Canadian team to recreate Conrad Kain’s historic 1916 summit of the Bugaboo Spire
“We will be climbing in gear that we have no idea how it works,” said Bryan Thompson, leader of the Bugaboo Spires Centennial Climb Project.
From July 8-15, Thompson will lead three climbers and two filmmakers outfitted with vintage gear on an expedition to celebrate the anniversary of the first ever climb of the Bugaboo Spire completed by Canadian climber Conrad Kain in 1916.
“I have to learn how to operate a hundred-year-old camp stove," said Thompson. "I have a can opener that’s 100 years old. I have no idea how to use it. And that goes the same with the gear we’re going to be climbing with — hobnail boots. None of us have ever climbed in hobnail boots. No one has in decades. We have no idea what to expect.”
Inspired by the skill and courage of the earliest mountaineers in Canadian history, Thompson assembled a small team of climbers including Natalia Danalachi, Rob LeBlanc and Garry Reiss. They will be joined by filmmakers Ivan Petrov and Greg Gransden.
“I find myself wishing I had been around in the days when men and women were exploring peaks that didn't even appear on a map, using equipment which, by today's standards, was totally inferior to what we have today,” Thompson said. “I'm inspired by their spirit of adventure and their fortitude. One of my greatest heroes is Conrad Kain, who put up at least 69 first ascents in Canada's Rockies and Purcell Mountains.”
Legendary Canadian mountain climber Kain was the first to reach the summit of the Bugaboo Spire, which is now part of the Bugaboo Provincial Park roughly 75 kilometres west of Radium Hot Springs. It was considered to be one of most daring ascents of the time, until the 1940s and the advent of modern climbing gear.
The spire is an iconic piece of the Canadian Rockies, with its granite point peaking at over 3,000 metres, rising dramatically out of surrounding glaciers. It is a popular climb among mountaineers, ranked 10th on a list of 50 classic climbs in North America, the second highest ranked Canadian climb.
Kain was the first to climb dozens of mountains in the Rockies, with equipment that seems almost archaic by modern standards. Climbers had no weatherproof clothing to help them stay dry and no thermal-lined tents to protect against the cold night air.
“We’re going to climb it in the same way it was done in 1916,” said Thompson. “Using the same gear they used, camping out the same way they did, eating the same food they did.”
Petrov, who will be documenting the ascent, said, “the greatest inspiration for this project was likely the curiosity of our expedition leader and mountaineer Bryan Thompson of what it would have been like to make a challenging first ascent of a mountain like Bugaboo Spire 100 years ago.
“We want to recreate this experience to the fullest extent possible given our resources. Our curiosity grew even stronger when we found out that no similar re-enactments have ever been attempted in North America.”
The group scavenged much of their equipment from antique stores, army surplus retailers, had some items replicated and found others on the treasure trove that is online shopping. They will be outfitted with vintage equipment ranging from First World War mess kits and canteens, woollen shirts and blankets, handmade ice axes and Tricouni replica boots, custom made in New Zealand, that are almost identical to the hobnail boots used by Kain and other climbers of his time. Hobnails are boots with nails pounded through the soles for extra grip.
“These days, no one would even think about putting a pair of such boots on when going climbing or mountaineering,” Petrov said. “And yet, they were dependable and got people up the mountains 100 years ago.”
With or without modern equipment, the Spire is a challenging climb. While the Spire itself is only about 400 metres in height, to get there the team will have to make their way up the side of the Crescent Glacier, a sheet of ice over 1,800 metres tall, before making their way across a small ridge connecting the Spire to the glacier.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges the team faces will be camping in the frigid mountain air, or in makeshift shelters, without any modern amenities such as thermal-lined tents or sleeping bags that conserve body heat.
“A lot of modern climbers today are used to creature comforts that they didn’t have 100 years ago,” said Thompson. “We’re used to sleeping on nice air mattresses, in a down sleeping bag with a really nice alpine tent that protects us from the elements. They didn’t have any of those things. They would sleep on the ground and roll themselves up in Hudson’s Bay wool blankets.”
Gransden, the principal filmmaker ofn the project, says nobody can really predict how the team will cope with the vintage gear, especially with unpredictable weather in the mountains.
“It's a fun project — we're not really sure what's going to happen,” he said. “It's unpredictable. We don't know how everybody is going to cope with living in 1916 conditions, especially if it rains — think of standing in the rain wearing nothing but wool.”
While the prospect of being caught off guard by the elements in less than ideal gear may be cause for apprehension, the team seems to be taking that possibility with good humor during their physical training for the climb.
“In order to prepare for this daunting task, I have been running the Wentworth stairs in Hamilton,” climber Robert LeBlanc said. “This is the largest staircase in Hamilton with 500 stairs climbing the Niagara Escarpment. I have been doing this at speed without a pack to develop anaerobic tolerance and with a 60 pound pack to develop strength.”
“I too have been clunking up stairs and steep hills to prep my boots and increase my endurance,” said Garry Reiss, another climber on the team. “Hope that was enough. Probably should have also given up bathing, donned damp wool, and slept in a meat locker”
While it may be hard to imagine why someone would purposefully make a tough climb even more difficult, Thompson said the adventure is about immersing the group in an experience that pays homage to the toughness and dedication of past climbers.
“We really want to experience what it was like 100 years ago, and we want people to be able to understand what these people went through and endured when they went out there with much less than we have today.”
No doubt Kain and his party had the best equipment available in 1916, but their technology of course pales in comparison to current gear. They didn’t have metal anchoring devices and high‐strength nylon ropes to create a safety backup in case of falls. Their equipment consisted of a few lengths of hemp rope, ice axes and hobnail boots. If someone got injured, there were no radios or helicopters to take an injured climber to a hospital.
And that is perhaps the most dangerous reality of the expedition Thompson and the team plan to make: if something goes wrong, how do they call for help? With no radios or cellphones allowed on the expedition, the team may be limited to smoke signals, or sending a member back to the bottom for help.
Being a skilled group of climbers, Thompson and his team are confident they can overcome the difficulties presented by using gear like Kain and his team utilized. While they will take extra precautions, team members are confident they will succeed because Kain succeeded.
The expedition, to take place July 8‐15 in B.C.’s Bugaboo Provincial Park, will also be the subject of a documentary entitled Hobnails and Hemp Rope. The project aims to not only document the climb Thompson and his team are attempting, but to also highlight the extraordinary feats undertaken by some of Canada’s most famous mountaineers during a time when none of the conveniences of modern climbing existed.
This article was updated on July 8 with additional input from the climbing team.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Greg Gransden
- By Jodi Brak