At the age of 98, Jack Botha passed away peacefully, and I doubt whether many of his contemporaries are still around to do justice in honouring this great South African climbing legend.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jack in Prince Albert were he retired, and by then he was already in his 90’s, a little hard of hearing, but as lucid as ever. I listened in awe to his accounts of his many pioneering accents of South Africa’s famous routes.
How, together with Hans Wong(chowski), Emil Ruhle and Tony Hooper, he opened Monks Cowl (after Dick Barry’s death). How he was one of the first to “Ring” the Bell in the Drakensberg, and I recall him setting the record straight that the popular Hooper’s route was in fact led by him, but at the time he modestly did not bother to argue for its name; and that the opening of Mponjwan was in fact summited by him, solo, prior to the “official” opening summit party years later.
Having climbed a few of his routes over the years, I can only say that there was a man who really had what it took. After struggling up Straight Edge in Mhlabatini*, and desperately thrusting a few hundred Rands’ worth of cams into the off-width, I realised that it was opened in 1940, without modern climbing gear of any sort – no cams, nuts, hexes, chalk or climbing shoes; just a pair of steal nuts. Then there was a “F3, (16)” route opened in 1942 (again solo) in Upper Tonquani*, that I decided to try. After turning white and quivering up almost every pitch due to the complete lack of any gear placements, I seconded the last pitch; and if it were not for a lot of tight rope on the final awkward power move to gain the summit, I would still be floundering. I muttered an expletive in Jack Botha’s general direction as I dragged myself onto the belay ledge, gasping. At that point I wondered what a man of such power, endurance and bloody-mindedness would be capable of in this modern age of technical wizardry.
So, next time you feel sandbagged on a route opened by someone soloing in an age before your father was born, remember the name Jack Botha, and know that his pioneering spirit lingers in every crack and cranny of the beautiful crags of South Africa.
Jack Botha we salute you.
Written by Peter Adrian and published here with permission