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Best, Dr. Cora Johnstone (1884–1930)

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Photograph of Cora Best

Cora Johnstone Best, ca. 1930.

Minneapolis-born Cora Johnstone Best achieved international success as a mountaineer during the 1920s. She was a pioneer in the sport, becoming a licensed guide at a time when women were rarely given the opportunity to be lead climbers.

Best was born in Minneapolis in 1884. As a child, she saw a postcard of an alpine lake that inspired her to explore the mountains for herself. In a 1924 article, she recalled that postcard when she promoted “visual education,” a teaching system that brought photographs and moving pictures into Minnesota classrooms for the first time. She was also the first to advocate for physical education in Minnesota schools. She spoke to local students and adult audiences alike, encouraging an appreciation of nature through her wilderness films and hand-colored slides.

Best studied in the United States and abroad and became a medical doctor. Together with her husband, Dr. Robert Best, she ran a private hospital in Minneapolis known for its charitable work with Native American children. The couple’s home, “Sundance Lodge,” on Lake Harriet Boulevard, was a meeting place for scientists, poets, and mountain enthusiasts.

Cora spent nine summers in Yellowstone National Park, then turned her attention to Canada. In 1922, she became the first female section head of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC). At the time, women were not seen as capable mountaineers. Men often removed women’s names from expedition lists and rarely allowed them to lead on difficult routes. One 1920 newspaper even claimed that female climbers should be disciplined for wearing mountaineering pants in public.

Best chaired club meetings in 1923 and 1924 at the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis. The group offered women a new freedom to travel and take on athletic challenges that were previously reserved for men. Some members went on to achieve first ascents while others took part in scientific research, such as glacial retreat studies. Best’s climbing partner and close friend, Audrey Shippam, was an active member, and the two chased adventure together for more than a decade.

Records show that Best may have been the first woman to be granted a full guiding licence for all US and Canadian national parks. She and Shippam joined the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies, a group that included royalty, writers, and Hollywood stars. They became the first to paddle Big Bend, a two-hundred-mile stretch of white water on the Columbia River in Canada.

Best’s determination and personality made for entertaining headlines. Newspapers detailed her time in the Arctic, where she drove dog sleds and hunted whales with the Aleut. In Alberta, she hunted big horn sheep and collected rare fossils. She spoke of a hunting trip through Manchuria, where she and Shippam fought “bandits” at gunpoint. They made their escape from the war-torn region disguised as teenaged boys.

Best had a dozen first ascents in Canada, broke climbing records in Japan, and was given lifetime memberships in the American, Canadian, and Swiss Alpine Clubs. In 1924, she became the first woman to guide her own party through the notorious “Death Trap” over the glaciers that straddle the Continental Divide near Lake Louise. That year, she stood on the peak of Mount Sir Donald and completed a second ascent of the dangerous Mount Sir Douglas Haig.

Best was the first woman to guide on Mount Odaray, and she and Shippam scored the first female ascents of Mount Hungabee, a route with a 4,000-foot sheer drop along its final approach. While working with the famous mountaineer Conrad Kain, they recorded first ascents of Mount Iconoclast (“The Smasher”) and several other peaks in southeastern British Columbia.

One of the biggest alpine challenges of the 1920s was Mount Robson, “The Great White Fright” (12,972 feet). Best attended the 1924 ACC camp with her sights set on being the first woman to summit the heavily glaciated peak. Her attempt in August was cut short by bad weather, and Canadian Phyllis Munday summited days later. Undaunted, Best returned in September and made the ascent in record time, hauling moving picture cameras to make the first films of the mountain along the way.

In the late 1920s, Best developed a lung infection while climbing in Switzerland. She died in her Minneapolis home on November 19, 1930.

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Best, Dr. Cora Johnstone. “Bringing Nature into the Schoolroom by Means of Pictures.” Educational Screen (January 1924): 137.
https://archive.org/details/educationalscree03chicrich

——— . Hell Roaring Waters and Other Motion Picture Talks. Washington Bureau of Commercial Economics, 1924. [Uncirculated pamphlet. Archived copy courtesy of MacKimmie Library, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.]

Best, Dr. Cora Johnstone, and Audrey Forfar Shippam. Feet We Meet: A Trail Riders Number. N.p.: N.p., 1924. [Uncirculated pamphlet, personal collection of the author.]

Beck, Janice Stanford. No Ordinary Woman: The Story of Mary Shaffer Warren. Victoria, BC: Rocky Mountain Books, 2001.

Boles, Glen W., William Lowell Putnam, and Roger W. Laurilla. Canadian Mountain Place Names: The Rockies and Columbia Mountains. Victoria, BC: Rocky Mountain Books, 2006.

