The first ascent party (in 1938) called the mountain Elsbeth, but the name Johannesburg precedes this by a few years. Johannesberg would mean Johann’s mountain, while –burg connotes an ancient or medieval fortress or walled town. Whatever the name, this mountain is just plain bad-ass. What you see, looking up at the North side of the mountain from the road, is a massive, ragged set of ridges, cliffs, waterfalls, steep slabs and broken glaciers. “No peak in this region of the North Cascades has more notoriety than Johannesburg, whose immense North and East Faces are visible to all who enter the North Fork valley of Cascade River.” – Fred Beckey
This mountain has held a position in my mind since I laid eyes on it during my first trip to the area in 2007. So much so that I’ve been working on a watercolor painting, from a photo taken during an east ridge climb in 2009. I keep coming back to the Cascade Pass area, but this summit has eluded me. We tried to climb it last year, but wet weather forced us into the Cascade-Johannesburg couloir, which was blocked by a crevasse maybe half of the way up. We ended up settling for a climb of Sahale – the Hooligan’s Traverse.
Over fourth of July weekend, I had the chance to climb this with my good friend Chris. We met on a trip to Peru a few years back and have shared some really good adventures since. Sometimes “the choice of companion is as important as the choice of climb.” – Gaston Rebuffat
Driving up the Cascade River Road, I rather casually mentioned to Chris that we should do the 1957 route. Last year from the CJ couloir the start of the 1951 route was obvious, and this year I saw a ramp that looked like the start of the ’57 route. I naively thought there was not much difference between these lines. After a couple hours of tedious, hot, dry, 5th class bushwhacking, Chris peered over through a break in the trees: “hey look, it’s the start of the ’51 route.”
The farther one progresses up the Northeast Rib, the more difficult retreat becomes. This level of commitment is intimidating and intoxicating at the same time. Just when you think you’re about to reach an easier plane, the mountain just keeps on giving. After what seemed like an endless struggle through the vertical forest, we came upon a small knoll, the first flat ground we’d seen in the better part of a day.
From this vantage point we looked north at the panorama spanning from Eldorado in the west, past Torment and Forbidden over to Boston and Sahale peaks. We soaked in the views and the relaxation afforded by the mellow terrain.
We hadn’t encountered any water since we crossed the creek that morning. It was time to move on to our planned bivy another few thousand feet up at the base of the glacier, or another thousand feet lower at the ‘seasonal snowfield’. We scrambled into the steep forest, which gave way to heather. Soon enough we were back in steep terrain, gaining the namesake rib. We donned crampons and ice axe to make our way up without backsliding. The day wore on as the rib became a bit steeper and more pronounced. Finally we stumbled on a small snow patch! We ate and drank and reveled in the relief of finding water. It was nearing dusk and we decided it was time to bivouac for the night. We were too tired and short of daylight to continue to the higher bivy spot at the base of the glacier.
Sunset on Eldorado from 6,200ft Bivy on Jberg
We slept in the next morning, exhausted from a long day with little sleep the night before. We scrambled some rock, then put our crampons back on. After about an hour the heather gave way to rock, and we roped up to climb a dirty gully to our left. The gully to the right is an option if filled with snow, but we found it bone dry. The climbing was easy enough, but covered loose, dirty ground for a while. This brought us to the base of the glacier, and our first glimpse of the summit since we’d set out the day before. We could look straight down on the parking lot where we started.
Sahale, Boston, Buckner and Cascade Pass Parking Lot from Jberg
We followed a gentle snow arête reminiscent of Eldorado, with more exposure. This culminated in a steep headwall that took us to the summit ridge. Easy scrambling took us to the summit, where we relaxed a bit, knowing that the descent still held a lot of work for us.
Final Glacier Summitting Jberg from NE Rib
Knowing the descent required a lot of work and experiencing it turned out to be two different things. Hours passed, but the descent and long traverse around or over Mix-up peak still loomed large ahead of us. We patiently worked through the process – scrambling, traversing, down-climbing, abseiling, cruising down a snowfield, across scree and talus below the toe of the Triplets and into side-hill cross country travel through heather and wildflowers steep enough to warrant the use of crampons again. I think it was at this point that Chris remarked, in his calm, dry, terse way “I think the approach shoes were good about 20% of the time and sucked 80% of the time.” I readily agreed. It had become apparent that we were not going to make it back to the car before dark, and that the terrain we still had to cross was not exactly headlight friendly. We had a bit of food left, and found a mostly flat rock just big enough for an uncomfortable bivy. It was not a bad spot to watch the sun go down after another good day.
Spider and Formidable from Bivy Below Doug’s Direct
We were due to meet another team at noon for a climb of Mt Shuksan. We could see Shuksan clearly from the summit of J-berg, but the roads in between the two form a U-shape and require a couple of hours to drive. We got an alpine start in an effort to make it out on time, but this proved futile. We elected to take ‘Doug’s Direct’ over the ridge of Mix-up peak and down the other side, a line taking the shortest distance to the trail leading back to Cascade Pass. I have no idea who this Doug guy is, but with all due respect, we found nothing direct about this descent. Only in the strange world of alpine climbing could one call this direct – climbing almost to the summit of another peak and then back down the other side. It seemed like a bit of deja-vu from the day before – the glacier and trail out seemed to stay out of reach, like some kind of cruel trick.
Looking Back at Johannesburg from Mixup
I really appreciated Chris’ technical competence and wickedly dry wit as we worked through the difficult process of getting off that mountain – both mountains. J-berg was the hardest alpine climb I’ve ever done. We climb for many reasons – “because it’s there,” for the views, for the companionship, to temporarily escape from our candy ass first world existence, to suffer, to see what we’re made of. This climb tested what I’m made of. I’m glad we have it under our belts. Next time, I’d bring boots, more slings, wired stoppers, water…and I’d climb clean granite instead!
I’m already looking forward to the next one. Thanks for another grand adventure, Chazo.
Here is the list of some of the lightweight gear we used – really necessary stuff for carryovers. I have obsessed a bit over the years to drop weight by 1) bringing less 2) if I have to bring it – bring the lightest stuff I can find.
-CiloGear NWD 30L Worksack
-Grivel Airtech crampons (steel front, aluminum heel)
-La Sportiva Boulder X approach shoes
-Brooks Range mountaineering Cloak 30 down quilt
-Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Pad
-Camp Tri Cams
- Mammut Dyneema Contact Slings
-Black Diamond Coulior Harness
-Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket
-Cassin Ghost Aluminum Ice Axe
-Jetboil (we probably could have gotten by without it, but it was nice to melt snow and have a hot meal until the fuel ran out)