Annie Peck scaled myriad peaks in her 84 years. Born in October 1850, she claimed many “firsts” in academia. When she tired of that, she became one of few females with a lucrative career as a traveling speaker. At 44, she started scaling actual peaks, setting numerous records in mountaineering into her eighties. She scandalized conservatives by wearing pants and the occasional mustache painted on her face covering.
She was 61 in 1911 when she beat Hiram Bingham (reportedly the model for Indiana Jones) in an unofficial race to the summit of the 21,000-foot Coropuna in Peru. They believed at the time that it was the highest highest peak in Peru, but it is the second highest. There she planted a “Votes for Women” banner.
Born to a prominent Providence, Rhode Island family in 1850. Annie Peck attended Dr. Stockbridge’s School for Young Ladies. She graduated from what is now Rhode Island College in 1872. She was not enthusiastic about the worn but respectable path to a life spent as a schoolteacher. She said:
“I decided in my teens that I would do what one woman could do to show that women has as much brains as men and could do things as well if she gave them her undivided attention.”
Her desire to continue her education like her brothers did not please her parents. Many people still believed that higher education would destroy the role of women as homemakers, wives, and mothers. But she convinced her father to support her education.
Annie Peck scaled a series of academic summits over the next few years. Many excellent biographies have documented her achievements, including A Woman’s Place Is at the Top: The Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers by Hannah Kimberley. Following are just a few of Peck’s academic highlights.
She graduated in 1881 with a Masters in Classical Languages from the University of Michigan. (The institution opened its doors to women in 1871-2. Its first known Black American, Samuel Codes Watson, was admitted as a medical student in 1853.)
She was one of the first women in America to become a professor of Latin and elocution at Purdue University. (1881-1883)
She became the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. (1885)
People warned Annie Peck that it would be unladylike to move between different teaching positions. Worse yet, a lone lady traveler would draw scandal. But she said:
“I have lived long enough to have got beyond trying to make all my actions satisfactory to my numerous friends and acquaintances.”
Upon her return from Europe, she accepted a position to teach Latin at Smith College. (1886-1887)
By 1892 she grew restless once again. This was a time of world explorations, competitions and races. Among them, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland finished their race around the world in 1890. And Annie Londonderry was riding her bicycle around the world in 1894-1895.
In Europe Peck had discovered her passion and aptitude for mountaineering. Since she had established an excellent reputation as a speaker on Greek and Latin archeology, she launched her career on the lecture circuit. That freed her to climb every mountain she fancied.
” ”Nothing to mountaineering, just a little physical endurance, a good deal of brains, lots of practice, and plenty of warm clothing.” Annie Peck in Women Sports magazine, December, 1977 pp. 13-14
Since mountain climbing was considered a male sport, gear fitted for women was scarce. Just as she had done in her academic career, Annie Peck improvised to suit her own needs.
Throughout the years, she supported her new habit through donations, sponsorships, product endorsements and book deals. She also wrote for popular magazines including Harper’s, and Scribner’s. Exploration of the the great outdoors was a popular subject in these publications, many of which also contracted artists such as Thomas Moran for paintings and illustrations.
Peck also drew large audiences eager to hear about her mountain climbing adventures. Following are just a few highlights.
She became the third woman on record to reach the peak of the Matterhorn in the Alps in 1895. After climbing the Matterhorn in 1895, Peck traveled throughout North and South America on mountaineering expeditions.
Determined to prove that men and women could achieve equality in all fields, she decided to set a women’s record for altitude. Mt. Orizaba in eastern Mexico was her first target. After obtaining the New York World newspaper as her sponsor, she scaled the mountain in 1897. At the time it was the highest ascent in the Americas ever made by a woman.
The year was 1908 when Annie Peck ascended the north peak of Peru’s 22,205-foot Mount Huascaran. She was 58 years old.
She thought at the time that it was the highest peak in the Americas. Although she was wrong, at 22,205 feet she still broke records. It took four years and five attempts. Editors of various magazines paid her for repeated efforts to scale Huascarán.
Peck later wrote A Search for the Apex of America: High Mountain Climbing in Peru and Bolivia, including the Conquest of Huascaran, with Some Observations on the Country and People Below. She said that the experience was “a horrible nightmare,” with one of her Swiss guides losing his hand and part of his foot to frostbite.
