Don and Phyllis Munday Climb Mount Waddington

Couple Attempted Canadian Mountain 18 Times in 1920s and 1930s

Mt. Waddington, the highest mountain completely in British Columbia, was attempted 18 times by Don and Phyllis Munday. Their high point was the lower Northwest Summit left of the higher main summit. Photograph copyright Russ Heinl/Getty Images

Mount Waddington, the highest peak in the Waddington Range in western British Columbia, is a remote, glaciated mountain with double summits separated by a deep notch. The icy 13,186-foot (4,019-meter) peak is rarely climbed due to its inaccessibility as well as the range’s unpredictable and severe weather. Mount Waddington was not even discovered until well into the 20th century, and not climbed until 1936.


1925: Discovery of Mount Waddington

The great unnamed mountain was first seen and described by Don and Phyllis Munday, while climbing Mount Arrowsmith on Vancouver Island in June 1925. The pair sat in evening light with Tom Ingram, another climber, and scanned the distant horizon. Phyllis handed Don the binoculars and “pointed to a tall mountain nearly due north through a new cloud-rift.”

The snowcapped peak, lying 150 miles away, was, Don wrote, “where blank spaces on the map left ample room for many unnamed mountains. It was the far-off finger of destiny beckoning. It was a marker along the trail of adventure, a torch to set the imagination on fire.” Don Munday later said that the mountain they spotted was probably not Mount Waddington, but it had spurred them to head inland to explore the unknown mountain.

Early Canadian Climbers: Don and Phyllis Munday

Don Munday (1890-1950), born in Manitoba, Canada, began climbing in British Columbia at age 19 in 1909.

He married Phyllis James (1894-1990) in 1920 after serving in France during World War I. The pair began climbing together in 1918. In 1924 Phyllis became the first woman to climb Mount Robson, thought to be British Columbia’s highest peak.

The Mundays were true adventurers, exploring unknown terrain in western Canada and making the first ascents of many unclimbed peaks.

Their daughter Edith, born in 1921, reached the summit of her first peak, Crown Mountain, at 11 weeks old. Mount Munday, an 11,010-foot (3,356-meter) peak in the Waddington Range, is named for the duo, while a lower nearby peak is named Mount Baby Munday for Edith.

1925: First Expedition to the Coast Range

After spotting the distant mountain, in September, 1925 the Mundays made the first of many expeditions into the Coast Mountains. On this first tentative exploration, they traveled by boat up the Inland Passage to a logging camp at Orford Bay on Bute Inlet. They climbed nearby Mount Rodney to get the lay of the land. From its summit they could see the deep valley of the Homathko River and beyond a huge glacier topped by sharp mountains. “Above their imposing summits,” Don Munday wrote, “lay a thin roof of level, wintry cloud, and piercing this in lone majesty towered the pinnacled monarch of the Coast Range.”

1926: Epic Bushwhack to Mount Waddington

In 1926 they returned to the mountain with supplies for five weeks, bushwhacking up the Homathko River from Orford Bay and thrashing through dense brush, avoiding grizzly bears, and crossing snowmelt-swollen creeks. After several weeks they reached Waddington Glacier and explored the surrounding area, eventually reaching Mystery Pass on June 24 after climbing all night under a full moon.

From here they clearly saw the peak they called Mystery Mountain, a towering rock peak draped in ice.

1927: Three Failed Attempts on Mount Waddington

The following year, 1927, Don and Phyllis Munday returned with Betty McCallum, Phyl’s sister, and scouted a new approach route up the Franklin River from Knight Inlet. The three toted supply loads up the river valley and the Franklin Glacier to Mount Waddington. They made three attempts to climb the mountain. First they climbed the Regal Glacier on the southwest side to the top of a sub-peak; then they tried the southeast ridge from Corridor Glacier, trying to reach a saddle between Waddington and Spearman Peak but were beaten back by steep, loose rock.

The third attempt on August 18 was up the northwest ridge from a col they dubbed Fury Gap. This was a long route that climbed over numerous lower peaks.

After climbing for 14 hours, a fierce storm moved in and they retreated from a point they estimated that was a few hundred feet from the summit, stumbling back through darkness, rain, snow, and lightning to their wet bivouac site.

1928: Ascent of the Northwest Summit

In 1928 the Mundays and Don’s brother Bert again attempted Mount Waddington, finally reaching the lower northwest summit after an epic climb. Although they had come close to the summit the year before, the trio felt that a couple days of good weather would allow them to succeed on Waddington. On July 7 they climbed back up to the base of the northwest ridge and bivouacked at Fury Gap.

On July 8 they pushed for the summit, following their previous route on the northwest ridge over a series of minor summits. They had named these Fireworks Peak, Herald Peak, Men-at-Arms Peaks, Bodyguard Peak, and Councillor Peak. In the early evening they reached a final snow ridge followed by a knife-edge ridge to the Northwest Summit. Their exhilaration at reaching the summit was short-lived since the higher true summit of Mount Waddington, covered in ice and snow, rose above a precipitous 300-foot gap below the sub-summit. After spending 15 minutes atop, they turned around and retreated.

Phyllis Munday Stands on Waddington Summit in 1982

Don and Phyllis Munday continued to be obsessed with climbing Mount Waddington, but did not attempt it for another five years. They tried climbing the mountain 18 times, but never succeeded. Phyllis was finally able to stand on their fabled summit in 1982 at age 88.

A film crew, making a movie of her climbing life, flew her to the top of Waddington where she planted an ice axe in the summit snow.

Mount Waddington was Unclimbed Problem in the 1930s

In the 1930s, Mount Waddington, along with Shiprock in New Mexico, was one of the great North American climbing problems after efforts by other parties failed to climb the ice-encrusted higher summit. The mountain was finally ascended in an epic 23-hour round-trip push by Fritz Weissner and Bill House up the South Face (5.7, 800m) in late July 1936. 

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Green, Stewart. "Don and Phyllis Munday Climb Mount Waddington." ThoughtCo, Mar. 18, 2016, Green, Stewart. (2016, March 18). Don and Phyllis Munday Climb Mount Waddington. Retrieved from Green, Stewart. "Don and Phyllis Munday Climb Mount Waddington." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 13, 2017).