August 18-20, 2016

Johannesburg Mountain (8200′+)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: North-Central Cascades

Starting & Ending Point: Cascade Pass Trailhead (Cascade River Road)

Way Points: Cascade Pass & Mixup Arm & Cache Glacier & North Mixup Notch & Triplets Basin & Cascade Peak Bench (hike & climb)

Campsite: Cascade Peak Bench

Sidetrip: Cascade—Johannesburg Col (hike & scramble)

Summit: Johannesburg Mountain (climb via East Face—East Ridge)

Approximate Total Stats:  14 miles traveled;  8300 feet gained and lost.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

Fred Beckey suggests that Johannesburg Mountain is the most notorious peak in the north-central Cascades.  Certainly, its immense north face is one of the most iconic images in the area.   I would even say that its visibility from the bustling Cascade Pass Trailhead parking lot makes this the closest thing we have to Switzerland’s infamous Eigerwand.  For these reasons—and others—Fay, Matt, Eileen, and I were filled with nervous anticipation when we started up the Cascade Pass Trail on Thursday morning.

Johannesburg Mountain From Cascade Pass Trailhead

Day 1 – Trailhead to High Camp:

We hiked up to Cascade Pass and continued up the well-beaten path over Mixup Arm and down to the Cache Glacier.  The traditional “easy” route to Johannesburg crosses over Gunsight Notch, which is seen at top-center in the photo below.  However, a somewhat more difficult but less circuitous route, called “Doug’s Direct,” has become very popular in recent years.  We all decided to give this new route a whirl.

Hiking Toward Cache Glacier

Upon reaching the Cache Glacier’s northern edge, we turned sharply rightward and ascended a broad snow ramp that forms a northwestern-pointing glacial finger.  The right-hand corner of this finger leads to a dirty saddle on the skyline.

Snow Ramp Leading To Dougs Direct

At the dirty saddle, we turned left and scrambled straight uphill on steep Class 3-4 rock and heather.  The steepness and exposure did not favor our heavy backpacks, but we managed to reach a 7300-foot notch in the north ridge of Mixup Peak (6.5 hours from TH) without roping up.

Scrambling Up Dougs Direct Route

North Mixup Notch provided us with our first view of Johannesburg’s east face.  In the glare of late afternoon sun, it looked dark, steep, and foreboding.  To make matters worse, it was over 1 mile away and separated from us by a low-plunging ridge.  We were obviously in for a long, tedious traverse to camp this evening.

Johannesburg Mountain From North Mixup Notch

From the notch, we carefully descended a steep heather slope for 700 feet and then made a descending traverse to the ridge buttress.  Poor side-hillers will not find this traverse to their liking.  Our feet and ankles were tired and sore by the time we crossed under the buttress at 5900 feet.

Descending Heather Below Mixup Peak

Beyond the buttress, we ascended talus and scree to a nice heather bench at 6200 feet (8.7 hours from TH).  This bench offered small bivy sites and running water but, surprisingly, showed little use by other climbers.  We settled in for a two-night stay.

Camp On Heather Bench Below CJ Col

Day 2 – Summit Climb:

On Friday morning, we were greeted by alpenglow on the east face of Johannesburg Mountain.  This face still looked steep and imposing but much more featured and approachable than it had the previous afternoon.

Alpenglow On East Face Of Johannesburg Mountain

As we ate breakfast, a strange haze gradually drifted in from the east.  We surmised that this was smoke from a forest fire somewhere in the eastern Cascades.  Overnight, our view of Mt. Formidable, across the valley, went from this…

Spider Mountain and Mt Formidable From Camp

…to this.  It was disappointing to realize that our visibility would be limited by smoke all day.

Camp Below CJ Col

Starting out at 7:30am, we ascended heather, talus, and snow to Cascade-Johannesburg (C-J) Col approximately 600 feet above our campsite.

Ascending To CJ Col

From C-J Col, the east face rises over 1000 vertical feet in a series of cliffs and benches.  We scoped out a likely looking route, roped up, and started simul-climbing with running belays.

East Face Above CJ Col

The lower face was fairly steep and exposed in many places but rarely exceeded a difficulty of Class 4.

Climbing Above CJ Col

Although the heather slopes looked benign, they actually felt less secure than the rock steps—and were more difficult to protect.  Hopefully, someone will develop an effective “heather anchor” for climbs such as this.

