Annie Smith Peck

“A woman who has done good work in

the scholastic world doesn’t like to be

called a good woman scholar. Call her a

good scholar and let it go at that….I

have climbed 1,500 feet higher than any

man in the United States. Don’t call me a

woman mountain climber.”

Can you think of anything more stone-cold hard-core than climbing a mountain, using science to measure exactly how high you are in the sky, and then planting a VOTES FOR WOMEN banner on the summit? Let me introduce you to Annie Smith Peck, who did all that and more.

Even in the beginning, Annie’s literal climb to the top was no metaphorical walk in the park. Though born in 1850 to a well-off family in Providence, Rhode Island—her father was a congressman and her brothers numbered a doctor, a principal, and an engineer—Annie was a lady, so options were limited. Smart as a whip, Annie grew up competitive with her brothers in both physical and intellectual activities. She decided that it was up to her to “do what one woman could to show that women had as much brains as men and could do things as well if she gave them her undivided attention” (though she did think it was “a pity that women should have been obliged to do it in order to gain for those who need to work a fair chance and equal opportunity in any line of work”). She sailed through school all the way to her graduation from a teachers’ college in 1872. Afterward, she taught a bit of Latin and math (first in Rhode Island, then in Michigan) and was generally nailin’ the whole independent woman thing, which was impressive for an unmarried lady in her midtwenties long before the fin de siècle.

Eventually, Annie noticed she was earning about half the salary of her brother, who was also a teacher. Thinking that a little more schooling might help her case, she applied to Brown University—the alma mater of her dad, uncles, and brothers. Alas, not only was Brown like, “Hmm, you seem to be a woman, so nope,” but also her whole family categorically rebuffed the idea. Her brother tried to argue that she was too talented to be stifled by college (what?), to which Annie responded: “Dare you say that out loud? What if you applied it to a young man? Are you crazy?” (Direct quote, no joke!) Her father told her he would not fund her education, prompting Annie to point out that she would need to support herself somehow (she’d made up her mind years ago that she would never get married and “that it would be desirable for me to get my living in the best possible way and to set about it as any boy would do”). She further noted that he was a total hypocrite: “Why you should recommend for me a course so different from that which you pursue, or recommend to your boys is what I can see no reason for except the example of our great grandfathers and times are changing rapidly in that respect.”

With no help from her family, Annie ended up earning a bachelor’s (and a master’s) degree in Greek and classical languages from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which had finally opened its doors to women. Happy that the women there were a true part of the community and “far from being appendages,” she taught at a few local primary schools before accepting a teaching position in Latin, elocution, and German at Purdue University, making her one of the first female professors in the United States.

Next, Annie headed for Europe, where she explored Germany and Greece and became the first woman to enroll at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. She then returned to America to make the rounds on the lecture circuit. Although she took a gig teaching at Smith College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts (after first applying to the University of Michigan, whose officials told her, “You are undoubtedly better qualified for the position than any young man we shall be likely to get. At the same time there is no chance of your getting it”), Annie frequently returned to the Continent—which is where she finally found her true passion. Apparently climbing figurative mountains in terms of women’s education wasn’t enough for our gal. She decided she would start climbing actual mountains as well.

For Annie, mountains were it. She started “small,” with little hills ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 feet tall (!). But upon her first visit to Switzerland, she caught sight of the Matterhorn, a mountain on the Italo-Swiss border and one of the highest peaks in the Alps. “On beholding this majestic, awe-inspiring peak,” she said, “I felt that I should never be happy until I, too, should scale those frowning walls which have beckoned so many upwards, a few to their own destruction.” At age forty-two, she quit her teaching job to lecture about mountaineering full-time as “Miss Annie Peck” (because she wanted the world to know that she was single and lovin’ it). Through her lectures, Annie raised enough funds to get all the way to the top of the Matterhorn, making her the third woman ever to do so—and the first woman to do it in pants.

