To put it bluntly, Conrad Kain is quite possibly one of the more interesting historical figures the Kootenay region has ever seen.
A mountaineer of unparalleled accomplishment, Kain traversed dozens of mountains in his time, and is credited with making more than 60 first ascents and new routes in the Canadian Rockies and B.C.’s Purcell Range.
These accomplishments drew the attention of Kootenay author Keith Powell, who is well-known in the region for his previous novel Living in the Shadow of Mount Fisher, which explored the Kootenay gold rush of 1864. For his second book, Powell decided to explore the colourful history of the prince of Canadian mountain guides in Raising Kain, the adventurous life of Conrad Kain — Canada’s greatest mountaineer.
“I enjoy delving into the rich history of the Kootenays, especially the many colourful characters who have at one time or another called the Kootenays home,” Powell—a lifelong resident of the Kootenays—said.
“A number of years ago a friend of mine returned for a hiking trip near Mt Robson and told me about Conrad Kain and the fact that he was actually buried in the Cranbrook cemetery. The more I heard about his life as a mountain guide in the Canadian Rockies, the more his story appealed to me.”
In 1909, the then 25-year-old Kain departed his home country of Austria and boarded a ship in Liverpool bound for Quebec. Kain then travelled cross-country by train to arrive in Banff, where he served as the first professional mountain guide employed by the Alpine Club of Canada.
In the following years, Kain made the three first ascents that he is primarily known for today: Mount Robson in 1913, Mount Louis in 1916 and Bugaboo Spire in 1916. In those three years, he also made three trips to New Zealand, where he guided more than 25 first ascents and climbed the country’s highest mountain, Mount Cook, twice.
“With almost 70 ascents in the Canadian Rockies and many first ascents in New Zealand, the Conrad Kain story deserves to be better known,” Powell said.
“From my research Kain comes across as a genuinely nice person, one who was highly respected in the climbing community and known for his great sense of humour and colourful story telling around the campfire. A very colourful and interesting person to write about.”
The book, while primarily about Kain, also delves into some of the history of the Kootenays during that time period, such as the discovery of the Rogers pass and how William Van Horne and the CPR promoted mountain tourism in the Rockies.
While the book isn’t set to be released until 2012, Powell has made a limited number of copies of the book available in advance at the Book Bar in Invermere.
“I think (readers) will get a better appreciation of the awesome mountaineering accomplishments of Conrad Kain and how fortunate we are to have such colourful characters as part of the Kootenay legacy,” Powell said.
“Also, the fact that he was a well respected mountaineer and yet humble man who worked very hard to ensure the needs (and safety) of others were looked after… he was a good ambassador for mountaineering and early tourism in the Rockies. I think readers will also enjoy the over 30 historical photos in the book of Conrad Kain and his contemporaries.”
Powell’s favourite quote about Kain came from outfitter Jimmy Simpson following Kain’s death in 1934.
“He would die for you if need be quicker than most men think of living. No matter what his creed, his colour or his nationality he was measured by a man’s yardstick, no other. We shall miss him… he was perhaps the best guide that has ever been in the country for any length of time.”