During an era when females in the mountains were about as common as men in the kitchen, a young woman named Phyllis Beatrice James discovered the “inappropriate behaviour” of mountain climbing.
Born in Ceylon, Sri Lanka on September 24, 1894, Phyllis’ destiny changed when her father, a Lipton’s Tea manager, moved the family to Canada in 1901. They settled in the greater Vancouver area. It was here that Phyllis joined the Girl Guides Association and climbed her first peak, Grouse Mountain.
Her next step was becoming a member of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club. It was 1915, and Phyllis was 21 – smitten and unstoppable when it came to outdoor exploration.
While working as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment during the First World War, a soldier was admitted into the hospital to re-cover from a bullet wound to his arm. Phyllis would say later that she didn’t like Don Munday at first, but his persistence and, more importantly, his love for the mountains won her over. Their marriage in 1920 became more than a partnership in love: it was a union unparalleled to anything the mountaineering world had ever seen.
It is hard to speak of Phyllis’ noteworthy accomplishments without also drawing her husband into the equation. The two were in-separable and tireless when it came to first ascents and explorations. But there is no question that Phyllis, or ‘Phyl’, as she became informally known to her friends, was independent and capable. In 1924, she became the first woman to reach the summit of the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson (3954 metres). Swiss guide, Ed Feuz, classified Phyl as “…a strong woman; as strong as any man.” It’s uncertain whether his description referred to the time she charged after a grizzly bear chasing Don into the bushes, or that she willingly took over a decade to explore and attempt “Mystery Mountain”.
What is clear is that this young woman wasn’t going through a phase when she entered into the world of mountaineering. After the birth of their first and only child, Edith, in 1921, Phyl carried on as though motherhood were something she simply added to her backpack. Edith Munday was only eleven weeks old when she summated her first mountain; she would eventually travel on quite a few of her parents’ outings.
Having a Phyl along on expeditions was at first confusing to the men. Here was a woman who would carry more than half her body weight in wool and pitons, but would not be asked to make bread and biscuits. A woman could only be so talented, after all, and Phyl’s gift for physical endurance surely pilfered from other areas where a woman might have been expected to excel.
An excerpt from Phil Dowling’s The Mountaineers, reads “What she baked wasn’t exactly like pancakes and not exactly like bannock either. The men first called it “pannock” and later, “panic”.
Gender classification was something Phyl could avoid while in the mountains and perhaps this was part of the allure. By now, she and Don had tallied up numerous first ascents and roused more than just idle interest in the eyes of other mountaineers. Her male team members barely blinked when she’d stash her respectable city skirts somewhere on the trails and carry on in her bloomers. This was somehow less risqué than wearing trousers or knickerbockers.
It was a clear day on top of Mount Arrowsmith (1817 metres) on Southern Vancouver Island when the Munday’s first spotted the mountain that would hold their attention for years to come. Phyl was spanning the horizon with binoculars when she caught sight of a large massif about 200 kms away. At home, the two poured over maps and documents trying to find out what it was and how they might get there. They nicknamed the peak “Mystery Mountain”, until it officially became Mount Waddington in 1928. The mountain stood at 4019 metres and was the highest in the coastal range.
Their first exploratory trip into Waddington in 1926 started off a series of unsuccessful attempts that would span over the course of a decade. In the eleven expeditions the two took to the Mount Waddington area, the closest they would ever come to actually reaching the top was in 1928 when they quit within a tempting eighteen metres of its summit. The team, consisting of Phyl, Don, and Don’s brother, Bert, opted to turn back, deeming the final steps “too risky”.
The mountain’s seemingly impenetrable sur-roundings thwarted Phyl and Don time and time again. Though they certainly deserved it, this coastal monolith was not to be claimed by the Munday’s. They were, however, widely rec-ognized for their discovery of this area: a 3505-metre peak on Waddington’s south-east ridge was named Mount Munday in their honour. Phyl and Don summited their namesake in July of 1930.
In 1946, the Munday’s had their last, first ascent together on Reliance Mountain, in the coastal range. Don died of pneumonia on June 12, 1950. Through the open doors of a chartered airplane, Phyl scattered her husband’s ashes over the summit of Mount Munday, claiming an end to what she called, “The best thirty years of my life”.
In her lifetime, Phyl received many awards, medals, and honours attesting to her merit as an influential and outstanding woman, but she remained decidedly independent through all the admiration: Phyl was seventy years old when she learned how to drive and bought her first car.
Phyllis Beatrice Munday died nearly a half-century after her husband, in 1990, at the age of 95.
Top; Courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives
Second from top; Don and Phyllis Munday summit Mount Relience, 1946, Courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives
Third form top; The History of Metropolitan Vancouver
Fourth from top; Klondike Family, Blaeberry Alpine Camp 1957