Next time your parents complain that you are wasting your life playing in the mountains, tell them about Don & Phyllis Munday’s lifelong love affair with British Columbia’s mountains and how it’s as celebrated as any chapter in our province’s mountain lore, including the second ascent (and first female ascent) of Mount Robson on their honeymoon in 1924.
By Jeff Slack
No strangers to adventures right here in the Sea to Sky region, the Mundays’ list of local accomplishments includes first ascents of Overlord Mountain and Mount Sir Richard, as well as the first winter ascent of Wedge Mountain and the naming of such local features as Blackcomb Mountain and the Spearhead Range. Together, they spent more than a decade exploring, climbing, skiing, and mapping the incredible summits and icefields at the heart of the Coast Mountains.
In the early 1920s, few Canadian land surveyors or mountaineers would believe that the mountains along British Columbia’s coast were just as big, rugged, and spectacular as the more renowned Rockies or Selkirks. Such ideas were commonly ridiculed, but faint rumours suggesting otherwise were all the Mundays needed to spark their explorations up the coast.
Their first glimpse of the Waddington Range came in June 1925 from across Georgia Strait on Mount Arrowsmith and Don described it as “the far-off finger of destiny beckoning … a marker along the trail of adventure, a torch to set the imagination on fire.”
For each of the next dozen summers, they spent at least a month amongst this exalted alpine realm, keeping their composure against moonlit crevasse mazes, hair-raising electrical storms and charging grizzlies, made dozens of first ascents, and basically set the standard for the West Coast suffer-fest. And while they never achieved their ultimate prize of summitting Mount Waddington (at the time the most sought-after first ascent on the continent) their names will forever be linked to this incredible “Mystery Mountain” which they introduced to the world.
The Mundays thrived best on snow and ice. The progressive rock climbing techniques being adopted by their younger compatriots, and which ultimately proved necessary for surmounting Waddington’s daunting summit spire, held little interest. Regardless, they were perhaps the most dedicated, resourceful, and passionate mountain explorers the Coast has ever seen and among the first in North America to use skis for exploratory mountaineering.
At a time when most serious climbers considered skis to be frivolous toys, it only took one Waddington expedition for Don and Phyllis, already great downhillers, to recognize that skis were far better suited for covering distances and hauling loads across the region’s sprawling icefields. The Mundays deserve credit for instigating the Coast Range’s proud heritage of ski-mountaineering and exploration.
Beyond the dozens of awe-inspiring mountain zones they opened up for all who followed, perhaps their greatest Munday legacy is the lifestyle they pursued. In an era dominated by chuffed-up aristocratic climbers and constricting social norms, this modest couple blazed their own path following an insatiable desire for new alpine landscapes. Leading a lifestyle any modern mountain denizen can appreciate, they sacrificed money, career, and stability for freedom and flexibility. Unlike most cutting-edge climbers of their era, they weren’t well-heeled elites. Limited means, and the unique demands they placed on their equipment, led them to make much of their gear themselves – from hand-sewn canvas tents to the 16-foot in-board motorboat Don built in their North Vancouver backyard to get them to Waddington and back each summer.
The Mundays recognized opportunity in selling their stories – the Vancouver Province sponsored their Waddington expeditions in exchange for exclusive dispatches, now standard practice for expedition fundraising. Don’s breathtaking narratives and Phyllis’ photos earned headlines in newspapers as far away as New York and London. In a sense, they were the Coast’s first mountain bums, initiators of a lineage of legendary dirtbag mountaineers like Fred Beckey and Guy Edwards. While the Mundays didn’t shun social norms to the same extent as these later figures, they were arguably the first, and definitely the first to demonstrate so forcefully, that playing in the mountains can be more than just an annual vacation. It can be a respectable, even admirable, life’s passion.