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

Conrad Kain: Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide, 1906-1933
Edited with an Introduction by Zac Robinson
The University of Alberta Press, 2014

 Review by: Ron Dart

“In these letters we see Conrad Kain the great guide and
       mountaineer as Conrad Kain the human being.” –Chic Scott

9781772120042amThere are moments in the mountains when the vast cathedral of rock and silent sentinels are enveloped by low lying clouds and little can be seen—when the clouds lift, the full beauty is revealed. Who could have guessed that the many misplaced letters of Conrad Kain were concealed by the low lying clouds of WWII and his long-gone friends? The combined work of Zac Robinson, Chic Scott, Maria-John Koch, Gerhard Pistor and Don Bourdon have gratefully revealed to us the rich and varied internal and external life of one of the finest first-generation Canadian mountaineers.

The fine foreward by Chic Scott, epilogue by John Bourdon and nuanced translations by Maria and John Koch blend wisely and well with Zac Robinson’s insightful introduction, historic annotations and meticulous editing. This, in short, is a must have book for those interested in Conrad Kain, first-generation Canadian mountaineering, and Canadian mountain culture.

Conrad Kain: Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide, 1906-1933 has a splendid assortment of maps and photographs, but the prize jewel of the book are the many letters (142) written by Conrad Kain to Amelie and Flora Malek. The letters are chronologically divided into four seasons of Kain’s life:

1) A Young Guide in Europe, 1906-1909,

2) Your Friend in the Western Woods, 1909-1912,

3) The Wanderer, 1912-1916 and

4) With Greetings, from Wilmer, 1920-1933.

The letters to Amelie are touching and tender, informative and insightful, historic and charming. It is impossible when reading the many letters not to miss the obvious affection Conrad Kain had for Amelie Malek. Many is the letter in which the vulnerable and soul-searching Kain reports the events of his life but also confesses to Amelie his deepest and dearest thoughts and feelings—the sheer honesty makes Kain most attractive. I have read the letters many times, and each read I learn more about Kain’s multifaceted life.

The introduction by Robinson is worth many a reread: facts and needed historic details fill in the context of Kain’s and Malek’s lives. The epilogue by Bourdon, “The Kain-Malek Correspondence: Provenance, 1934-2005,” tells the tale of how the Kain-Malek correspondence emerged and, in many ways, became the source material for the book. The Robinson and Bourdon contributions are like exquisite book ends within which the evocative letters make for the literary centrepiece.

There is a more robust story yet to be told that is only hinted at in this book—hopefully, in time, the greater tale will be published, and much more will be learned about Conrad Kain, who has still much to tell us from beyond the clouds where he has gone.

The book is available for purchase at the following retailers:

-The Whyte Museum (Banff)

-Café Books (Canmore)

-Audreys Books (Edmonton)

-The Jasper-Yellowhead Museum

-The Alpine Club of Canada

-The Glenbow Museum Shop (Calgary)

Ron Dart

Ron Dart

Ron Dart has taught in the department of political science/philosophy/religious studies at University of the Fraser Valley since 1990. Ron lived in Norway-Switzerland from 1972-1974 where he absorbed the finest of the Norwegian and Swiss alpine culture and tradition. Ron has trekked, skied and climbed many trails, mountains and glaciers in Europe and North America for many a pleasant decade—he has, also, published articles, book reviews and trip reports on mountaineering in Appalachia, Cloudburst, Canadian Alpine Journal, British Columbia Mountaineering Club, The B.C. Mountaineer, Gazette, Avalanche Echoes and other magazines. Ron has published two books on mountaineering culture: Mountaineering and the Humanities and Thomas Merton and the Beats of the North Cascades.