided he’d had enough.

Fay and Kevin At Gendarme Notch

While Kevin waited at the notch, Fay and I traversed around the western side of the arete and worked our way up more Class 3-4 grassy slots and loose outcrops.  The climbing seemed to get steadily steeper and more exposed, with little opportunity for rope protection.  Solid rock was sparse;  many of our handholds consisted of heather or grass clumps, and our footholds were kicked into the steep dirt.  I wished that I had crampons and two ice tools for this green terrain!

Upon reaching another notch at 7100 feet and seeing that the next 500 feet or more comprised morbidly steep cliffs sliced up with narrow, grassy slots, we decided to turn around (5.8 hours from camp).  Both of us were mentally strung out and worried about the descent.

Rock Spires and Grassy Slots On SE Arete

Looking Down SE Arete

We made several rappels to reach the notch where Kevin was waiting, and then we all carefully retraced our up-route to the lower gully.  One more rappel got us onto the talus slope, from where we descended back to camp.  Sadly, our plans for a relaxing afternoon in a sunny camp were doused by cold fog and mist that had risen up to about 6000 feet.  The mountain simply refused to let us enjoy our defeat in comfort.

Day 3 – High Camp to Road Gate:

After a night of fog and mist, we awoke to partly sunny skies and low valley fog.  I had already announced to Kevin and Fay that I was not willing to exit via our Day 1 in-route;  the prospect of groveling down the steep burn slopes, wading through nettle fields, and teetering across the treacherous boulderfield was entirely revolting to me.  Instead, I had suggested that we exit via Pincer Creek, which flows 4000 feet directly westward to the South Fork Road-Trail.  They were initially skeptical but eventually accepted my irrefutable logic of “How bad could it be?  It CAN’T be worse than our in-route!”

As it turned out, the first 2000 feet of our Pincer Creek descent turned out to be fairly steep but easy huckle-heather slopes and open forest.  However, the next 2000 feet crossed into the old burn zone and was a steep purgatory of jack-straw logs, brittle branches, scrub trees, prickly berry vines, and other vegetative atrocities.  Moreover, it became progressively worse as we descended into the valley bottom.  Thick devils club hid rotten logs and weak branches that collapsed under our weight.  We continually fell through gaps in the branches and fought to crawl back out.

At the worst of locations, I gazed dejectedly over the mossy morass and felt as though I were looking into the face of pure evil.  Perhaps the other route would have been better after all.  When we eventually stumbled onto the road-trail (5.5 hours from camp), I was in a primitive stupor.  Fay was silent with exhaustion and relief.  Kevin collapsed and kissed the ground.  Johannesburg had thrown us onto the sidewalk and slammed the door.

Kevin Embraces Middle Fork Trail


——————– Annotated Route Photo ——————–

Johannesburg Mountain South Face (photo by John Roper; annotations by Kevin)


——————– Photo Gallery (click to enlarge) ——————–