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Legendary Conrad Kain and Three Kain Routes to Climb

If you're an alpine climber, you have to do these routes

Conrad Kain was one of the first climbers who pushed big alpine and rock climbs in western Canada. He moved to Canada in 1909 at the age of 25. He moved to the Rockies after the Alpine Club of Canada hired him as a guide. For 25 years he logged an impressive list of climbs in Canada and New Zealand.

Conrad Kain in 1914. Photo Whyte Museum

Zac Robinson, a climber and historian, noted, “Accounts of Kain reveal a thoroughly personable and professional guide. Standing five feet five inches, he had a stocky build with broad shoulders; his moustache and pipe were constant features.

“In camp and on the trail, he could be charming, harmlessly flirtatious, and an entertaining storyteller. An expert axe man and cook with a great capacity for carrying weight, he was patient with novices and discreet in his treatment of over-zealous climbers disinclined to appreciate natural splendours.”

Conrad Kain in 1933

Kain made 69 first ascents in Canada, often involving big approaches on horseback, minimal gear and while guiding. In the Bugaboos, he made five first ascents.

“Life is so short, and I think one should make a good time of it if one can,” Kain wrote in a journal. “The only thing I enjoy now is nature, especially spring in the mountains and letters from friends.”

Some of the peaks Kain made first ascents of include: Resplendent Mountain and Whitehorn Mountain in 1911, Nasswald Peak (named after his hometown) in 1913, Mount Farnham in 1915, North Twin Peak and Mount Saskatchewan in 1923, Mount Hooker and Mount Fraser in 1924 and Peyto Peak and Trapper Peak in 1933.

A.H. MacCarthy, Beth MacCarthy, Caroline Hinman, Conrad Kain and unidentified boy on Resplendent in 1913. Photo Byron Harmon

Three of Kain’s most impressive and often climbed routes were first done during the first ascents of Mount Robson in 1913, Bugaboo Spire in 1916 and Mount Louis in 1916.

Mount Robson

The Kain Face on Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 3,954 metres, was a guiding trip where Kain took Albert MacCarthy and William Wasbrough Foster up the northeast face.

He hacked hundreds of step and said to his clients on the summit, “Gentlemen, that’s so far as I can take you.”

Kain Face and summit of Mount Robson. Photo Matt Brooks

In 1924 and on his third expedition up Robson, Kain guided another group to the summit.

In the group was Phyllis Munday and on the summit, Kain clasped her hands and said, “There, Lady! Here is the top of Mount Robson. You are the first woman on this peak – the highest of the (Canadian) Rocky Mountains.”

Conrad Kain on Mount Robson in 1924. Photo Whyte Museum

The climb usually takes one day to approach and one day to climb. There are two approaches, one up Berg Lake Trail to Extinguisher Tower and the other via the Robson/Resplendent Col.

The climb takes you to Dome Glacier, up the Kain Face, up the ridge and to the summit.

Mount Louis

Mount Louis is one of the few peaks in the Rockies where you need technical climbing skills to reach the summit and a rope to rappel off.

Mount Louis from the approach trail. Photo Brandon Pullan

Kain guided MacCarthy to the top on July 19, 1916. They carried minimal gear and after reaching the summit reversed their route.

The climb now goes at about 5.8 and the original squeeze chimney below the top is avoided by using the Perren Cracks to the right, first climbed by Walter Perren in the 1950s.

Conrad Kain rock climbing in 1911. Photo Whyte Museum

After their climb, MacCarthy wrote the following in the Canadian Alpine Journal about returning to the ground after the climb, “Upon reaching the edge of the timber east of Mount Edith, we stopped and looked back at our mountain, which towered up magnificently in the dusk, and Conrad spoke volumes when he said, ‘Ye gods, Mr. MacCarthy, just look at that; they never will believe we climbed it.’” Read the full story here.

The Kain Route follows slabs up the east face to a rappel that takes you around to the south wall and up ribs and gullies to the Perren Cracks headwall. There’s about 18 rope-lengths of climbing, but only 10 technical pitches. With one 60-mmetre rope ou can rappel off the west face.

The Perren Cracks were retro-bolted a few years ago, but the bolts have been removed. Bring a full rack of cams to two inches.

Kain last climbed Mount Louis on his 50th birthday, one year before he died.

Conrad Kain belaying in 1913. Photo Byron Harmon

Bugaboo Spire

The Kain Route on the Bugaboo Spire was climbed in 1916 on a guided ascent by Kain with Albert and Bess MacCarthy and John Vincent.

Kain Route is left ridge on Bugaboo Spire. Photo Jon Smith

Kain made the first ascents of 15 mountains that summer at the age of 30, but he said Bugaboo was the hardest technical route he ever climbed.

Kain and his team had no pitons or rock protection, just a hemp rope tied to their waists. At the gendarme crux, Kain had to commit to difficult slab climbing in tricounisouled boots. A fall would have been fatal.

Conrad Kain on the first ascent of Bugaboo Spire in 1916. Photo Albert MacCarthy

On their descent from the summit, Kain lowered the others and then fixed one of his two ropes on a large boulder and climbed down it.

The route has about four pitches mixed with a lot of fourth-class ridge travel. The crux gendarme is 5.6 and has some fun climbing. To descend you reverse the route and rappel from the bolts atop the gendarme.

While trying to climb all of Kain’s dozens of Canadian routes in one summer would be difficult, climbing Bugaboo Spire, Mount Louis and Mount Robson would be a noteworthy accomplishment.

Conrad Kain and clients. Photo Whyte Museum