Conrad Kain: A guide of great spirit

January 29th, 2021 3 Minutes

Conrad Kain was born in Nasswald, Austria, on August 10, 1883. Following his father’s death in 1892, things for his family were difficult, and Conrad left school at age 14, finding work as a goat herder and quarryman. He soon developed a love for the mountains and became a guide and a porter. Conrad earned his Fuherbuch (guiding certification) in 1906 at the age of 23. Kain would climb in the Alps and Corsica.

#0047.0339 ca. 1960 Marylin Hurst looking at Whitehorn Mountain from Berg Lake Plateau located near Mount Robson – Image courtesy of Columbia Basin Institute

Kain had a client, Dr. Erich Pistor, contact the CPR to help him secure work as a guide at their mountain hotels. However, there were no openings; eventually, he did find employment in the spring of 1909 as the first official guide for the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) courtesy of the ACC president Arthur O. Wheeler. Kain guided during the ACC camp at Lake O’Hara. It was while working for the ACC that Conrad developed many friendships. In 1912, Ned Hollister, whom he had met through the ACC, recruited him to guide a Harvard-Smithsonian expedition in the Altai Mountains on the Siberian Mongolian border.

Kain led the first ascent of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, in 1913 with A. H. McCarthy and Bill Foster.

The skilled mountaineer also climbed Mount Farnham (the highest peak in the Purcells) and Farnham Tower in 1914, with A.H. McCarthy. In 1916, he would climb Mount Louis near Banff and the imposing Bugaboo Spire in the Purcells, among other peaks.

Kain is credited with over 60 first ascents in the Canadian Rockies and the Purcells. He also spent several seasons climbing in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where he completed many first ascents. Of his feats, Kain climbed Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, twice.

In the off-season, when he was not in New Zealand, Kain would frequently spend time on the Karmax Ranch of A. H. MacCarthy near Wilmer, BC. It is there that he met his wife to be Henriquita “Hetta” Ferrara. They were married in June 1917. Conrad would work as a hunting guide, outfitter, and a trapper in winter. He often accompanied Arthur O. Wheeler on his topographic surveys on the Alberta-BC boundary.

In 1920, he purchased a ranch near Wilmer, where he raised mink and marten for fur. He would continue to climb and outfit others and even worked as a stunt double for Hollywood motion pictures filming in the area.

In February 1933, his wife, Hetta, died at the hospital in Cranbrook. She is buried in the Catholic section of the old Cranbrook Cemetery. Kain remained busy climbing in the Bugaboos, after her passing, including an ascent of Crescent Spire, and he crossed the Waputik Icefield from Banff to Yoho. On his 50th birthday, Conrad ascended Mount Louis again. In October of 1933, he fell ill and was taken to the hospital in Cranbrook. He passed away on February 2, 1934, and is buried in the Cranbrook cemetery. His friends replaced the simple marker with a more elaborate granite piece.

Gravestone of Conrad Kain (located at the old Cranbrook graveyard) 0047.0030 ca. 1977
Conrad Kain’s gravestone located at the old Cranbrook graveyard, 1977. – Image courtesy of Columbia Basin Institute

In 1935, his autobiography “Where the clouds can go” was published by the American Alpine Club, compiled by and with a foreword by J. Monroe Thorington. The latest edition of this book is considered a classic by Canadian mountaineers and was published in 2009 by Rocky Mountain Books. Another book compiling letters written by Conrad Kain titled “Conrad Kain: Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide, 1906-1933” was published in 2014 by the University of Alberta Press.

Conrad Kain has several mountains and traverses named for him in Canada and New Zealand. In 1951, celebrated poet Earle Birney penned the poem “Conrad Kain”. The ACC constructed the Conrad Kain hut in Bugaboo Provincial Park for use by mountaineers in 1972.

The Conrad Kain Centennial Society was formed to celebrate his legacy in 2007. The society opened the Conrad Kain Park and monument in Wilmer in 2009, marking the centennial of Kain’s arrival to Canada. The Society also runs an annual teen climbing camp in the Bugaboos in association with the ACC and others. The society has erected interpretive plaques and geocaches in various locations and is currently proposing the construction of the Conrad Kain Centre in Wilmer.

The climbing wall at J. Alfred Laird Elementary School in Invermere, B.C., was renamed the Conrad Kain Climbing Wall several years ago. For the centennial of Kain’s ascent of Bugaboo Spire, a group of ACC climbers with Kain era gear recreated his climb in 2016. This expedition, which was partially sponsored by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, was the subject of the documentary film “Hemp Rope and Hobnail Boots.”

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