Seriously! Every other woman who had climbed Matterhorn’s 15,000-foot peak, including Fannie Bullock Workman (who, trust me, we will hear of again) did so in skirts. If that sounds totally ridiculous, then you’re with Annie. She thought climbing in a dress was “foolish in the extreme”: a waste of strength, dangerous, and “obviously absurd.” Rather, Annie argued, “suitably made knickerbockers (not so scant as men’s and yet not too full) are not only more comfortable but more becoming, whether to stout or slender figures….It may not be necessary to add that no one should climb mountains or even hills in corsets.” Keep in mind that this was 1895, the year when one Mrs. Nova, “the first female cyclist to appear on the streets of Little Rock, Ark., clad in bloomers,” was arrested for indecency. But Annie was too practical for that nonsense. She hiked in stockings, knickerbockers, a wool tunic, a heavy sweater, gloves, boots, and a hood—all while toting an ice axe. People ate it up—the Singer Manufacturing Company began giving away photos of Annie in full mountain gear with the sale of every sewing machine—and Annie was playful enough to be in on her own joke, even drawing a moustache on her high-altitude mask.

With Matterhorn conquered, Annie climbed a butt-load of other mountains like it was no big deal, calling the activity “delightful and invigorating.” In 1897 she headed around the world to Mexico, where she tackled Mount Orizaba and “El Popo” (Mount Popocatepetl), neither of which had ever been surmounted by a lady. But the mountains of South America held a bonus appeal for the always-competitive Annie: many peaks were still unclimbed by anyone, and she was driven to do “a little genuine exploration to conquer a virgin peak, to attain some height where no manhad previously stood.” She set her sights on two mountains that were widely believed to be the highest in the Western Hemisphere: first, Bolivia’s Mount Sorata, which she rocked in 1904; and second, the north peak of the Peruvian Mount Huascarán, which she climbed four years later, in 1908.

If all this sounds incredibly impressive, keep in mind that we haven’t even gotten to the many logistical challenges that plagued Annie throughout her career. When she took off for Mount Sorata, everything seemed hunky-dory. The New York Tribune reported that she was going “to take geographical, meteorological and topographical observations, and incidentally to acquire any glory that may accrue from accomplishing a great feat.” But the expedition turned out to be basically the worst time for the now fifty-three-year-old mountaineer. She’d brought along a male geologist and two male Swiss guides (one of whom had failed that very climb before), as well as a bunch of local male porters, and they all screwed her over. It took the group more than a month of travel by steamer, rail, barrels (seriously), carriage, and boat just to reach the mountain, all while avoiding bubonic plague and yellow fever. Despite ascending from sea level to 14,600 feet in fewer than three days, her male companions insisted on barging onward without taking time to adjust to the altitude. Worse, Annie started to suspect that the team’s geologist was perhaps not as experienced as he claimed; after peering up at Sorata from below, he remarked offhandedly, “My, it looks cold up there.” (Yes? Duh??) Sure enough, on the climb up the mountain, everything fell apart: the scientist suffered from altitude sickness, one of the Swiss guides was afraid of the local porters and kept demanding an army presence, their mule driver got drunk and stopped showing up, the guides decided they were done climbing and untied themselves from Annie, placing her in mortal danger, and once the geologists bailed, the porters stopped taking orders because they didn’t believe a woman was in charge. “Never before had I felt so hopeless,” wrote Annie. “Heart-sick I said nothing. It was not a question of my own capabilities. I could climb, but certainly I could not carry up tents, sleeping bags, etc. To manage three men seemed beyond my power. Perhaps some of my more experienced married sisters would have done better.” Fearless and ambitious Annie had to give up.

But, fortunately, not forever. Four years later, with the help of the New York Times and a rich woman patron, Annie went back to scale Mount Huascarán, which she figured was taller anyway (and which Harper’s called “one of the most remarkable feats in the history of mountain-climbing.” Yeah, it was!). Equipped with food, climbing irons, flannel shirts, wool stockings, hand-sewn warm underwear (so her porters would stop complaining about the cold), a rifle and revolvers, lanterns, sleeping bags, and food (including chocolate, because she was still human), Annie hired two Swiss guides, who once again turned out to be complete dinglehoppers. They failed the climb five times—which is maybe enough times to warrant giving up if you’re lazy, but our Annie was like, let’s just go already, and again started battling her way up. After finally making it most of the way to the peak, she stopped to take scientific measurements to determine the exact height of the mountain. Turns out she couldn’t because she needed an extra set of hands to deflect the wind off her, and one of her two ridiculous guides had disappeared. He had run off to see the summit first, which was a huge betrayal since it was Annie’s expedition and rights to the discovery were hers. Though she could still say she climbed Huascarán first, technically he saw the peak before she did. But the traitor got his comeuppance. He was so bad at mountaineering that he refused to wear thick socks and then lost his gloves on the way down and had to have several of his limbs amputated. And even though he was truly the worst, people tried to blame his foolishness on Annie’s failure as a leader, just because she was a lady.

