Canadian team recreates gruelling 1916 climb of B.C. peak
One hundred years ago, a group of pioneering Canadian climbers scrambled up the steep inclines of the Bugaboo Spire in B.C.’s Purcell Mountains, muscles on fire, thoughts likely racing to figure out which handhold to grab next, a strand of hemp rope the only thing stopping them from tumbling down to certain death.
This was the reality of mountain climbing a century ago, a challenge that Conrad Kain, one of the most revered mountaineers in Canadian history, set out to face as the first person in the world to reach the summit of the Bugaboo Spire in 1916.
Kain and his crew were breaking new ground. There were no suggested routes to make the ascent easier, no guides, and no way to contact the outside world for help if something went wrong. Yet Kain and the climbers who joined him persevered, becoming the first to summit not only the Bugaboo Spire, but dozens of mountains throughout the Rockies, cementing the climbers’ place in Canadian mountaineering history.
Recently, four modern climbers — willfully casting aside 100 years of constantly improving climbing techniques and equipment — recreated Kain’s original ascent of the Bugaboo Spire.
This was the challenge that a group of climbers and filmmakers led by Bryan Thompson set out to face in July. Trading their weatherproof jackets for scratchy wool shirts, swapping their safe, flexible ropes for hemp strands that may end up breaking their ribs if they lose their footing, and discarding their well-tested climbing shoes for hobnail boots, footwear with steel soles and studs pounded into the bottom for a better grip.
“Whenever I read about the exploits of the early pioneers of mountaineering, 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 most standards, was totally inferior to what we have today,” Thompson said before the climb. “I’m inspired by their spirit of adventure and their fortitude. A few years ago, I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to climb the way they did?’ Then I realized that 2016 would be the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of the Bugaboo Spire, which was the most challenging climb ever attempted in Canada until the 1940s.”
A climb of this nature, using vintage and replica equipment in place of much safer and more reliable modern equipment, had never been undertaken before in North America. This meant Thompson needed to assemble a team of veteran thrill seekers who weren’t daunted by the upcoming challenge.
“Kain and his party achieved that remarkable climb not even knowing for sure if they would find a way down off the mountain!”
“I started telling fellow climbers about my idea to recreate the climb in the same manner as it was done in 1916 … and many thought I was nuts,” Thompson said. “I managed to find a few like-minded people, however, folks with the same spirit of adventure, who were willing and strong enough climbers to give it a try, and do a re-creation of the first ascent of the climb to see if modern mountaineers have the same strength and fortitude as mountaineers 100 years ago.”
The team, including climbers Natalia Danalachi, Rob LeBlanc and Gary Reiss, and filmmakers Greg Gransden, David Ray and Ivan Petrov, set out from Calgary on July 8 for the Bugaboo Provincial Park northwest of Invermere, B.C.
The adventure was not without its difficulties. Challenges presented by the vintage gear, and the climbers’ lack of experience with it, soon became obvious. Without waterproof tents, clothes or blankets, rain during the night became a miserable affair. The metal soles of their hobnail boots, which weigh five pounds each – over twice as much as a pair of modern climbing shoes – quickly became a hindrance on the slippery rock faces.
“I was a bit of a tyrant with the group when it came to bringing things that weren’t from 1916,” Thompson said after the climb. “I remember in the parking lot at the start of the hike when Natalia started to put on bug spray and I had to say ‘Hey, what are you doing? They didn’t have bug spray in 1916!’ I’m surprised nobody threw me off the side of the mountain . . . really.”
In addition, the vintage safety equipment the team used proved to be slightly lacking in the safety department. For example, the old mountaineering axes they carried left something to be desired.
“I could bend my axe with my hands,” Thompson said, “and this is something I had to use to anchor myself into the mountain!”
“Actually, one of our re-enactment climbers, Rob LeBlanc, took a fall on the steep snow slope at the base of the mountain and went sliding for around 100 feet,” said Petrov, the expedition’s photographer. “He actually had his old mountaineering axe with him, but it broke in two.”
“Well I had my moment of excitement, that’s for sure,” LeBlanc said with a chuckle.
LeBlanc explained that, ironically enough, the snow slope at the base of the mountain, called the “Bugaboo Snowpatch Col”, has actually become one of the most difficult features of the Bugaboo Spire in modern times. While in Conrad Kain’s day it was a simple walk up a shallow, snow packed incline, global warming has melted the feature into a steep icy slope with an incline of about 55 degrees.
To overcome obstacles of this kind, climbers kick out footholds in the snow to make a staircase, using their mountaineering axes to support themselves. While doing this, LeBlanc found out first-hand the limitations of century old equipment.
“I had my old mountaineering axe, this old fashioned alpenstock. This particular alpenstock I have is 100 years old. I got it from Switzerland with the original wooden shaft. And as I was doing this the 100-year-old alpenstock broke in half, just snapped on me,” LeBlanc said. “So now I’m flying down the Bugaboo Snowpatch Col, I’m sliding down and picking up speed, I’m heading for the bottom where there are crevasses and giant boulder piles. So I actually stabbed the broken shaft directly into the hill, and that stopped me.
