Conrad Kain | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Conrad Kain

Conrad Kain, mountaineer (b 10 Aug 1883 at Nasswald, Austria; d 2 Feb 1934 at Cranbrook, BC).

Conrad Kain, mountaineer (b 10 Aug 1883 at Nasswald, Austria; d 2 Feb 1934 at Cranbrook, BC). Conrad Kain is considered one of the most daring climbers of his generation. Dubbed "Canada's First Super-Guide," Kain was a rogue guide that did more demanding climbs than the Swiss Guides. Kain was born in Austria to a poor family that lived in dire circumstances. His father died when he was a young boy, and he did much to support his family as a goatherder and quarryman, poaching animals when money was tight. Kain discovered early on that his real passion was being in the mountains, climbing and guiding. He received his guiding certificate (or "Fuhrerbuch") in 1906 when he was 23 years old.

Kain was curious about the world and keen to travel. He applied to the Canadian Pacific Railway to be a mountain guide in Canada, but all the positions were filled. When the Alpine Club of Canada had an opening in 1909, Kain applied for the position and was hired as the first ACC guide in Canada by Arthur Wheeler (then President of the ACC). Kain led the annual alpine summer camp at Lake O'Hara in 1909 and guided his party to the summit of Huber. It did not take Kain long to establish himself as a first rank climber, guide, raconteur and mountaineer. Kain inspired and helped build the first ski hill in Banff, and did the first ascent of imposing Mount Robson in 1913.

Kain also had a fondness for the Bugaboo spires in the Purcell Range, and he pioneered many first climbs on the rock slabs. Kain Hut in the Bugaboos is named after Kain and his impact on many climbers.

The life of a mountain guide in the early decades of the 20th c was a precarious one. When mountaineering season was over guides often had to find alternate sources of income. Kain became a trapper and hunter to top up his meagre income, spending many frigid winter nights under the stars and living off the land, often eating such delicacies as roasted squirrel, whiskeyjack or soup made from the carcass of a discarded marten. It was not uncommon for Kain to trek 40-50 km a day as a trapper and hunter, but his real passion was climbing peaks and guiding others to such spacious summits.

Kain's greatest climbs were made between 1914 and 1916. He climbed Mt Farnham (the highest peak in the Purcells) and Farnham Tower in 1914, and Mt Louis (near Banff) and Bugaboo Spire in 1916. All are still considered challenging climbs. Kain often dared to climb troublesome peaks and take clients on hardcore climbs that many of the Swiss Guides would have found much too risky. The differences between the Swiss Guides and Kain had much to do with both the level of skill and risk taken on the mountains, and both approaches did much to shape and define early mountaineering in Canada. There is no doubt, though, that Kain tended to take clients on climbs that were more adept on rock and glaciers. Kain's most successful years as a guide were in the 1920s when he was in demand by many people, but by the 1930s his life waned at a rapid pace. Kain's wife, Hetta, died in 1933, and Kain followed her in 1934 at the early age of 50.

Kain's tale is well told in The Mountaineers: Famous Climbers in Canada (1979), but more fully recounted in his autobiography, Where The Clouds Can Go, which has become a classic of Canadian mountaineering history. The newest dimension in Kain scholarship is the quest for his many letters, which should reveal even more about his enigmatic and tantalizing inner landscape and terrain. Wilmer, BC also has a large Kain cairn that celebrates Kain's life, and most of the rocks in the cairn come from places where Kain had climbed. The cairn's inscription says, "In Conrad Kain there was splendid fire...He saw a peak first as something beautiful, the technical problem was always secondary and nothing counted beside that vision." The Kain tradition lives on in the hearts of significant Canadian mountaineers such as Pat Morrow, who was, in 1982, the second Canadian to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In addition, poet Earl Birney penned a tribute to Kain in 1951, entitled Conrad Kain that celebrates Kain's life and achievements in evocative and engaging imagery.

In 2009 the Conrad Kain Centennial Society (CKCS) was formed in 2009 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kain's coming to Canada The CKCS has a variety of projects that will hold Kain's memory high both for Canadians and the Canadian mountaineering community. The splendid fire that burned so brightly, albeit briefly, in the life and writings of Kain remains an inspiration to many Canadians who take to the mountains with Kain as the patriarch of their tradition.

Further Reading