Annie Smith Peck had a pretty normal childhood. I know that’s not an exciting way to start a podcast, but it’s true. Born right in the middle of the 19th century to an old, her Rhode Island family traced its roots to the founder of the state. She went to school, then studied to become a teacher. Her family was a little more open-minded than most–Annie’s father took her to see a women’s rights activist speak once. But they still expected Annie to marry, start a family, and live the respectable life of a well-off 19th-century woman from an old family.
Annie had other ideas–not quite plans, but not marriage and children. The fire-brand feminist speaker she’d seen as a child had convinced her she could do bigger things than her family expected. Her old high school teacher, who refused to give Annie a permanent job, also hinted that teaching wasn’t a big enough goal for her. But Annie wasn’t sure what those bigger goals should be. The sheltered life she led with her family in Rhode Island didn’t help her expand her vision. So she drifted around, trying things out. A friend had moved west to Illinois after high school and gotten a job teaching, and Annie decided to try her luck in the Midwest. She moved to Michigan to teach.
Once in Michigan, it became clear to those around her that Annie was capable of more than just teaching. She became friends with a few professors at the nearby University of Michigan, who recognized her curious and adventurous spirit. Annie had tried to gain admission to Brown University in Rhode Island, the school where her father and brothers had gone, but they refused her. They didn’t take female students. The University of Michigan did though. It was one of the first in the nation to do so, and Annie’s new friends made sure she got the chance to enroll.
Annie was in her twenties by the time she started college, much older than most of her classmates, but she immediately felt that she belonged. She studied hard, made many new friends, and expanded her mind and her possibilities. When she graduated at 27, Annie was just getting started on her adventures!
After teaching in colleges for a few years, Annie earned enough money to begin her travels, and she never really stopped. Over the next several years, Annie would go back and forth between Europe and the US. She went to a famous archeological school in Greece, took photos, hiked, and made lifelong friends. Between trips, she kept teaching, and also started giving lectures about Greek archeology and history, using photos and experiences from her travels.
It was on one of these trips to Europe that Annie discovered the passion that would dominate the rest of her life: mountain climbing. She scaled mountains all over Europe and the United States, from one of California’s highest mountains–Mount Shasta–to the Alps in Europe. She climbed the Matterhorn, a famously steep and treacherous peak in the Swiss Alps in 1895, becoming the second woman to do so. Even though she wasn’t the first woman to climb it, her accomplishment did attract some attention, though not so much for the climbing part: people were aghast that she had climbed in PANTS! Annie just thought this was the sensible thing to wear when climbing mountains, but some people thought she should be arrested for not wearing a skirt!
By the time she climbed the Matterhorn, Annie was 45 years old, but she was just getting started on her climbing career. Between mountains, she spent all her time planning and raising money for the next expedition. She lectured, wrote articles, and flat-out asked her friends and acquaintances for donations. She didn’t feel at home unless she was traveling and climbing. She turned her sites southward and traveled to Mexico, where she became the first woman to climb the two highest peaks in that country: Pico de Orizaba and Popocatepetl, both over 18 thousand feet. For a brief time, she held the world record for the highest peak climbed by a woman, though another climber, Fanny Bullock Workman soon bested her on a climb in the Himalayan mountains.
Annie decided she wanted to climb bigger mountains, summits that no one– male or female– had ever climbed before. She researched peaks in South America, looking for one that might be the highest on the continent. After much research–and a few more climbs–she decided Huascaran, a mountain in the Peruvian Andes, would be her target. It would take all her grit and perseverance to get there.
Planning a climbing expedition is no simple matter. Climbing was, and is, dangerous: many mountains, especially the higher ones, have snow all year. Glaciers cut around them, with snow camouflaging deep crevasses. There was constant danger of avalanches and falling rocks. Freezing temperatures bite at you day and night, with only your clothes, tent, and sleeping bag–along with occasional fires–to warm you up. Frostbite could set in quickly if you weren’t careful. Sun glaring off the snow could burn your skin.
You need the right gear and clothing. You needed a rope to tie yourself to the other climbers, so if one person slipped, they wouldn’t go sliding down the side of the mountain. Of course, this could work the other way around too: one person slipping in the wrong place could pull everyone with them! Ice axes helped climbers cling to steep ascents, or even cut stairs in the ice. Many climbers, including Annie, also wanted to contribute to science, so they’d bring tools for measuring the height, or altitude that they reached.
