We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

Conrad Kain: Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide, 1906-1933

By Zac Robinson, editor

May 6, 2016

Review By David A. Rossiter

Few figures in the history of western Canadian mountaineering are held in such high regard as Conrad Kain. Arriving in Banff in 1909 to work for the young Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), Kain came from an impoverished Austrian village where he had laboured sporadically in local quarries and developed a facility for guiding tourist expeditions in the Austrian Alps. While he was not formally trained in the manner of the Swiss guides brought to the Canadian Rockies by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Kain’s reputation in Europe was such that the ACC’s leader, A.O. Wheeler, agreed to take him on as a guide on the basis of a recommendation from a wealthy client. Kain would go on to be one of the key guides at early ACC summer climbing camps, most famously leading four parties to the summit of Mt. Robson over a two week span in the summer of 1924. He would also accompany Wheeler in his surveying work along the continental divide, contributing to the demarcation of the border between Alberta and British Columbia. In the mid-1920s, Kain married and settled on a small farm in Wilmer, BC; from this base he continued to guide, hunt, and climb until his death 1934.

The story of this remarkable man was the subject of an autobiography produced by one of Kain’s close clients, American ophthalmologist J. Monroe Thorington, in 1935. Where the Clouds Can Go consists of selected correspondence written by Kain to Amelie Malek (an Austrian client he had met and struck up a deep friendship with prior to his departure for Canada), combined with other writings by Kain and additional narrative by Thorington. With updated editions in 1979 and 2009, Clouds has been the reading public’s main route to knowledge of this fascinating character; until now. With the present volume, historian and mountain studies specialist Zac Robinson provides an annotated edition of the full trove of 144 letters sent by Kain to Malek over parts of four decades. Itself a fascinating story, described in the Introduction and Epilogue, the uncovering of the original correspondence provides Robinson the opportunity to present Kain’s story in a more unvarnished manner than found in Thorington’s treatment.

As with Clouds, this volume traces Kain’s journey from Austria to Canada, with travels to mountainous New Zealand highlighted along the way. Divided into four periods, covering Kain’s time guiding in Europe (1906-1909), his early years in Canada (1909-1912), his travels to New Zealand and back to Europe (1912-16), and the last chapter of his life in British Columbia (1920-1933), the presentation makes for easy cross-referencing with the narrative in Clouds. Through deft annotation, Robinson not only positions Kain’s life within the history of Canadian mountaineering but locates Kain within the currents of immigration, class, and environmental politics that came together in the first decades of the twentieth century in the mountain landscapes of Alberta and British Columbia. The effect is to reward readers of both Robinson’s volume and Clouds with a more complex and nuanced portrait of a man, his time, and his place(s) than a reading of Thorington’s volume alone will yield. As such, Robinson provides a welcome reminder of the utility of biography in helping to make sense of the past.

REFERENCES

Kain, Conrad. 2009. Where the Clouds Can Go. Edited with additional chapters by J. M. Thorington. Surrey:  Rocky Mountain Books.

Conrad Kain: Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide, 1906-1933
Zac Robinson, editor
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2014. 468pp. $34.95 paper