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How mountainless Minneapolis produced a pioneering woman mountaineer

photo of cora johnstone best
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
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 license for all U.S. 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.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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