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Conrad Kain and Bugaboo Spire Celebrated 100 Years Later

In the summer of 1916, legendary mountain guide Conrad Kain was 30 years old. By season’s end, he made the first ascents of 15 mountains, including some of the now famous in the Bugaboos.

It began in Banff with the first ascent of Mount Louis in a bold solo push with Albert MacCarthy. Kain moved to Wilmer, B.C., to explore the steep peaks of the Purcells.

Over the next month, Kain was joined by MacCarthy and his wife Bess as they mapped Glacier and Jumbo Creek and climbed 12 new peaks.

By Aug. 25, the three climbers and John Vincent made the first ascent of the Howser Spire from camp. Two days later, Kain and the MacCarthys completed the Sextet Ridge to Howser Peak before making the first ascent of Bugaboo Spire.

The team had no protection as steel pitons had not been introduced to Canada. Kain only had a rope tied onto his wait. At the gendarme crux of the ridge, he had to commit to a smooth slab in slippery tricounisouled boots.

A fall would have likely have been fatal, as he had no protection in the rock and the MacCarthys were not anchored. It took Kain two hours to sort out the difficult moves, which you can see him contemplating in the photo below.

Kain later wrote, “Nonplussed at the sight of a veritable bugaboo, which immediately suggested to our minds the appropriateness of the name ‘Bugaboo’ for this spire.”

Conrad and Bess on Bugaboo Spire first ascent. Photos by Albert MacCarthy
Conrad Kain on Bugaboo Spire and Bess descending. Photos by Albert MacCarthy / Whyte Museum

Many groups have been celebrating the centennial of Kain’s Bugaboo Spire first ascent. In July, 10 students from nearby towns took part in the Conrad Kain Bugaboos Teens Climbing Camp, which celebrated its eighth year.

The students included were Matthew Sappach, Oliver Orchiston, Thibaud Bonniard, Emerson Ferrier, Katrina Romanowicz, Jack Bolger, Megan Strachan, Janine Harach, Emma Thompson and Eric Engler.

ACMG guides Jen Olson, Kirk Mauthner and Tim McAllister were on hand with BC Parks ranger Craig Browne. Climber and event organizer Pat Morrow tagged along to photograph the event. “All the students were great team players, and developed a keen appreciation for nature on this brief but intense outing, very much in the spirit of Conrad Kain,” said Morrow.

A group of four climbers climbed Bugaboo Spire in August using as much 1916 equipment as they could to recreate the first ascent of Bugaboo Spire.

Rob Leblanc, Natalia Danalachi, Garry Reiss and Bryan Thompson used hemp rope, old clothing, no sleeping bags and hobnail boots to attempt the Kain Route.

After the first ascent in 1916, they had to descend using a primitive rope system. Kain lowered Bess and then fixed one of his two ropes on a large boulder and shinnied down.

Bess was one of the most accomplished female climbers in North America and accompanied her husband and Conrad on 19 of Kain’s first ascents. The Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire remained one of the most difficult Canadian routes until the Snowpatch Route was climbed in the 1940s.

The glaciated Purcells in 1916. Photo Albert MacCarthy / Whyte Museum