HOBNAILS AND HEMP ROPE:
ON RECREATING A
HISTORIC 1916 ASCENT
Interview by Tera Swanson
In 1916, Conrad Kain led the first ascent of Bugaboo Spire – the hardest technical route in the world at that time. This summer, a team of climbers set out to recreate that experience using period gear – hobnailed boots, a hemp rope and a 100-year-old camp stove – and captured it on film. Tera Swanson interviews expedition photographer and project publicist, Ivan Petrov, about the challenges of the centennial climb, and how it compares to Kain’s original ascent.
Q+A WITH IVAN PETROV
Tera Swanson/ For anyone who might not be familiar with the area, what is the Bugaboo Spire?
Ivan Petrov/ The Bugaboo Spire is a big granite spire rising out of glaciers in Bugaboo Provincial Park in British Columbia. It’s just under 3,200 metres tall, and that area is commonly known as the Bugaboos. It’s a very distinct area with these prominent and striking peaks with sheer cliffs. It’s a very popular area even worldwide for mountain climbers and mountaineers.
The Spire is one of these mountains. Why we chose the Bugaboo Spire specifically for our climb was because it was the first spire that was ever climbed there in 1916, and the person who led the first ascent was Conrad Kain.
So we were interested in recreating and trying to experience what it would have been like to do that 100 years ago.
TS/ What was the extent in difficulty of the climb when Kain first completed it?
IP/ One hundred years ago, it would have been considered the most technical mountain climb that anyone can attempt or achieve. And Kain actually set a pretty high plank with his climb of the Bugaboo Spire, because I believe it was only 25 or 35 years later that the neighbouring spire was climbed. So it was a pretty impressive feat that he accomplished at that time. And it’s certainly become known in Canadian and world mountaineering history as one of the defining moments of mountain climbing.
TS/ What is the Bugaboo Spire Centennial Project?
IP/ The Bugaboo Spire Centennial Climb Project was envisioned by a member of the Toronto section of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), Bryan Thompson, and it’s really a passion project – done more out of personal interest and curiosity and for the love of the mountains. He assembled a very strong and passionate team of fellow climbers, mostly from the Toronto section of the ACC but also from Ottawa, myself, and another from the Vancouver section.
The goal of the project was to recreate this climb that was done in 1916 on the centennial anniversary, coming as close as we could to experiencing the original clothes and equipment they used, even the kind of tent they used and the kind of food they would have eaten 100 years ago. Eventually, we got an idea that it would be interesting to share this experience as wide as we can with other Canadians, and not just climbers. We thought making a short documentary film about it would be the perfect way to go, so the project became a bit more complicated. We were able to find a filmmaker, we were able to successfully document the experience, and we were able to reach the summit.
TS/ Can you touch more on the amount of preparation that went into the film?
IP/ We spent quite a lot of time trying to find as close to 1916 period gear and clothing as we could, that included trips to pawn shops and second-hand stores, army supply stores, and online searches. We had to get an extra piece of equipment that Kain would not have had 100 years ago, which was an old kerosene stove. They would have used a campfire to cook their food, but because park regulations would not have allowed us to have a real campfire, we decided to find a 100-year-old camping stove instead.
Bryan, who was the leader for the expedition, is also a part-time professional chef, so he was very interested in doing more in-depth research into the foods they ate, and tried to recreate a complete experience on the mountain for us. The food was an additional weight to our packs, we had fresh pheasants with us, a goat stew, and a few additional items of food like a few cans of condensed milk that we got to cook on the mountain.
And then, of course, there was some training and trying on the custom-made pairs of hobnail boots, similar to those that Kain would have worn, those were made in New Zealand and shipped to us ahead of our expedition. We spent some time trying them on and getting used to them. Also the typical conditioning and training, we tried to do as much rock climbing and hiking and running and biking ahead of the trip as we could to get us in shape.
TS/ Walk me through the crux of the climb – what was going through your mind?
IP/ On the higher pitches of the climb, including the crux on the climb called the Gendarme, which is basically a very sheer slab of granite that you have to carefully make your way across using friction on your feet and whatever marginal handholds you can see. Our team found it was impossible to do that in hobnail boots, so for the higher elevation we used modern climbing shoes and put on helmets to make sure we all came out of this adventure alive.
Kain obviously wouldn’t have had a helmet 100 years ago, we’re still not 100 per cent whether he would have used hobnail boots on higher elevations or some kind of additional footwear that has more friction on it. A few years later more modern-looking climbing shoes started to appear, and a lot of people wore them, but we don’t know if Kain used them.
A few of us decided not to go beyond the crux of the climb as it was just getting too difficult, we found it was beyond some of our abilities, and it also meant that we would’ve had to spend way more time to get all of us across to a summit. We really couldn’t afford that much time.
TS/ In what other ways did your experience of the climb compare to Kain’s account of the first ascent?
IP/ One major difference, of course, would be the fact that Kain did not know what was around the corner; he was charting new territory. It took him several hours to navigate the crux of the climb, while we 100 years later have the luxury of studying the route in detail with photographs and descriptions of many other climbers that came before us. We had much more information to work with, and we knew what we were getting ourselves into.
Another difference was that Kain and his party had way more experience with the old equipment and the hobnail boots. For us it was pretty much a novelty, we had to figure out how to best place our feet, how to get comfortable with the different feel of these boots, and make sure we didn’t injure ourselves on the climb.
TS/ When all was said and done, what did you take away from this experience?
IP/ It was a very challenging – logistically challenging and physically challenging – expedition. There was also the other challenge of us photographing the climb and making a film about it which required additional camera equipment and video equipment, the added weight and planning involved in that.
For me as a photographer, which was my main role during this expedition, I’d say it really allowed me to take my photography work to new heights. I was able to do the kind of photography work that I enjoy most which is photographing natural landscapes and people who are interacting with those landscapes in unique ways.
TS/ If we were to take a project like this on again, would you do anything differently?
IP/ I probably would not try to recreate the exact same climb again. There are so many climbs and unclimbed peaks out there – one can easily find another just as interesting project anywhere else in Canada or in the world for that matter. One idea that we already have is to potentially do a similar recreation of the first ascent of Mount Logan, which is Canada’s highest mountain. That climb was done in 1925, so we still have a few years ahead of us to wrap our minds around it and see if that might be our next big project.
FILM PREVIEW + TALKS
Join the Bugaboo Centennial Climb Project team for the Official Launch of the Photography Exhibit and Film Preview:
November 24th, 7pm, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
Film previews are also scheduled for:
More information can be found on the Facebook event page.
Tera Swanson is a freelance writer and graduate from Mount Royal University’s Journalism undergraduate program. Whether laced into hiking boots or clipped into skis, her favourite way to explore the mountains is on her own two feet. She’s always up for anything that will end in the telling of a good story; be it through photography, from pen to paper, or over a locally brewed amber ale.