Collie, J. N. “The Canadian Rocky Mountains of a Quarter of a Century Ago.” Canadian Alpine Journal 14, no 1. (1924): 80.
http://library.alpineclubofcanada.ca:8009/book-acc.php?id=CAJ014-1-1924#page/80/mode/1up

“Dr. Best Speaks at Convocation.” North Dakota State College Spectrum 42, no. 32 (1927): 1.
https://library.ndsu.edu/ir/bitstream/handle/10365/20687/nds-1927-02-25-hh0.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

"Dr. Best to Show Pictures for Schools." Minneapolis Morning Tribune, February 1, 1923.

“Famous Lecturer, Mountain Climber, Claimed by Death.” San Bernardino Sun, November 21, 1930.
https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SBS19301121.1.1&srpos=2&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN-%22Cora+Johnstone+Best%22-------1

Foster, Mary Dillon, ed. Who’s Who Among Minnesota Women: A History of Woman’s Work in Minnesota from Pioneer Days to Date, Told in Biographies, Memorials, and Records of Organizations. St. Paul: M. D. Foster, 1924.

“Hazardous Climbs over Glaciers and Peaks in the Rockies.” Calgary Daily Herald, August 3, 1928.
https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=5xJkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_XoNAAAAIBAJ&pg=1571

“Manchuria Far from Ideal Hunting Ground.” Decatur Evening Herald, October 4, 1927.

"Mountain Climbers Meet at Curtis Hotel for Dinner." Minneapolis Morning Tribune, March 18, 1923.

Shippam, Audrey Forfar. “Cora Johnstone Best (In Memoriam).” Canadian Alpine Journal 19, no 1 (1930): 123.
http://library.alpineclubofcanada.ca:8009/book-acc.php?id=CAJ019-1-1930#page/123/mode/1up

——— . “Dr. Robert Best (In Memoriam).” Canadian Alpine Journal 33, no. 1 (1950): 99.
http://library.alpineclubofcanada.ca:8009/book-acc.php?id=CAJ033-1-1950#page/99/mode/1up

Reichwein, Pearl Ann. “On Top of the World, A Woman’s Place.” Canadian Alpine Journal 78, no. 1 (1993): 44.

“Saner Living through the Out of Doors.” Albuquerque Journal, February 23, 1930.

“Woman Lecturer to be at Parish Hall.” Daily Democrat-Forum and Maryville Tribune, February 4, 1925.

“Woman Mountain Climber is Heard Twice at CHS.” Daily Illini, January 6, 1925.
http://idnc.library.illinois.edu/cgi-bin/illinois?a=d&d=DIL19250106.2.39&srpos=1&e=05-01-1925-06-01-1925--en-20-DIL-1--txt-txIN-Dr.+Cora+Johnstone+Best

Related Images

Photograph of Cora Best
Photograph of Cora Best
Photograph of Cora Johnstone Best at Lake of the Hanging Glaciers
Photograph of Cora Johnstone Best at Lake of the Hanging Glaciers
Picture of Cora Johnstone Best lead-climbing an ice route
Picture of Cora Johnstone Best lead-climbing an ice route
Cora Johnstone Best’s autograph
Cora Johnstone Best’s autograph
Photograph of Ice Cave at Starbird Glacier
Photograph of Ice Cave at Starbird Glacier
Photograph of Cora Best's Ice Axe
Photograph of Cora Best's Ice Axe

Turning Point

In 1924, Best becomes the first woman to lead her own party through an infamous route in the Canadian Rockies called “The Death Trap.”

Chronology

1920

Dr. Cora Johnstone Best becomes a member of the Alpine Club of Canada and climbs Mount Assiniboine.

1922

Best founds the Minneapolis chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) and becomes the first woman to be section head for the club.

1922

Best is contracted as a spokesperson for the Washington Bureau of Commercial Economics to promote tourism and conservation.

1923

Best and Shippam achieve a first ascent of Mount Iconoclast.

1923

Best goes on a national speaking tour with her motion picture and slide show called “Hell Roaring Waters.”

1923

Cora writes of the Lake of Hanging Glaciers and recommends the site for a future ACC expedition.

1924

With Shippam, Best travels with the Trail Riders and meets Canadian poet laureate Bliss Carman, who later calls her “one of life’s music makers.”

1924

Best becomes the first woman to lead her own party through the “Death Trap.”

1924

Best attends the ACC Robson camp with Shippam. She fails to become the first woman on the summit but later sets a record for her ascent time of seventeen hours.

1924

Best and Shippam become the first women to summit Mount Hungabee in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada.

1925

The two women and a local river guide, Pete Bergenham, paddle Big Bend on the Columbia River, in British Columbia.

1927

Best leads a party up an icy Mount Fuji in Japan, following a winter typhoon.

1927

Best and Shippam travel to Manchuria to hunt tigers. They are forced to flee the country while wearing disguises.

1930

Best dies of a lung infection in Minneapolis. Shippam writes her obituary for an alpine journal and notes that Best had been granted “special privileges” as a guide in all Canadian and US parks.