Shocking at the time, Annie considered pants a necessity. Many women did climb in long skirts at the time, but she considered them cumbersome and did away with them. You needed four pairs of thick wool socks under boots four sizes too big, along with several pairs of wool long underwear, which you might wear all at once! Hats, gloves, sunglasses, camp stove, blankets…the list goes on!
But the most important item to pack, according to Annie? Chocolate!
Even experienced climbers like Annie need guides or companions to help them on the mountain–it’s definitely not a solo sport. Good guides–professional mountain climbers who had the equipment and expertise to make sure you were as safe as possible–were expensive and hard to find. You would also need to pay porters to help carry your equipment and find donkeys or mules to carry larger bundles.
Annie struggled to raise the money she would need to buy equipment and hire guides to climb Huascaran. She tried three times, crossing the ocean on steamers and trekking for days each time to reach the mountain. The guides and porters she found were often inexperienced and unreliable, and many of them insisted on turning back when the going got rough.
But after years of failed attempts, Annie and two Swiss guides finally made it to the peak in 1908, She was 58 years old. It still wasn’t an easy expedition. The group started on their first attempt in early August of 1908, but had to return when one of the guides got sick and snowstorms lashed their campsite. The three tried again in late August, and finally made it to the summit! They took photos and measurements of the altitude. Annie’s measurements showed that she had reached a greater height than any other woman before her.
But the victory was not without its consequences: one guide developed serious frostbite and had to have several fingers and part of his foot amputated when they returned to the nearest city.
When she got back to the US, Annie used her connections to help raise money for him, since he couldn’t work as a mountain climbing guide anymore.
But more challenges were in store. Annie’s old rival, Fanny Bullock Workman, claimed that one of her climbs in the Himalayas was higher! She even hired engineers with better instruments to measure Huascaran. Unfortunately for Annie, this showed the summit wasn’t quite as high as she’d measured, so Workman did hold the world record for the highest altitude climb for a woman. Never willing to admit defeat so easily, Annie would remind a reporter later that she had still climbed higher than any man in America!
Even if her pride was a little wounded, Annie wasn’t deterred. She wanted to keep climbing. She’d made a specialty of climbing peaks in South America and wanted to keep exploring to see if she could find the highest mountain on the continent. Her next target: Coropuna, another peak in Peru that had never been climbed before. This time, her competition wasn’t just the brutal conditions of the mountain itself. Hiram Bingham, a young scholar from Yale, also wanted to be the first to climb Coropuna. He didn’t think too highly of Annie or any woman who didn’t want to be a wife and mother. The race was on, and Annie meant to win it.
The two climbers planned their expeditions for the summer of 1911. Annie left a week earlier, but Bingham caught up with her, and for a while they were even on the same steamer ship. Talk about awkward! Bingham wouldn’t even talk to Annie, but described her as a “terrible bore.” A few weeks into Annie’s journey through Peru, she received surprising news: Bingham had decided not to climb until October! He had other work he had to do in Peru for his university, though he did hope Annie would fail in her attempt so he could still beat her.
Annie didn’t fail. This time, she had a reliable, committed team. She encouraged them when they were afraid to go on, saying no one had to climb all the way to the top except her, and she would give them a bonus if they stuck with her. They reached the peak. She measured the height and realized it was almost certainly lower than Huascaran, but she was still satisfied. Annie planted the flag of a “votes for women” flag on the peak, and her companions planted a Peruvian flag.
Annie loved Peru and South America. The people there were always willing to help with food or a place to sleep when she passed through on one of her expeditions. After Coropuna, she wrote a book describing her climbs and the people there and became known as an expert on the region. The presidents of Chile and Peru honored her with awards and medals, and the Lima Geographical Society in Peru renamed the Huascaran peak she had summited “Cumbre Aña Peck.”
Annie never wanted people to think of her as a “woman climber.” She wanted to be recognized as one of the best climbers, male or female, period. But she knew her climbs stood for something more because she was a woman. Maybe that’s why, once she found her place on the mountain, she never stopped climbing. She climbed Coropuna when she was sixty years old, and climbed her last mountain at 82 years old. She took an airplane tour of South America at 79, then wrote another book about the continent. And she fought tirelessly to get women the right to vote. Even though no one in her life expected her to do great things– and some outright discouraged her– Annie kept aiming her sights higher. She found what she was meant to do, and even when people thought she was too old or too female, she kept going. She climbed higher and higher, until she stood above the clouds, gazing out over deserts, mountain peaks, and distant oceans, and saw farther than any of them.
Kimberly, Hannah. (2017) A Woman’s Place Is at the Top. St. Martin’s Press, New York.