At 82, she mastered her last peak, the 5,363-foot Mt. Madison in New Hampshire.
At age 61, Peck climbed the 21,083-foot Coropuna in Peru. She beat Hiram Bingham in a known rivalry but unofficial competition. Bingham was 25 years her junior and rankled at the thought of Peck getting there before him.
In A Woman’s Place Is at the Top: A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers, Hannah Kimberley writes that Peck had become a thorn in Bingham’s side. “As he readied himself for his journey, Bingham exclaimed “Any unexplored territory would do,” for he had to “get back to the Andes to answer Peck!”
In 1987, Alfred Bingham, son of Hiram Bingham, wrote about the famous rivalry and his father’s exploration of Machu Picchu. According to his article posted in American Heritage.com, Hiram read accounts of Peck’s exploits and stewed for years.
When Peck admitted that Huascaran was not the highest peak climbed,
“That might have settled the imaginary feud between my obscure father and the famous woman explorer.”
But Hiram set his eyes on Coropuna, which was then presumed to be the highest point in the Americas.
“My father observed that…Annie Peck’s claim to have reached the “apex” might finally be put to rest, and he decided he’d like to climb the mountain himself. To reach the highest point in the Western Hemisphere would both win him fame and meet that aggressive female’s challenge to male supremacy.”
The fact that he had had no experience with serious mountain climbing did not deter Hiram Bingham. But it did make him realize that if he wanted an academic sponsorship for an expedition, he would need a more scholarly objective than an unclimbed mountain. That objective was the search for what became the discovery of Machu Picchu.
“Harper’s seemed most interested in the projected climb of Coropuna, perhaps because of the controversy over Annie Peck’s claims. She now heard of my father’s plans and wrote him that she had been intending to climb Coropuna herself but was willing to let him accompany her. He was furious and wrote an insulting reply.”
In a letter to his wife, Hiram Bingham referred to Peck as a
“…hard-faced, sharp-tongued old maid,” at least five years older than the fifty years she had given the purser as her age. Actually she was over sixty. He was a young man, but hardly in a mood to admire the courage of an elderly woman.”
According to Kimberley, the New York Times headline read: Miss Peck Goes Out to Climb the Heights. Huscarian Not Being the Top of America, She’s Going to Find the Top and Stand on It.” In the same article, the reporter questioned Annie about being a woman climber.”
“As if speaking directly to Bingham, she proclaimed, “…I have climbed 1,500 feet higher than any man in the United States. Don’t call me a woman mountain climber.”
Peck set sail a few weeks earlier than Bingham, planning to try for another first ascent and possibly a higher peak.
According to Kimberley,
“She would leave others to decide who was the more “sportsmanlike.” The race for a mountaintop was under way, and she quickly made arrangements to beat Bingham to the starting line.”
Bingham’s story of the ascent of Coropuna was the first of Bingham’s four planned articles to appear in Harper’s; his account of the discovery of Machu Picchu was not published until a year later. He felt he had achieved a major climb, perhaps the greatest feat of his expedition.
Bingham was pleased when The American Alpine Club denied Peck’s claim, instead giving Bingham credit for a first ascent.
In a final footnote, after Bingham’s death an official survey conducted by the Peruvian government found that the nearby snowy dome Bingham had photographed, was the true summit of Coropuna. Neither he nor Peck had climbed it.
A Note About History Under Scrutiny: As with the invention of Ice Cream Cones, to name only one story, facts can be slippery. Historians consult primary sources to determine the voracity of events. But sometimes they have only one or just a few sources. Some historical records are convincing, until historians later determine that the facts were deliberately fabricated or distorted, as was the case with Bingham.
Similarly with Tulip Mania, the sheer scope of repetition created momentum and that engendered believability.
It seemed fitting. She had spent decades on the ground looking up at the summits she intended to climb. Now she was high above them, looking down.
She was almost eighty when airlines began transporting passengers. Ready for a new adventure, Peck undertook a seven-month journey, mostly by airplane, across South America. When she returned to New York, she wrote and published Flying over South America: Twenty Thousand Miles by Air. The year was 1932. She died three years later after a short illness.
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