1. Dr Johannes de Villiers Graaff
  2. John Tyson OBE, MC



Dr Johannes de Villiers Graaff

(1928 – 2015)

Dr Johannes de Villiers Graaff, universally known as ‘Jannie’, died in Cape Town on 6 January 2015 at the age of 86.

Jannie was an exceptionally talented man and he used his talents to the full. Besides his remarkable record as a mountaineer, which I will cover in due course, at the time of his death he was still regarded as a world authority on welfare economics and he combined his academic career with farming, banking and advising the South African government on tax policy.

Jannie was born in Muizenberg on the 19 February 1928. He was the youngest of three brothers of whom the eldest was Sir de Villiers Graaff who inherited the baronetcy from his father and was leader of the opposition United Party during the 1960s and early 1970s. Jan Smuts was one of Jannie’s godfathers.

He attended Western Province Preparatory School and Diocesan College (better known as Bishops) where he matriculated at the age of 15 obtaining the second highest marks in the whole of South Africa. After graduating at the University of Cape Town he lectured for a year at WITS before going up to St John’s College, Cambridge where he completed his Ph.D. in 1950 at the age of 22. His thesis on welfare economics was published as a book entitled Theoretical Welfare Economics. It was still prescribed reading for Cambridge students in the 1980s and remains a classic text in its field.

Jannie had started rock climbing on Table Mountain when he was at Cape Town University and from then on mountains and mountaineering became a passion which lasted for the rest of his life. He first visited the Alps while he was at Cambridge and it was on a skiing holiday that he met Clare Thomson, of whom Janet Adam Smith wrote ‘ I had taken my niece Clare Thomson climbing in Aran, you might say up to O-level maybe, with the Witches Step, A- level. But I have seldom known anyone advance more rapidly to her Ph.D.!’

Jannie Graaf (1928 - 2015)

Jannie Graaf (1928 - 2015)

Clare is a daughter of Sir George Thomson who was at that time Master of Corpus Christi College. She was thus a granddaughter of the famous JJ Thomson who discovered the electron. Both her father and grandfather were Nobel Laureates.

Jannie could not possibly have found a more suitable partner and they were married in 1951.

Clare’s family has had a long and very distinguished association with the Alpine Club as chronicled in an article by her aunt, Janet Adam Smith, in Volume 67 of the Alpine Club Journal which I have paraphrased below.

After returning to South Africa in 1953 Jannie bought a fruit farm in the Koue Bokkeveld mountains about 120 miles north of Cape Town and in due course became a world renowned expert on agricultural economics - so much so that whenever he visited the US he had an open invitation to lecture at Stanford. He was made a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge in 1950, Churchill College in 1965 and was later elected a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, which was an unusual honour for a Cambridge man, and he and Clare spent several terms in Oxford during the 1980’s.

Jannie was highly esteemed in the business world. He was a director of Nedbank for many years and among many other activities was the dominant intellectual figure on both the Margo Commission, which led to the introduction of VAT in South Africa, and the Katz Commission which led to the restructuring of the Revenue Service as an independent body.

But it is of course his record as a mountaineer which will be of most interest to readers of the Alpine Journal.

Jannie and Clare spent their honeymoon climbing, as Janet Adam Smith puts it, sesto grado in the Dolomites. They concentrated on the Sella Group and the Langkofel where inter alia they climbed the Grohmann Spitz and the difficult Schmidt Kamin Route on the Funffingerspitz.

In January 1952 they participated in a large South African party which converged on Mount Kenya. The weather was excellent and a number of successful ascents were made.

Jannie Graaf portrait

Jannie Graaf portrait

Bob Davies with Clare and Jannie climbed Nelion by a route which avoided the so-called ‘Rickety Cracks’ section of Shipton’s original route up the south-east ridge. This has become known as the ‘de Graaff Variation’, which is unfortunate because it should correctly be called either “The Graaff Variation or “The de Villiers Graaff Variation. Perhaps future compilers of guide books will note this.

Jannie and Clare then opened a new variation of MacKinder’s Route up the Diamond Glacier. It is often stated incorrectly that they merely repeated the original Mackinder’s Route but Clare says that was not the case. She says that MacKinder’s route crossed the Diamond Glacier whereas their route took them directly up the Diamond Glacier to the Gate of the Mists. It was a very fine effort in the days before modern ice climbing equipment became available. They did not have ice pitons and of course were using long shafted ice-axes. Typically, Jannie later told Janet Adam Smith that after cutting steps up the first rope length on the diamond hard glacier ice a sudden thought came to him: ‘I don't think Clare has been on ice before’!