“That was my excitement of the day owing to the failure of my 100-year-old piece of equipment.”
To complicate things even further, restrictions imposed by the Bugaboo Spire’s location, in the Bugaboo Provincial Park, prevented the team from using some of the resources Kain had at his disposal in 1916, which would have made the ordeal slightly easier.
“What was kind of interesting was they had to do certain things differently, they couldn’t do them like they would in 1916. They couldn’t bring pack horses to carry their gear like they would in 1916, so we basically had a bunch of human pack horses carrying our equipment,” said Gransden, the principal filmmaker documenting the climb. “Conrad Kain wouldn’t even have done that 100 years ago, he would have thought it was insane to not have pack horses carrying their equipment.”
Perhaps the biggest hit on their morale was their inability to make a fire for warmth or cooking, due to the restrictions on open fires in provincial parks.
“And you know Conrad Kain would have been able to build a fire anywhere he wanted in 1916, and cook over that open fire … which makes a huge difference when you are sitting in the rain in a wool sweater,” Gransden said. “Since they couldn’t have an open fire they had to use a 100-year-old kerosene camp stove which didn’t work very well, and when it did work it gave a kind of kerosene flavour to the food which made it inedible.
“As the days went on and they climbed the mountain they were discovering how incredibly hard it was to do these things in 1916 equipment. I guess what was most interesting to watch was this tension between what they were trying to do and what they were able to do.”
However, despite the challenges presented to them, on July 14 Rob LeBlanc and Natalia Danalachi stood atop the Bugaboo Spire outfitted in gear that had not been used by mountaineers in decades. They had completed the same ascent as Kain and his team did in 1916. And it’s quite possible they were the second party in history to climb the Spire with this type of equipment.
“After the 1916 climb Conrad Kain did on the mountain, it was quite a few years before anyone else climbed the Bugaboo Spire, almost until the 1940s when modern climbing equipment started to be introduced,” Petrov said. “So we joke that it’s possible we could have been the second party ever to use hobnail boots to reach that summit.”
Gransden, a filmmaker and television writer, hopes to use this historic re-enactment to showcase the incredible feats undertaken by those who braved the Rocky Mountains before they were mapped out, when it was a blank slate of rocks, forests, rivers and lakes just waiting to be scouted by those with the courage and fortitude to climb thousands of metres of rock with little more than hobnail boots and hemp rope.
The documentary, fittingly titled “Hobnails & Hemp”, was filmed and is being produced by Gransden and fellow filmmaker David Ray, as well as photographer Ivan Petrov. The trio documented Thompson and the rest of the team as they tackled the Bugaboo Spire, in addition to providing insight into climbers who came before them, the feats they accomplished and the risks they took every time they scaled a mountain.
“I feel it’s important to share the story because it’s the kind of story that would otherwise be well known in a very small community of climbers and mountaineers, but beyond that the general public wouldn’t seek out this kind of story,” Petrov said.
Without these brave adventurers blazing a trail through some of the most intimidating peaks in North America, mountaineering in Canada would not be the same. They established routes for safe ascents, set up camps that are used by climbers to this day and pioneered techniques and equipment that would become the basis of modern climbing.
“I hope it might make other Canadians who are not necessarily climbers get more appreciation for what Conrad Kain did and the significance that moment had, not to just Canadian mountaineering history, but to Canadian history in general,” Gransden said. “What they were doing was exploring Canada, uncovering places nobody had been.”
“It’s how the West was conquered,” LeBlanc says. “It was one thing to build a railway, but once the railway was [completed] now how do we bring people out to the West? Well I’ll tell you, the allure of the mountains was always the secret of the west.”
The mini-documentary is still in production but has been entered into the Banff Mountain Film Festival, as well as the Vancouver International Film Festival. A collection of still photos from the expedition, taken by Petrov, will also be featured at the Whyte Gallery in Banff throughout October and November.
“We felt it was an interesting and important story to share with other Canadians. And who knows, it might inspire some people to climb some mountains,” Gransden said of the documentary.
This recreation of a historic climb using vintage gear is the first of its kind in North America, though Thompson says that after the success of this first expedition he may be interested in taking some of the lessons learned and attempting recreations of other historic climbs with a bit more experience under his belt.
“We all came away with this incredible sense of how tough people were back then, the fortitude and spirit of adventure they had. They had no idea how they were going to get down off this mountain, but they went up anyway. That spirit leaves me in awe,” Thompson said. “We’re just a bunch of recreational climbers from southern Ontario who decided to try this out, and in doing this, I think we realized that people 100 years ago were way tougher than we are.”
While nothing is set in stone, Thompson has his eye on the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Logan, the tallest mountain in Canada, in 2025. However, he says that adventure would make the Bugaboo Spire climb seem like a casual Sunday stroll.
Thumbnail image by Ivan Petrov