How a Two-Cent Postcard Inspired Dr. Cora Johnstone Best to Climb the World’s Greatest Mountains

Dr. Cora Johnstone Best (right) and mountaineer Conrad Kain standing atop a rocky outcropping near Starbird Glacier in British Columbia, Canada, 1923 // Photo via the personal collection of Cheryl Jacklin-Piraino, Minnesota Historical Society

Left:Dr. Cora Johnstone Best circa 1930 // Photo by DeWell Photo, via Minnesota Historical Society. Right: Dr. Cora Johnstone Best (right) and mountaineer Conrad Kain standing atop a rocky outcropping near Starbird Glacier in British Columbia, Canada, 1923 // Photo via the personal collection of Cheryl Jacklin-Piraino, Minnesota Historical Society

The world’s first postcard was issued nearly 150 years ago in October 1869, according to the internet. Nothing more than a card mailed without an envelope, they’re popular today among insurance agents who want to wish their clients a happy birthday. But the humble postcard once held so much more promise. Case in point: A two-cent postcard Dr. Cora Johnstone Best received during her childhood inspired her to climb freaking mountains.

Born in Minneapolis in 1884, Dr. Best was a medical doctor; an in-demand lecturer; a tireless booster for nature, wildlife, and physical activity; a talented alpinist; and quite obviously a high-capacity overachiever. Though a successful, well-rounded life may have been in her cards even without that fateful piece of mail—one depicting a scenic alpine lake—she identified this postcard time and again as the motivation behind her career as a world-renowned explorer, mountaineer, and adventurer. Just look at what that 5.5-by-3.5-inch postcard made possible.

Fun Fact: Postcard collecting is called “deltiology.” The internet says it’s currently the third largest collectible hobby in the world, surpassed only by coins and stamps.

After spending nine summers among Yellowstone grizzlies, in 1920 Best became a member of the Alpine Club of Canada and summited Mount Assiniboine along the Great Divide in British Columbia. (Not to be confused with Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park, a non-mountainous park the locals have straight-face nicknamed “Ass Park.”)

In 1922, Best founded the Alpine Club of Canada’s Minneapolis chapter and became the first woman to lead a section for the club. Later, she became one of the first women, if not the very first, to receive a full guiding license for all national parks in the U.S. and Canada.

And despite hearing from her male contemporaries that women were not capable mountain climbers, Best and her best-friend-slash-climbing-partner Audrey Shippam went right ahead capably climbing giant goddamn mountains throughout the 1920s. Wasting no time, the two would launch an adventuring career that reads an awful lot like two women who set out to tell patronizing men they didn’t know a damn thing about a damn thing. Check out this resume:

  • 1924: First ascent of British Columbia’s Iconoclast Mountain, a.k.a. “The Smasher.”
  • Also 1924: She and Shippam were the first women to summit British Columbia’s Mount Hungabee, via a route with a 4,000-foot sheer drop that would probably make this author pee his pants.
  • Still 1924: Sets a record pace going up Mount Robson (12,972 feet) in British Columbia, aka “The Great White Fright,” summiting the Canadian Rockies’ highest peak in 17 hours and shattering the common belief that it’s hard to even stay awake for 17 hours, let alone climb a whole mountain that fast. (Fun fact: She also carried “moving picture” cameras with her, thereby capturing the first films of the mountain. Because, you know, just climbing it wasn’t enough.)
  • 1924 again: Leads a party through the “Death Trap,” a totally pleasant-sounding route over man-killing glaciers near Lake Louise. (Side note: Those Canadians give the best nicknames.)
  • 1925: Paddles Big Bend, a very fast and bendy river 2,000 miles long and full of white water, with the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies, a group that included writers, Hollywood stars, and royalty.
  • 1927: Leads a party up Japan’s Mount Fuji right after a friggin’ winter typhoon.
  • Also 1927: Goes to Manchuria to hunt tigers, an animal capable of eating people whole. Additionally, she and Shippam fight “bandits” at gunpoint before escaping the war-torn country disguised as teenage boys, as one does.
  • Again in 1927: Hunts bighorn sheep, collects rare fossils just for kicks, and drives dog sleds and hunts whales in the Arctic.
  • In Between: Stages various other first ascents in Canada and claims climbing records in Japan, earning herself lifetime memberships in the American, Canadian, and Swiss Alpine Clubs, which is probably the mountaineering equivalent of the EGOT.

Between these acts of strength and feats of daring, Best and her husband, Dr. Robert Best, aka Doctor Bob, ran a private hospital in Minneapolis renowned for its charitable work with Native American youth. It was her notoriety as a climber, however, that provided her opportunities to promote tourism and conservation on behalf of the federal government, tour the nation with her quaint nature slideshow which she called “Hell Roaring Waters,” and speak to local students and adult audiences alike.

Johnstone Best at Lake of the Hanging Glaciers near Windermere, British Columbia, Canada circa 1923 // Photo by Audrey Shippman, via personal collection of Cheryl Jacklyn-Piraino, Minnesota Historical Society

Johnstone Best at Lake of the Hanging Glaciers near Windermere, British Columbia, Canada circa 1923 // Photo by Audrey Shippman, via personal collection of Cheryl Jacklyn-Piraino, Minnesota Historical Society

Johnstone Best lead-climbing an ice route in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, Canada, near Jumbo Mountain in 1923 // Photograph by Audrey Shippam, via Personal collection of Cheryl Jacklin-Piraino, Minnesota Historical Society

Johnstone Best lead-climbing an ice route in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, Canada, near Jumbo Mountain in 1923 // Photograph by Audrey Shippam, via Personal collection of Cheryl Jacklin-Piraino, Minnesota Historical Society

Autograph of Johnstone Best found in a Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies pamphlet, which reads “Yours ‘till the bears get me, Cora Johnstone Best.” // Photo via personal collection of Cheryl Jacklin-Piraino, Minnesota Historical Society

Autograph of Johnstone Best found in a Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies pamphlet, which reads “Yours ‘till the bears get me, Cora Johnstone Best.” // Photo via personal collection of Cheryl Jacklin-Piraino, Minnesota Historical Society

During these lectures, Best introduced impressionable schoolchildren to a novel concept that may have changed education altogether. Once again calling on the inspiration provided by that childhood postcard, Best became a pioneer in “visual education”—a teaching system that brought photographs and moving pictures into Minnesota classrooms for the first time, truly to the horror of future sex-ed students everywhere.

That’s right: Before any substitute teacher ever rolled a TV/VCR combo into the classroom for a surprise viewing of some sleepy PBS documentary, Best led students through slides and films depicting her epic travels and adventures, up and down deadly mountains across the globe. (Imagine how many kids might have one day risked life, limb, and death to follow her example. The parents must have loved her.) Using the visual tools at her disposal, she also became the first advocate for physical education in Minnesota, a subject eclipsed in popularity among today’s students only by lunch, recess, and fidget spinners.

A badass in every sense, Best spent her 30s and 40s climbing mountains while most of her peers were probably flapping, jazzing and drinking bootleg hooch (no judgment here). Her hunger for higher peaks led her to the Swiss Alps in the late 1920s, where she contracted an unknown illness that forced her home to Minnesota. Best died of a lung infection in November, 1930, and is buried at Hennepin County’s Lakewood Cemetery.

Let the record show that, in life, Best was game for anything, right about everything, and a true sporting hero. They ought to put her face on a damn stamp.

Brendan Kennealy About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.