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

Book Review by Ron Dart

There 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, probably, the finest 1st generation Canadian mountaineer were hidden and concealed by the low lying clouds of WWII and dead friends? The combined work of Zac Robinson, Chic Scott, Maria-John Koch, Gerhard Pistor and Don Bourdon have, gratefully so, revealed to us the rich and varied, internal and external, life of Conrad Kain.

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, 1st 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, initially, to Amelie and Flora Malek, then, mostly, to Amelie 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 both 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 with the evocative letters make for the literary centrepiece.

There is a fuller story (letters from Amelie-Flora Malek and mountain guiding friendship with Dr. Eric Pistor) yet to be told that is only hinted at in the this book—hopefully, in time, the greater tale will be published, and, in the publishing, much more will be learned about Conrad Kain, who has still much to tell us from beyond the clouds where he has gone.

Ron Dart