Text — Mark Mann
Photos — Kari Medig
In June of 1909 a 26-year-old Austrian mountaineer named Conrad Kain travelled to the territory of the Ktunaxa Nation, in British Columbia, to serve as the first official climbing guide for the Alpine Club of Canada. Over a series of expeditions through the interior mountain range between the Rockies and the plains, a 170-million-year-old formation dubbed the Purcell Mountains by incoming settlers, Kain would achieve legendary status in Canadian climbing circles.
Kain’s climbing and guiding style was described as “impeccable, fast, light and bold.” He won his reputation making first ascents on many of the now-famous Bugaboo Glacier Peaks, as well as the hugely challenging Bugaboo Spire, all with old-fashioned equipment and while leading amateur climbers. Kain is still remembered and celebrated today, thanks in part to the beautiful arched hut in Bugaboo Provincial Park that bears his name.
After Kain laid down those first difficult ascents, the popularity of the Bugaboos as an international climbing destination simmered for half a century and then exploded in the 1960s. Drawn by the region’s clean and dramatic granite spires, people like Fred Beckey and Yvon Chouinard—who would go on to found Patagonia—used big-wall techniques to open many more ascents in the area. But with so many mountaineers making camp, the fragile alpine meadows beneath the spires soon showed signs of degradation. So in 1972 the Alpine Club of Canada built an elegant hut that could sleep dozens, using prefab materials brought in by helicopter.
The Conrad Kain Hut takes two or three hours to reach on foot, starting with a gentle hike and then ending with a hard 700 m climb in elevation. Passing the timberline and arriving at the hut, mountaineers are greeted by a steepled amphitheatre of monumental peaks and spires, offering a hundred or more routes to pick from, depending on the climber’s skill and experience. The hut provides a few precious amenities for mountaineers: heat, filtered water, a propane stove, and long tables for eating and playing cards. But most go to bed early, sleeping side by side on the second-level floor and waking before dawn to make their climb and get back before dark.
Overlooking a lush valley that blooms with alpine wildflowers in spring and summer, the Conrad Kain Hut employs a classic Gothic arch design, selected for its simplicity and efficiency. Partly inspired by igloo construction, the structure’s steep curving roof helps defend it from high winds and heavy snow, and mirrors the towering summits that surround it.
We chose the Conrad Kain Hut for the cover of our nordicity issue because it exemplifies the resilience and adaptability that are vital to northern living, especially as we go forward into a world transformed by climate change. In the hut’s sturdy and elegant architecture, we see the courage to embrace life in nature, in all its arduousness and beauty. With the rolling fields of flowers below and the jagged peaks above, the Conrad Kain Hut signals how we can find respite in the wild, even as we prepare for the difficult—and worthwhile—journey ahead.