Peck, Annie Smith (1850–1935)

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Peck, Annie Smith (1850–1935)

American mountaineer and explorer who gained international celebrity (1908) by becoming the first person to reach the top of Peru's highest mountain, Huascaràn. Born on October 19, 1850, in Providence, Rhode Island; died on July 18, 1935, in New York City; youngest of five children of George Peck (a lawyer and state legislator) and Anna Smith Peck; graduated from the Rhode Island State Normal School, 1872; graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Greek, 1878, M.A., 1881; never married; no children.

Captivated by her first sight of the Swiss Alps during a Continental tour (1885); climbed her first major mountain, California's Mount Shasta (1888) and went on to lead expeditions up important European heights before discovering the Andes of South America; gained international fame (1908) after six attempts by becoming the first to reach the top of Peru's highest mountain, Huascaràn; when not climbing mountains, explored the headwaters of the Amazon River, traversed Peru's vast inland desert on horseback, and lectured widely on her experiences; at age 80, embarked on a seven-month air tour of South America encompassing 20,000 miles (1930), after which she became an enthusiastic proponent of air travel.

The residents of the tiny Peruvian village of Yungay were astonished one September day in 1904 when a wiry, gray-haired American woman arrived in their midst, having traveled overland by horseback from the country's Pacific coast to its northern wilderness, sandwiched between the two major ranges of the mighty Peruvian Andes. Annie Peck Smith was the first North American many of the villagers had seen, and the fact that she was traveling in the company of a brawny ex-seafarer, without proper chaperons, provoked even more gossip. Still more astounding was Peck's announced intention to scale Peru's highest mountain, Huascaràn, towering over Yungay at a height that had only been estimated at some 28,000 feet, since no one had ever attempted the climb to take accurate measurements. It was an impossible task, the villagers said, but Peck was used to insurmountable obstacles, having tackled them with aplomb during the preceding 54 years.

The first and in many ways the most difficult obstacle was her gender, for Peck had been born into in a mid-19th century world in which women's opportunities were severely circumscribed. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on October 19, 1850, she was the youngest of George and Anna Smith Peck's five children, and the only daughter. Peck would later suggest that competing with four older brothers made her more willing in later life to take on challenges considered unsuitable for women. Her childhood was comfortable; George Peck was a lawyer and state legislator, and Annie was fortunate to be sent to the state's best schools for young women, graduating from the Rhode Island State Normal School in 1872. But the college education given as a matter of course to her brothers was denied her, and Peck was obliged to take up teaching as one of the few career opportunities open to her. After a brief period teaching at Providence High School, she accepted a position as headmistress of a girls' high school in Saginaw, Michigan. With her heart set on college, she soon had saved enough money to enroll in 1875 at the University of Michigan, which had begun accepting women just four years earlier. She was 24 at the time and determined to receive her degree in Greek before reaching 27—a goal she achieved by adopting a rigorous study schedule that led to her graduation in just three years. A master's degree followed in 1881. Peck established yet another beachhead that same year when she was named a Latin and elocution professor at Purdue University, becoming one of the first women to be given a professorship at an American university. While at Purdue, she attended a lecture by one of the school's professors describing his recent travels in Europe, the highlight being a climb up Switzerland's Matterhorn. The professor's offhand comment that women would be forever barred from such lofty adventures because of their weaker constitutions lodged in Peck's mind, although at the time she had no inkling of its future effect.