They joined forces with Bob Davies and Pottie Thompson at the Nelion end of The Gate of the Mists. The latter two had reached that point by the ordinary route and the two parties then combined for the ascent of Bation. After lunching on the summit they then returned to the Gate of the Mists and climbed Nelion with the aid of a fixed rope left by Davies and Thompson and were off the rock by 1840 and back at the Two Tarn Hut by 2045 having left the hut at 0330 that morning!

Jannie and Kenneth Snelson made a reconnaissance visit in 1950 to the Panch Chuli peaks without getting to the top of anything significant. In 1952 he and Clare were in Kulu and Spiti with Ken Berrill and Pasang Darwa Lama. The last was a very highly esteemed member of the Buddist hierarchy and was of great assistance to them in their relationships with the local people. They crossed two new passes into Spiti and succeeded in finding the key to and making the first ascent of Deo Tibba 6004m. They also made the first ascent of Manirang 6593 m which was then the highest peak to have been climbed by a woman. They were narrowly foiled by bad weather from reaching the summit of Shilla 6132 m.

A few years later they were in the Ruwenzori and in unusually fine weather they climbed Mount Baker, Margherita and Alexandra and Jannie and Bob Davies made a new route up the north-east face of Margherita.

Both Clare and Jannie were very accomplished skiers. They bought an apartment in Zermatt conveniently close to the Sunnegga Lift and from then on spent a month or so during the winter in Zermatt and usually returned for a few weeks in the summer using it as a base for down-hill skiing, ski-touring and mountaineering.

They always climbed guideless. They ascended most of the major peaks around Zermatt but never climbed the Matterhorn together. Jannie had climbed the Matterhorn with Bob Davies and Clare eventually did climb the Matterhorn at the age of 60 with a guide. By then Jannie was having hip problems and was not able to accompany them.

Clare played a major part in co-ordinating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Alpine Club with the people of Zermatt. On that occasion I remember a very happy dinner party which they gave in their apartment for Sue and Mike Westmacott and my wife and myself.

Between the years 1946 and 1962 Jannie participated in the opening of an extraordinary number of new routes in the mountains of South Africa including what were then some of the hardest routes on Table Mountain and the Cederberg. In 1946 he was in the party which made the first ascent of the Grosse Spitzkop in what is now Namibia and in one year (1949) he opened nine new rock climbs on Table Mountain.

As he got older and rock climbing became too demanding, he took up kayaking at which he became very proficient. His other great interest was ornithology.

Jannie was always something of a recluse. It was difficult to get him to participate in social occasions although he was marvellous company when one had the opportunity to draw him out on subjects which interested him like mountaineering and ornithology. He had a very dry and witty sense of humour and delighted in turning a subject around so as to reveal an amusing aspect which one had not thought of oneself.

In his old age he continued to spend most of his days at the offices of Graaff’s Trust of which he was Chairman. It was from there that he had walked over to Long Street when he was unintentionally knocked over by a pedestrian and hit his head on the pavement fracturing his skull. Typically he didn’t mention this to anyone at the office but drove himself home. It soon however became apparent that he was not at all well and he was admitted to hospital where he later died of complications.

He was buried with his ice axe and rope beside him at de Grendel, the family farm which his father had established and which is now a well known wine estate.

He is sorely missed by Clare, his six children and eighteen grandchildren.

Robin Richards

(Reprinted from the Alpine Journal with permission of the editor and author)



Letter by Clare Graaff

As you know, my husband Dr Johannes de Villiers Graaff died on 6 January 2015. After 65 years of marriage and a wonderful life together I am very sad and miss him enormously.

Jannie and I climbed all the peaks together in 1952, on his second Himalayan expedition. I will now give you an outline of what we did :

Deo Tibba: Was a first ascent 19,687 which we summited with Pasang Dawa Lama - the best reference in Marcel Kurz’s Chronique Himalayenne pg 127 -128. The full party included Kenneth E Berrill, Pasang Sherpa II, Tashi Sherpa, Sonam Tsering and Tashi Kiron.