Jim Belaying Above Steep Heather (photo by Eileen)

After several hundred feet of zig-zagging up the lower face, we topped out on a rocky shoulder overlooking the Cascade River Valley.

Eileen On Shoulder Of East Ridge

We turned left on the rocky shoulder and climbed over several rock horns.  This part of our route involved fun Class 3-4 climbing on solid, grippy rock.

Fay and Eileen Traversing Over Ridge

The rocky shoulder merged with the main part of the east face at a point where a red dike ran through an eroded saddle.  A small, hanging snow patch continued up from the saddle, and a steep, light-gray gully angled up to the right of the snow patch.  Johannesburg’s false summit could be seen towering above the gully.

Eileen and Fay Scrambling Up False Summit Gully

The light-gray gully extended upward for nearly 500 feet to the false summit.  This was the most continuously steep part of the route, but we felt reasonably comfortable scrambling it unroped.

Matt Scrambling Up To False Summit

We all reached the false summit in early afternoon (5.8 hours from camp).  Our joy at finally achieving this point was immediately doused when we saw how far away the true summit was.  It stood ¼ mile away at the end of a sharp, pinnacled ridge crest.  Knowing how long it would take us to traverse over and back, the prospect of a high bivouac started to seem likely.

East Ridge Of Johannesburg Mtn From False Summit

All available trip reports for Johannesburg Mountain indicated that the summit ridge can be traversed on a series of south-side ledges.  We descended 30 feet from the false summit and began working our way across the south face, making use of any visible ledges or ramps.  The traversing was never too difficult (mostly Class 2 interspersed with Class 3 moves), but the rock was quite loose and the exposure was relentless.

Matt and Eileen Traversing South Face Ledges

After 1½ hours of careful scrambling around countless ribs and gullies, we came to a deep slot-gully that marked the base of the highest pinnacle.  We roped up for one final pitch of Class 3-4 rock that ended on the summit (7.8 hours from camp).

The climb had a momentous feel for all four of us, but it had a special significance for Fay; this summit was #200 in her long quest to climb the 200 highest peaks in Washington.  She beamed with a combination of pride and relief while signing the summit register.  What a great mountain to cap off her 52-year climbing career!

Matt, Jim, Eileen, and Fay On Summit

Johannesburg climbers often remark at how visible the parking lot is from the summit.  It was easy to imagine that we were standing atop the Eiger and looking down at a less-civilized version of Kleine Scheidegg.  A railroad tunnel through the mountain would have completed the analogy.

Cascade River Road From True Summit

We couldn’t afford to fully relax on the summit, knowing what a long descent lay ahead.  It started with one rappel down to the slot-gully, followed by a full hour of back-tracking along the exposed ledges.

Eileen Traversing Back To False Summit

The sun was low in the western sky by the time we crossed over the false summit and headed down the east face.  An abundance of loose rock in all the gullies prompted us to descend in pairs until reaching the rocky shoulder.  We made another rappel off the shoulder, scrambled down a heather gully, then made a roped traverse down to the top of the lowest cliff band.  One final rappel deposited us on moderately angled slabs directly above above C-J Col.  We scrambled down to the col with less than 10 minutes of twilight to spare, then hustled back to camp (5.8 hours from summit) in the dark.

Descending From False Summit

Day 3 – High Camp to Trailhead:

After Friday’s long summit climb, we had a leisurely morning on Saturday.  Matt headed out of camp around 9:00am so that he could tuck in The Triplets, whereas Fay and Eileen and I didn’t depart until 10:00am.  We all regrouped during the painfully long and steep climb back up to North Mixup Notch.  We marveled at how heather can grow on a slope this steep!

Climbing Steep Heather To Mixup Ridge

Following Doug’s Direct route back down to the Cache Glacier involved a down-climb of the Class 3-4 rocky face.  With full backpacks, this felt as nerve-wracking as anything we’d descended on Johannesburg.  We roped up and used running belays through the worst part.  Only upon reaching the glacier could we really relax and savor this grand three-day alpine adventure.

Descending From North Mixup Notch

We stumbled into the Cascade Pass parking lot at 6:45pm (8.8 hours from camp) feeling tired, satisfied, and very eager to do easier climbing trips for the rest of this year!


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