Phillips, Donald
Donald "Curly" Phillips (Courtesy Whyte Museum, V14 AC027-18(15)
(1884-1938)

Everyone held the same high opinion of this man, who in all things was simple and straightforward." -(Curly’s biographer, Dr. William C. Taylor)

Curly Phillips was born in Ontario where he learned the basics of wilderness travel and canoeing. He went on to become the first to ascend the summit ridge of Mount Robson and to become a leading authority on the mountains of Jasper National Park.

After travelling west in 1908 at the age of 24, Curly headed to the mountains where he heard there were jobs available working on the construction of the Spiral Tunnels east of Field. A brief visit to the site convinced him that blasting out rocks with dynamite was not for him. After spending the winter in the Edmonton area, he headed into the Yellowhead Pass with a few horses with the hope of outfitting hunters and other visitors.

About ten kilometres above Jasper Lake he met George Kinney and the adventure that was the first ascent of the summit ridge of Mount Robson began. Curly’s accomplishments on the mountain established his reputation amongst climbers and other in the area. Evidence of this was the fact that the following year Norman Collie, a highly respected, veteran mountaineer, named the 3250 metre mountain immediately across the Robson River from Mount Robson in his honour. This was done even though Curly was only twenty-six years old and had spent but a single season in the Rockies. (The mountain currently named Mount Pauline was known for a while as Curly Mountain.) Soon Curly Phillips was well established in the guiding and outfitting business.

In 1911 he led a joint party of the Alpine Club of Canada and the Smithsonian Institute on a journey of exploration in the Mount Robson area. Arthur O. Wheeler and club photographer Byron Harmon were in the group as well as a number of scientists from the American organization. Two years later, Curly was back in the Robson area again as guide and outfitter for the Alpine Club of Canada’s camp during which Conrad Kain guided a party to the summit of the peak.

Later that year Curly settled in Jasper. In 1915 he guided two legendary lady explorers, Caroline Hinman and Mary Jobe, on a two month trip into the country northwest of Mount Robson where they attempted to climb Mount Sir Alexander.

He served briefly during the First World War but did not see action overseas. Over the following two decades he continued his outfitting business, guiding J. Monroe Thorington to the Sunwapta Pass area for his first ascents of Mount Saskatchewan, and The Twins, and the second ascent of Mount Columbia.

A well read individual who kept a diary from 1905 until 1923, Curly developed other interests which included a canoe building business, establishing boat trips for visitors to Medicine and Maligne Lakes, managing the Maligne Lake Chalet and building the boathouse which remains to this day, guiding power boat trips on the Athabasca and Peace Rivers, and operating an irrigated market gardening business. He also operated a “dude trap line” to take “city people” by dog team into the northern wilderness and, in 1937 pioneered the concept of flying groups of hunters into remote areas.

In 1936, at the age of 52, Curly took up skiing. Two years later, while investigating the idea of building a cabin for the use of skiers, he and a companion named Reginald Pugh were tragically killed in an avalanche near Elysium Pass in the Victoria Cross Range northwest of Jasper.

Curly was on a ten-day ski trip with two teen-aged brothers, Reg and Alan Pugh when Reg and Curly were buried. Alan was somewhat behind and Reg and Curly were out of sight but he heard the avalanche. Later he wrote, "The slide came off Elysium Mountain in a main body, approximately 300 yards wide, catching both Curly and Reg. After the slide stopped, I went back to look for them, but found no trace. I called but received no answer."

Following Curly’s untimely death, an article written by J. Monroe Thorington was published in the American Alpine Journal. It included the following tribute, "Curly is remembered as a man of quiet reserve always ready to laugh, as one who moved like a shadow in the woods, and carved his own brand of woodsmanship out of old Indian ways and his own integrity as a person who relied on himself. These are the qualities for which the man and his times should be remembered for these are the strengths modern people need most."

[See Mount Phillips]

[Additional Information: Taylor, William C. "Tracks Across my Trail". Jasper: Jasper-Yellowhead Historical Society, 1984]

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