Though shorter than its neighbors across the Cascade River to the north, Johannesburg demands attention for its 5,000-foot north face, rising dramatically from the river in a mixture of improbably steep vegetation, cliffs, and small hanging glaciers. Since the face is normally seen head-on, it gives most visitors the impression of being even steeper than it is, looking near-vertical from the more popular peaks around Boston Basin, and dizzying from the Cascade Pass trailhead.
Johannesburg is probably the Cascades’ purest mountaineering experience, with relentless climbing and almost no approach. After a 1/4 mile hike back down the road from the parking lot, you scrabble down a dirt embankment, cross or ford a stream, whack a few bushes, scramble over a moraine and snowfield and, within a half-hour or so, start the serious business around 3500 feet. Surprisingly, there are several moderate routes on the north face, with the northeast buttress being only class 4. However, it is by far the hardest 4th class route I have climbed, not because it is a sandbagged 5.x, but because it is almost unrelenting for the whole 5,000 feet from the trailhead. Even the walk-off along the east ridge and down the Cascade-Johannesburg Couloir is demanding.
Though I have come to use “type II fun” to denote the long suffer-fests that are my bread-and-butter, this outing deserves the label in its original sense, as something pleasurable in retrospect, often yielding an immense sense of accomplishment. Johannesburg’s northeast buttress starts with 3,000 feet of relentless, varied 3rd- and 4th-class vegetation, from working hand-over-hand up alders in a mossy stream-bed, to delicately clinging to steep turf and heather, to tunneling through near-vertical pines. On top of that is some enjoyable 3rd class rock and snow. The descent is a ledge-maze across steep fins, then branching steep gullies, then a 3,500-foot snow couloir that may involve multiple crevasse/bergschrund crossings. I hesitate to recommend it, with its panoply of suffering and risk, but the right kind of person should do this climb once.After so many outings in running shoes, I looked forward to a bit of Real Mountaineering, with the big boots and everything. I got a reasonably early start at 5:20 AM, more to escape the heat than for safety: the buttress is protected from rock- and ice-fall, and I would be descending the more treacherous couloir mid-day no matter what I did. After crossing a dubious snow bridge, I bashed through a bit of brush, crossed over a mossy moraine, and diagonaled up the huge snow-fan at the base of the couloir. My goal was to reach the open terrain just right of the left-hand northeast ridge (there are two) with minimal suffering. Starting up left of some cascades, things immediately got serious, with careful route-finding required to keep the climbing reasonable on often-polished rock mixed with turf. After some difficulty, I passed the initial rock step and reached a bench where I could traverse right across the cascades and into the vegetation. Given a choice between vertical krummholtz and an alder-bordered, mossy stream-bed, I chose the latter, hauling myself hand-over-hand up the flexible, strong, downward-growing brush while putting my boots wherever they could find some purchase. I followed the stream until, after traversing through a small waterfall, I emerged near the small snowfield between the two ridges, and was at last able to find a flat-ish place to sit and take a break. From here, the goal is to climb up and slightly left on the right-hand side of the stream-bed until the two (still pine-covered) ridges become rocky and converge. After my respite at the snowfield, the climbing again became relentless, requiring careful route-finding to follow sections of rock with positive holds and avoid the worst of the vertical turf and heather. Though only 4th class, the use of vegetable hand- and foot-holds made it more tiring, as I kept all limbs tense in case one hold fell off. “Fell off the lawn and died” is not the epitaph I want. After slowly meandering up the vertical turf, I finally reached wonderful, solid rock, and happily scrambled up the left-hand ridge to where it merges with the other near a prominent snow arete. I put on crampons, hopped the easy moat, and had a pleasant walk up the snow-ridge toward the summit, with views of the steeper north face routes to my left, and of an impressive hanging glacier ahead and to the right. I kicked my way up a steep snow tongue, then doffed crampons for a final 50-yard scramble to the summit, where I found a perfect north-facing seat and backrest. A climb of only a mile or so and 5,000 vertical feet had taken 5 hours — my slowest solo outing ever in both miles and vertical feet per hour. The register showed a handful of names per year, with perhaps half doing the northeast buttress. I spread my gear out to dry and relaxed, watching the flies mate around me as I took in the view north from Eldorado to Buckner.
Warm and content, I reluctantly packed up to find the descent.After descending to the notch, I headed down the left-hand side of the gully south for a few hundred yards, then backtracked a bit when it looked like I would be trapped by gullies farther east. I followed various chossy ledges across the small, sharp fins to the obvious, wider south ridge, turned the corner, and saw Cascade Peak to the left, with the descent couloir far below. I descended a variety of steep gullies, kicking steps down steep snow in one, traversing northeast from one to the next when I could, passing the usual Cascades rappel junk on the 4th class parts. At the saddle, I debated for a bit, then headed down crampons-free in a combined boot-ski and side-step, only having to self-arrest once. Though I had not seen any rockfall, I thought it best to get down the couloir as quickly as possible. After a few cracks near the top, this section was steep, but broad and safe. Where the couloir narrows near the obvious hanging glacier, I put on crampons and proceeded more cautiously, as I soon got back into the Serious Business. The snow in the couloir (the Sill Glacier, I believe) is no longer continuous, and the breaks present a variety of challenges. The first was a near-vertical snow wall where the snow had melted down to bare rubble. I downclimbed one side carefully, grabbing the snow’s edge with one hand while holding my axe with the other. Back on snow again, I encountered a few more cracks in the snow, each requiring some creativity to pass. For the worst of them, a full-width crack too wide to jump, I had to stem down into the bottomless right-hand moat on one side, traverse rock below the top of the snow, then stem back across and up to reach the lower side.
Finally reaching the snow-fan at the base, I boot-skied the last few hundred feet, then found an easier way through the brush. Stomping up the road in mountain boots, axe across my back, filthy and sweaty, I felt like some conquering hero. The weekend hikers and tourists, jockeying for parking, noticed not at all.