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A Passion for Mountains: The Lives of Don and Phyllis Munday

By Kathryn Bridge

Review By Karen Routledge

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 154 Summer 2007  | p. 142-4

In late December 1923, North Vancouver mountaineers Don and Phyllis Munday lived with their twoyear- old daughter in a canvas tent near the summit of Grouse Mountain. They were building a cabin and digging their tent out of early season snowstorms. This was only the beginning of their adventures together. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Mundays were at the centre of the local mountaineering community and pushed the limits of climbing in the Coast Mountains. Kathryn Bridge’s biography is a compelling portrait that makes extensive use of the couple’s own words and images. As such, it conveys not only Don and Phyl Munday’s passion for climbing, but also the ways in which they saw and experienced the mountains of British Columbia.

The book is divided into eight chronological chapters, which give equal space to Don and Phyl’s accomplishments. Chapters 1 and 2 examine the couple’s individual childhoods, their earliest hikes and climbs in the Lower Mainland, and their experiences of the First World War at home and abroad. The third chapter focuses on Don and Phyl’s meeting in 1918, their marriage two years later, and the birth of their only child, Edith. Chapter 4 recounts the couple’s years in their cabin on Grouse Mountain and their exploratory climbs together, including the first ascent of Blackcomb Mountain in 1923. The following chapter chronicles Don and Phyl’s increasing involvement in the Alpine Club of Canada and their club trips to the Rocky Mountains. Chapter 6 focuses on the Mundays’ decade-long fascination with the area surrounding Mount Waddington in the central Coast Mountains of British Columbia, while Chapter 7 details Don and Phyl’s last expeditions together in the 1940s. The short concluding chapter discusses Don’s final years and his death from pneumonia in 1950, and Phyl’s continued involvement in the climbing community until she died in 1990.

Bridge’s biographical research is impressive and provides the first complete sketch of the Mundays’ joint climbing career. She consulted archival records across Canada, newspapers, climbing journals, and several individuals and their private collections. She has recovered personal details absent from the climbing record; for example, Don’s war experience and previous marriage, and the Mundays’ attempts to reconcile raising a daughter with their commitment to month-long climbing expeditions. Don and Phyl’s photographic talent is also beautifully showcased in this book, which contains over 100 images. Most were taken by the Mundays on their expeditions, but the photographs range from childhood portraits, to domestic and camp scenes, to the arresting glacier views that first introduced the Mount Waddington region to the Vancouver public and to climbers around the world. Every one of the images is captivating; together they represent both a deeply personal vision of British Columbia, and an exceptional public record spanning over forty years of changing climbing techniques and local landscapes.

While this book aims to recount the Mundays’ stories rather than analyse them (12), some additional contextualization would nonetheless have been useful. Bridge uses secondary literature to place the couple within the framework of early 20th-century Canadian mountaineering. However, while her footnotes enable interested readers to locate her original primary sources, in some places citations of secondary information are lacking or incomplete. Given the prominence of the Mundays’ first-hand accounts in this book, a more thorough discussion of linguistic and photographic conventions would also have been welcome. Bridge includes a sidebar about the genre of mountaineering literature (94), but elsewhere she assumes that Don’s adoption of this “matter-of-fact” style mirrored his inner thoughts ( 52). She also lists the Mundays’ “official” naming of the landscape as one of their major legacies, without discussing their opinions about and interactions with local people, both indigenous and resettled (222). A short explanation of camera equipment and the tradition of expedition photography would have been equally helpful for interpreting the images.

Still, this book is intended to appeal to a wide audience and it deserves to find one. Of special interest to climbers anywhere, it is also a fascinating text on the history of recreation in the Coast Mountains. Bridge’s inclusion of a map and her notations whenever place names have changed make it easy for Lower Mainland readers to situate themselves in the stories about hiking and climbing in the Cheam Range, the Garibaldi area, and the North Shore mountains. As Phyl Munday wrote of her cabin on Grouse Mountain, southwestern British Columbia was for her and her husband a place “out on the very edge of the world … out where you felt you could look out and face the world” (114). Kathryn Bridge’s work effectively conveys the Mundays’ love of this region and reminded me of my own depth of feeling for it.