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Peck, Annie Smith

Annie Smith Peck

Annie Smith Peck (1850–1935) was an American mountain climber who held the record for reaching the highest altitude in the Americas after her arduous ascent of Peru's Mt. Huascarán in 1908 at age 58. A suffragist, Peck was determined to prove that women were on equal footing with men in all realms. "When she first started mountaineering a man advised her to 'go home where you belong,'" her New York Times obituary reported. "Peck was as stubborn as she was intrepid."

Competitive Urge

Peck came from an affluent, socially prominent family in Providence, Rhode Island, where she was born on October 19, 1850. Her father, George Bachelor Peck, was an attorney, and Peck was the youngest child and only surviving daughter. Her older brothers disdained her attempts to play alongside them, and that instilled in her a lifelong competitive urge to prove her stamina was equal to that of a man's.

Peck was schooled at Dr. Stockbridge's School for Young Ladies, Providence High School, and the Rhode Island State Normal School. She went on to earn both bachelor's and master's degrees in Greek at the University of Michigan and returned to Providence to teach school. She also taught for a time at Saginaw High School in Michigan, Bartholomew's School for Girls in Cincinnati, and a Montclair, New Jersey high school. In 1881, the year she turned 31, she took a job as Purdue University's Latin instructor.

In 1884, Peck went abroad to study language and music in Hanover, Germany. She applied to and was accepted at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens the following year, making her the first woman ever enrolled there. En route from Germany to Greece, however, Peck came across a sight that changed the direction of her academic career: the majestic Matterhorn in the Alps, on the border of Switzerland and Italy. Awed by it, she vowed to climb it some day, though it had only been scaled for the first time only twenty years before. And Matterhorn expeditions usually ran to about $50 a day, making them affordable only for the independently wealthy.

Earned Living on Lecture Circuit

Back in the United States after her stint in Athens, in 1866 Peck took a post at Smith College, a prestigious school for women in Northampton, Massachusetts. There she taught Latin, classical art, and archaeology and began climbing peaks during her spare time. In 1895 she became only the third woman to scale the Matterhorn.

Eventually Peck decided that lecturing on Greek archeology would be a better way to finance her hobby than teaching, but she failed to earn enough on the lecture circuit and switched to speaking about her mountain-climbing experiences, which proved far more novel a lure for audiences. The sport dated back only to the 1780s and had gained widespread appeal in the 1850s, though women were a relative rarity and subject to much derision for their attempts.

Peck liked to gather scientific data on her climbs and learned how to use a hypsometer, which could calculate an altitude by determining the boiling point of water. Most of her ascents were done without oxygen, and she skirted the outcry against women wearing pants—which was considered a daring flaunting of convention in her day—by wearing practical tunics and knickerbockers.

A committed campaigner for a constitutional amendment that would grant American women the right to vote, Peck hoped to prove that men and women could achieve equality in all fields, and she decided to set a women's record for altitude. She settled on Mt. Orizaba (also called Citlaltépetl) in eastern Mexico's Cordillera de Anáhuas, after obtaining a sponsor, the New York World newspaper. Her 1897 ascent to its 18,700-foot-high summit set the women's altitude record, and she also conquered Popocatepetl, another inactive volcano in Mexico, that same year.

Climbs in South America

After scaling the Fuenffingerspitze, in the Italian Dolomites, in 1900, Peck decided to try to climb a mountain that had not yet been scaled by any climber. She settled on a legendary peak in Bolivia, Mt. Illampú, which at the time was believed to be South America's highest peak. She arrived in La Paz in July 1903 with an American geology professor she had invited to come along, and she hired some local guides. The Bolivians proved untrustworthy, however, and the professor disliked the rigors of the climb and succumbed to altitude sickness, which forced the party to turn back at 15,350 feet. She recounted the experience in a lengthy report that appeared in the New York Times the following year, in which she noted that in La Paz "a few eatables were added to our store of soups, tea, chocolate, grape nuts [etc.], brought from New York; especially three bags of coca leaves for our own use as well as the Indians, and valuable indeed they proved, I might say indispensable for us all."

Back in New York, Peck drummed up new sponsorship for a second Illampú attempt, and departed on June 21, 1904. She carried with her a precious, practical suit made from animal skins that had been given to her by the American Museum of Natural History. The Arctic explorer, Robert Peary, had brought it back from one of his expeditions and donated it to the museum. This time Peck also brought an experienced Alpine climber, an Austrian man, but both he and her guides tired easily and forced her to turn back once more, this time after reaching 18,000 feet.

Then Peck learned about Mt. Huascarán, another peak in the Andes. Located outside of Lima, Peru, Huascarán was rumored to be taller than Illampú. This time, Peck took along on her climb an American miner she met at the town near the base, but the two disagreed on the best route, and she went her own way with her own guides, reaching a 19,000-foot ledge that overlooked the glacier that gave Huascarán its distinctive double peaks. On her way down, the party narrowly avoided an avalanche.