Manirang 21,630: The date of ascent was 12 September 1952. The route was the west ridge. It was a first ascent of the ridge and of the peak. My husband, Jan Graaff, led the summit party which included myself, Pasang Dawa & Tashi Sherpa. The best reference is Marcel Kurtz’ Chronique Himalayenne (Foundation Suisse pour Explorations Alpines, Zurich: 1959 pg 145-347)

Entry in the register at Pulga Forest Rest House, Kullu (Harish Kapadia)

Entry in the register at Pulga Forest Rest House, Kullu (Harish Kapadia)

Shillaker Peak 20,570 ft: Attempted the north-west ridge and reached 19,200 and turned back through lack of time. The leader was my husband, the party – myself, Pasang Dawa and I think only one other, Tashi Sherpa.

We climbed Dukanga pass, Hamtah pass, Kurzam la , Manirang pass, and Pin-Parvati pass during our expedition in 1952 – between July and September.

I wasn’t on Jannie’s ‘Just Himalayan expedition’ in 1950 when he attempted Panch Chuli in the upper Darnaganga valley where details can be read in Himalayan Journal XVII, page 97 – 100.

Please use my name as Clare Graaff not de V Graaff. My nationality is GBR.

Also if it is possible I would like to continue receiving the Himalayan Journal which I had thought was in both our names, but of course I will take out a new subscription if necessary.

With kind regards
Clare Graaff



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(1928 – 2014)

John Baird Tyson was born in Partick, Scotland, and brought up in London, where his father was Surmaster (deputy headmaster) of St Paul’s School. He acquired a passion for climbing during family holidays in Scotland, France and Switzerland.

I first met John when, as a schoolboy, I spent a month at the Outward Bound Mountain School in Eskdale, where John was an instructor and Eric Shipton was Warden. It was evident even from this first contact that he was a very determined character who, once he had decided on a course of action, would see it through to the end in an almost obsessive way.

In his National Service during the Malayan Emergency, he won the Military Cross for leading his platoon with great determination against a group of guerillas, who were eliminated. While not unique, such medals were few and far between.

After demobilisation, John went to read Geography at Magdalen College, Oxford, and in 1952 led the first-ever Oxford University Scientific Expedition to the Himalaya. In addition to work on several high-altitude projects in the Tehri-Garhwal region, the team made first ascents of Gangotri I and Gangotri III, both above 6500 m.

John B Tyson (courtesy The Telegraph)

John B Tyson (courtesy The Telegraph)

In the Alps, he had done such routes as the Marinelli Couloir, the Zmutt Ridge and the Younggrat. As a housemaster at Rugby School, over several seasons he introduced boys to guideless climbing in the Swiss and French Alps. His enthusiasm over the years led to many worthwhile routes being completed, many along the Haute Route.

In 1953, he and Bill Murray had made an exploratory journey to the Api and Nampa region in the far north-west of Nepal where they made the first ascent of several peaks in the 5500 m - 6000 m range.

Around this time, he bought a house in Eskdale. There, he and his wife Phebe offered renowned hospitality to visiting mountaineers and other friends.

Then, in 1961, began John’s obsession with Kanjiroba (6880 m). This massif in west Nepal had become his blank on the map. Over the next nine years, he led expeditions through very rough country but, in spite of sustained efforts, he never reached the summit.

In 1964, I joined him in west Nepal. After a wonderful few weeks of surveying and climbing several peaks of around 5500 m - 6000 m, we forced a route along the Langu Khola, the gorge of the Langu river, but turned off too early to get to the peak of Kanjiroba ‒ no GPS at that time. The 1969 expedition learned from this and reached the mountain, but dangerous snow conditions precluded a successful attempt. John’s final visit took place in 1998 when he had great pleasure in being reunited with Sherpas from the 1964 and 1969 expeditions. Kanjiroba had become ‘John Tyson’s mountain’ to the extent that, when it was eventually climbed by a Japanese team, its leader sent a telegram to John to apologise: ‘with your permission, we have climbed your mountain.’ John was said to have been delighted.

Meanwhile, he was offered the headship of a school to be funded by the British government in Nepal, but political differences between the British and Indian governments prevented this coming to fruition immediately. Instead, he was appointed headmaster of another British-funded school in Bhutan, where he spent three years before being invited by the Nepalese government to run its school in Budhanilkantha, where he spent six happy years.

Perhaps it was having done the Zmutt Ridge and Younggrat from a base in Zermatt, but, in his later years, year after year, he returned to Zermatt to be among and to look at the mountains of his youth.

He is survived by his wife Phebe Pope, and their daughter and two sons.

John Cole
(Reprinted from the Alpine Journal with permission of the editor and author)


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