On top of all that, most of Annie’s family liked the mountain-climbing thing even less than the going-to-school thing. (To wit: in a letter to her before she climbed the Matterhorn, they wrote, “If you are determined to commit suicide, why not come home and do so in a quiet, lady-like manner.” Rude.) Though her brothers supported her in theory, they didn’t back up their support with the necessary cold hard cash, leaving Annie to fend—and fund—for herself. The lecture circuit earned her a living, but getting up a mountain safely and successfully required mega dollars for particulars like travel to the mountain, guides, scientists, equipment, porters, and a whole bunch of other climbing paraphernalia. (You don’t just get to a mountain and walk up it like, Yeah, killed it. There’s a lot involved.)

To get some extra money, Annie founded the Andean Exploration Society, asking $5 per member, especially from those who “should desire the recognition of woman’s ability in whatever direction be disposed to encourage one who in an unusual line has already achieved large success and shown capabilities far beyond those of most men.” She also cashed in on her notoriety from the lecture circuit by writing about her experiences for magazines and papers; they’d give her the sweet, sweet dollars and she’d write for them and put their banner on the mountain’s peak. Of course, Annie was pretty scrupulous about her accounts, so her editor at the New York World occasionally needed to embellish the heck out of her cables (along the lines of, “We ate a picnic on El Popo with a very sweet child even though it was spitting lava and rocks!…And then the child died a tragic death on the mountain,” and so on). This made for great reading, but didn’t do much to help Annie in the not-looking-reckless department. It took her four years to gather enough money to attempt Huascarán because, as she said, “many regarded the scheme as foolish and unprofitable, some advised me to stay at home (I said I would if I had one), while others believe me insane, or ignorant of what I was planning and unable to carry it out; though the fact that I had, with little inconvenience, already surmounted over 18,000 feet was evidence that I had some ability in this direction.”

And then there was ol’ Fannie Workman. Fannie was another mountaineer who was rich as heck and fiercely protective of her “best at mountaineering” title—a title that Annie was now claiming in the press (at least partially to convince people to fund her future treks), saying that she held the record for the highest female climb, at Huascarán’s 24,000-foot peak. To discredit her rival’s claims, Fannie spent $13,000 (over four times Annie’s totals) to have a group of scientists re-create the Huascarán climb and measure the mountain’s height (correctly) at 21,800 feet. That was significantly less than the 23,263-foot peak of Nun Kun Pinnacle, in the Himalayas, which Fannie had surmounted two years before Annie’s climb of Huascarán. (Fannie also said a bunch of really rude things about Annie in the press, which is simply inexcusable. Women should support other women!) In fact, Nun Kun measures 22,735 feet, so Fannie fudged her own records, too.

Luckily, Annie never let any of this nonsense get her down. She kept climbing as long as she could, scaling Peru’s highest volcano at age sixty-five and firmly planting a Joan of Arc Suffrage League banner at the peak. She scienced hard on every mountain, carrying mercurial barometers to measure height from atmospheric pressure; hypsometers for determining at what temperature water boiled along the way; psychometers to measure humidity; thermometers to keep track of body temperature; sphygmographs to keep track of their pulses, and a sphygmomanometer to record blood pressure. (Phew.) She even designed special oxygen bags for climbing, though they didn’t quite work.

Annie kept climbing until she was eighty-two years old, at which point one of Huascarán’s peaks had been named for her, and she had received a ton of titles and awards from the Peruvian and Chilean governments for her help increasing tourism and trade to South America, through her later trips to the region by plane. (Even Amelia Earhart was an Annie Smith Peck fangirl and would go on to describe herself as “only following in the footsteps of one who pioneered when it was brave just to put on the bloomers necessary for mountain climbing.”) Annie wrote several successful books about her travels (which included such hardcore quotations as “I had dangled over a precipice where the landing place was 5,000 feet below; but that was of no consequence”), lived out of a hotel and told the press her home was “where my trunk is,” and was a self-avowed “firm believer in the equality of the sexes.” Even though she was (and still is) a killer role model, she knew that “no woman can represent all women any more than one man represents all men.” In short, Annie Smith Peck did what she wanted, and she did it all without anybody’s help, which makes her the pinnacle of awesome.

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