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Phyllis Munday

"Phyllis Munday on Franklin Glacier carrying a 70 lb. pack." Item (H-03440) courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

Phyllis Munday embodied the spirit of adventure. 

In her 96 years, she would explore the province and scale nearly 100 mountains--tens of them first ascents and others both named for her and of her discovery. 

From a young age, Phyllis was a livewire. Born in Ceylon in 1894, she would spend her first seven years in present-day Sri Lanka before coming to Canada. Her father, a tea plantation bookkeeper, would first settle the family in the B.C. Interior before moving to Vancouver in 1907. Extroverted and resolute, Phyl (as she was affectionately known) would dismiss tennis--her father’s game--in favour of mountaineering, an endeavour not often undertaken by girls or women of the time. But by 1912, she would complete her first ascent, making the trek up Grouse Mountain, planting the Union Jack at its summit and marking the beginning of a lifelong love affair with exploration.

In her early twenties, she would climb the Lions, Seymour, Tantalus and Garibaldi--all mountains in the Vancouver area or Sea to Sky country. This, all in an era, when women who hiked--if they hiked at all--were expected to wear their skirts. It’s said that many abandoned their finery at the foots of mountains, climbing in their bloomers and redressing upon their descent. Phyl was no exception and even employed her domestic skills to sew tents and pants suitable for her treks.

"[Mr. and Mrs. Munday and their daughter in front of their log cabin on Grouse Mountain]" (CVA 371-1336) via City of Vancouver Archives

Any talk of Phyllis Munday would be incomplete without mention of her husband, Don. Introverted and more reserved than his wife, he was a World War I veteran who worked as a freelance writer and carpenter. As the story goes, the two met during a climb when Don lost his footing and Phyllis saved him. The harrowing incident, coupled with their shared love of the mountains made for a near-immediate connection. They married in either 1919 or 1920 and honeymooned at the Dam Mountain cabin Don built by hand. Soon after their union, Phyllis would become pregnant with their daughter, Edith--but that wouldn’t stop her from continuing to hike and at only eleven weeks, baby Edith herself, would complete her first climb of Crown Mountain, tucked into a carrier crafted by her father.

But beyond being parents and husband and wife, the Mundays were partners in lifelong adventure. As previously mentioned, they would make a number of first ascents, including Overlord Mountain and Blackcomb Peak near Whistler. Phyllis would make history as the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. One peak in the Coast Mountains--Mount Munday--would even be named for the pair by the Geographic Board of Canada. Nearby Baby Munday Peak would be named for Edith.

But perhaps their greatest venture involved one particularly illusory mountain--one that the Mundays dubbed, Mystery Mountain.

A decade-long fixation would begin in 1925. When climbing on Vancouver Island, the pair would eye a peak higher than any other on the mainland. Situated in an uncharted area, it was said that the mountain did not exist, but Phyl and Don would spend the next ten years stubbornly hiking through the backcountry, carrying heavy loads and braving dangerous conditions and encounters with wildlife to glimpse the myth-like mountain. Ultimately, they would prove the existence of what is today known as Mount Waddington, the highest mountain in British Columbia.

While Phyl and Don would be credited with its discovery, they would never reach Mount Waddington’s summit, though they came close several times. An American pair would make the first ascent in 1936, but still, the peak would be a very special place to the Mundays. In 1950, when Don would succumb to a battle with pneumonia, Phyllis, would fly above Mystery Mountain after his funeral and spread some of his ashes over the legendary point that had captivated them for so many years.

"Phyllis Munday seated on rocky outcrop, Dam Mountain, North Vancouver; box 37, 'our cabin from start to 1921' Item (I-61727) courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

Phyl would outlive her husband by four decades and would continue climbing mountains well into her eighties. Aside from her daring exploits, she was also recognized for her work with the Girl Guides, having founded a company at just 16 years old. In 1972, she would be awarded the Order of Canada and eight years after her passing in 1990, would be featured on a Canada Post Legendary Canadian stamp. 

When asked in an interview in the early 1980s why people climbed, a white-haired, bespectacled and grandmotherly Phyllis Munday--in stark contrast to her younger, rugged, pack-toting self--replied quite politely and quite matter-of-factly that, “Just because they love it, I expect. That’s what we did. We really loved climbing, so we climbed.” Her answer is simple and so it must be for anyone who pursues something so doggedly for so long. Passion makes the impossible seem straightforward--even when it comes to conquering mountains.


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