A new outdoor adventure documentary previewing this month takes on a quirky and unusual subject: a group of climbers who set out to reenact a celebrated mountain climb from the early years of exploration in the Canadian West. The film, Hobnails and Hemp Rope, tells the story of four amateur climbers as they recreate the 1916 ascent of Bugaboo Spire in B.C.’s Purcell Mountain Range by the legendary mountain guide Conrad Kain.

Striving for historical accuracy, the four members of the expedition – Bryan Thompson, Robert Le Blanc, Garry Reiss and Natalia Danalachi ‐ use only mountaineering equipment from the early 1900s. This includes wooden ice axes and a hemp rope; hobnail‐soled boots; a canvas tent and vintage woolen clothing. Even the foods they eat – like goat stew ‐ are historically accurate.

“A lot of the reason that we’re doing this project is we really want to experience what it was like a hundred years ago,” says the expedition’s organizer, Bryan Thompson. “Camping out in the same way they did, using the same kind of gear they did, eating the same food that they did in 1916.”

They aren’t allowed to use any modern technology – no sleeping bags, no inflatable mattresses, not even waterproof jackets to fend off the violent rainstorms that surge up off the Bugaboo glaciers. “We have to do everything the way they did a hundred years ago, and I’m being very strict about that,” says Thompson, a history buff who has researched every detail of the 1916 expedition. The film shows the climbers struggling with vintage rucksacks as they carry hundreds of pounds of food and equipment up to their base camp in Bugaboo
Provincial Park.

“Hauling these old packs is an unbelievably difficult task,” says Robert Le Blanc, a member of the expedition. “Modern packs have a strap system that transfers all the weight to your hips, and good ergonomics – features that make it conform with your body shape. All these aspects are missing from these old packs. They’re extremely uncomfortable.”

On the Gendarme. Photo Ivan Petrov
On the Gendarme. Photo Ivan Petrov

The film memorably depicts the climbers’ difficult first night in the mountains. Unable to get their antique kerosene stove to work properly, they bed down for the night cold and hungry ‐ sleeping on a bed of spruce branches and woolen blankets, as mountaineers did in the early 1900s. Outside it’s pouring rain, and water is seeping in under the sides of their vintage canvas tent.

“Sure enough the spruce boughs and the wool blankets are absorbing the water like sponges,” says Le Blanc. “Sleeping on something wet is definitely the worst experience I had sleeping in my entire life. Your whole body has the heat sucked out of it.”

“We were huddled together, we could feel each other shivering,” says expedition member Garry Reiss. “I was thinking about the climb the next day. That was my real worry, how are we going to deal with the weather up there in damp clothes.” As they make their way up Bugaboo Spire itself, they wonder if their hundred‐year old equipment will protect them in the event of an accident. The 10,500‐foot mountain is a daunting climb, full of terrifying precipices and potentially lethal rock fall, as well as weather than can turn on a dime. The climb doesn’t always go smoothly. Their antique footwear doesn’t make the job any easier.

Dressed for a 1916 Occasion. Photo Ivan Perov
Dressed for a 1916 Occasion. Photo Ivan Perov

“Those hobnail boots are really bad,” says Reiss. “On the rock, on a steep slope, they would sometimes slide – it’s like wearing skates, they weren’t great. I couldn’t wait to get them off.” Conrad Kain’s ascent of Bugaboo Spire in 1916 was considered at the time to be one of the greatest feats of mountaineering in Canada. Born into poverty in rural Austria, Kain became a mountain guide almost by accident. He went on to become a legendary figure in Canadian mountaineering, credited with over 60 first ascents in British Columbia and 25 in New Zealand.

“I always revered Conrad Kain and those who climbed with him,” says Thompson. “But having experienced similarly the kind of things they experienced, I have such a deeper much deeper appreciation for what they did.” Check them out on Facebook here.

The film will be shown at the following locations:
– Banff, AB Nov 24 7:00 pm: photo exhibition opening gala and film screening
at The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
– Calgary, AB Nov 26 2:00 pm: Special in‐store screening at Map Town
– Canmore, BC Nov 27 11:45 am: Alpine Club of Canada Clubhouse, as part of
the ACC’s Winter Mountain Safety Open House
– Invermere, BC Nov 29 7:00 pm: screening as part of the Jumbo Wild
Conservation Society’s annual general meeting
– Canmore, AB Dec 11 7:00 pm: Screening as part of Life@Altitude
International Mountain Day at ArtsPlace

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