Undaunted, Peck returned to New York and planned a second attempt, this time with a $600 advance a magazine had given her to write a story about her trip. That climb and two 1906 attempts were also unsuccessful, but since the editors liked her stories, they were willing to finance her repeated efforts to scale Huascarán. Finally, in 1908 she took along two Swiss men who were able Alpine guides, Rudolf and Gabriel. Despite the combined experience of all three, it was still a perilous climb that nearly cost them their lives.

The Summit At Last

On the way up Huascarán, the wonderful Peary snowsuit was lost because of a guide's carelessness. Finally, they made camp near the peak and started their ascent at eight o'clock on the morning of September 2, 1908. Because of the loss of the Peary suit, Peck later wrote in an account reprinted in David Mazel's Mountaineering Women, "I was wearing every stitch of clothing that I had brought:—three suits of light weight woollen underwear, two pairs of tights, canvas knickerbockers, two flannel waists, a little cardigan jacket, two sweaters, and four pairs of woollen stockings; but as most of the clothing was porous it was inadequate to keep out the wind." To protect against the cold, she also wore a woolen hat and mask bought in La Paz that had a painted mustache, as well as a pair of vicuña mittens.

It took Peck and her two Swiss guides seven hours to reach the final peak, tied to one another's waists and hacking out footholds in the ice. But Rudolf lost one of her vicuña mittens and, near the top, "I suddenly realised that my left hand was insensible and freezing," Peck wrote, as recounted in Mazel's book. "Twitching off my mittens, I found that the hand was nearly black. Rubbing it vigorously with snow, I soon had it aching badly, which signified its restoration."

Gabriel suggested they stop to take measurements with the hypsometer, fearing that the wind might be too strong at the summit, and Rudolf untied himself. Peck and Gabriel tried to light the match for the hypsometer but could not find Rudolf, who was needed to shield the wind with a heavy Andean poncho they had brought along. They gave up, and "Rudolf now appeared and informed me that he had been on to the summit, instead of remaining to assist with the hypsometer," Peck wrote. "I was enraged. I had told them, long before, that, as it was my expedition, I should like, as customary, to be the first one to place my foot at the top.… The disappointment may have been trivial. Of course it made no real difference to the honour to which I was entitled, but of a certain personal satisfaction, long looked forward to, I had been robbed."

"A Horrible Nightmare"

Peck did reach Huascarán's north peak, which at 21,812 feet gave Peck her long-awaited record for the highest altitude reached by any climber in the Americas. At three o'clock, they began their arduous descent to camp, but night soon fell and much of the trip down had to be done in the dark. Exhausted, they were buffeted by high winds, and because the Peary suit was gone, Peck had to wear the poncho to stay warm. "The cold and fatigue, the darkness and shadow, the poncho blowing before me, the absence of climbing irons, the small steps, the steep glassy slopes, presented an extraordinary combination of difficulties," she wrote. "I tried to comfort myself with the reflection that accidents do not run in our family…but also I was aware that people do not generally die but once."

The grades they descended they estimated to be about 40 to 60 degree in steepness, and the poncho caused her to lose her footing on several occasions. Only the rope and her guides' sheer force in gripping it kept them from tumbling to their deaths. "My recollection of the descent is as of a horrible nightmare, though such I never experienced," she wrote later, recounting that "after these slips my terror increased. Several times I declared that we should never get down alive. I begged Gabriel to stop for the night and make a cave in the snow, but, saying this was impossible, he continued without a pause." Rudolf then lost his own mittens, and by the time they arrived at camp at 10:30 p.m. his hand was frostbitten. He later underwent surgery in Lima to have a finger, part of his hand, and half of his foot amputated.

The Peruvian government honored Peck with a medal, and the north peak of Huascarán was named Cumbre Aña Peck in recognition of her achievement. Her recollections were taken from a memoir published in 1911, A Search for the Apex of America. She next scaled Mt. Coropuna in Peru, and on its 21,079-foot summit placed a "Votes for Women" banner. Later, she traveled extensively through South America and wrote a guidebook and also traveled the continent by airplane using all available commercial routes at the time, an experience she chronicled in Flying Over South America: Twenty Thousand Miles by Air.

At the age of 84, indefatigable, Peck planned a trip around the world. She departed in January 1935, but while climbing the Acropolis in Athens became exhausted and was forced to return to New York, where she died at her home in the Hotel Monterey on July 18, 1935 of bronchial pneumonia.

Books

Explorers and Discoverers of the World, Gale, 1993.

Great Women in Sports, Visible Ink Press, 1996.

Mountaineering Women, edited by David Mazel, Texas A&M University Press, 1994.

Notable Women Scientists, Gale, 2000.

Periodicals

New York Times, October 9, 1904; July 19, 1935.

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