By 1892, after a sabbatical spent studying in Europe (during which she became the first woman admitted to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens), Peck had become so famous for her lectures on classical Greek archaeology and architecture that she was able to support herself entirely on lecture fees and was listed in 1893's Leading American Women from All Walks of Life as "educator, musician, profound classical scholar, and distinguished archaeologist." But the encyclopedia's entry failed to mention a new talent, for it was during her European tour that Peck was captivated by the towering peaks that would become her obsession in later life. "My allegiance … was transferred for all time to the mountains," she later wrote of her first glimpse of the Matterhorn in 1885. "On beholding this majestic, awe-inspiring peak, 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." In short order, she was climbing minor peaks in Switzerland and in Greece; by 1888, she had ascended California's Mount Shasta—at some 14,000 feet, her first important climb—and reported that "the exercise was delightful and invigorating," as if she had merely taken a stroll. In 1895, she achieved her dream of ten years earlier by climbing the Matterhorn, which had first been conquered only 30 years earlier with the loss of four lives. She was not the first to disprove the Purdue professor's opinion of women and mountains, for two women had already ascended the 14,690 feet to the summit by the time Peck attempted it, the first being Lucy Walker in 1871. Her own contribution was to abandon the cumbersome full skirts worn by proper Victorian women for all occasions, even mountain climbing, in favor of knee-length pantaloons and a tunic. (On the very day Peck climbed the Matterhorn in such an outfit, a woman in Arkansas was prosecuted for wearing bloomers in public.) Americans were so fascinated with Peck's feat that the Singer Sewing Machine Company began including picture cards of her in full climbing gear with its machines, and she was dubbed "Queen of the Climbers" in the press. It was all, Peck said, "unmerited notoriety," but her success on one of the world's most famous peaks led her to consider more difficult climbs.

Her attention turned to Mexico which, unlike Europe and America, still contained unexplored stretches punctuated by equally unexplored mountains. Mexico's Orizaba and Popocatépetl beckoned as North America's third- and fifth-highest peaks, respectively. Orizaba, some 4,000 feet higher than the Matterhorn, proved no more difficult in 1897 and brought Peck another first, since no woman up to that time had reached such a high altitude. It

was also Peck's first attempt to use her skill for scientific purposes, as she employed a mercurial barometer given to her by the U.S. Weather Bureau to measure Orizaba's height at 18,660 feet—close to the present accepted measurement of 18,700 feet. Her ascent of Popocatépetl (not much of a challenge, actually, the mountain having first been scaled in 1519) was her first climb to be funded by the press, with the New York Sunday World paying her expenses in exchange for exclusive rights to the story she would write. Her account was less than the hair-raising adventure the paper was expecting. Peck truthfully reported that she had been accompanied by guests from the hotel at the mountain's base, that she had enjoyed a festive lunch with them just short of the peak, and that the son of one of the guests scrambled up ahead of her and had actually reached the peak before she did, much to everyone's amusement. As the paper frantically cobbled together a phony tale of hardship and determination, Peck began to consider her next challenge, "a little genuine exploration to conquer a virgin peak," she said, "to attain some height where no man had previously stood."

Her stated condition could have been applied to most of the peaks of South America, for few of them had ever been tackled by the Eurocentric male aristocracy from which most of the West's mountaineering adventurers came. Peck's choice was Bolivia's Mount Sorata, said to be the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere (a claim later disproved) and one which no man or woman had yet attempted. But despite the publicity surrounding her ascents of Orizaba and Popocatépetl, Peck struggled for the next four years to raise sufficient funds for the expedition. The decidedly undramatic climb up Popocatépetl had made the rounds of the newspapers, none of which chose to invest in Peck's next adventure; and manufacturing companies Annie felt might be willing to lend their names to the expedition still had difficulties with a single, middle-aged woman obsessed with mountains. It was not until June 1903 that Peck had raised what she felt was enough money to sail for South America. In the first of a series of unfortunate judgments of male character, she traveled in the company of a professor of geology she had met only once before and two mountain guides from Switzerland she had hired after learning that one of them had been a member of an earlier, unsuccessful ascent of Mount Sorata. She also brought along two barometers for measuring Sorata's altitude, one to take measurements at the base and one at the summit; two contraptions called hypsometers, which measured the temperature at which water boiled at various heights to determine altitude above sea level; and in the event all else failed, surveying equipment that would allow her to determine Sorata's height by triangulation. For further experimentation, medical devices were taken along to record the human body's reaction to height and thin air. Finally, Peck packed oxygen cylinders fitted with rubber bags and mouthpieces in the first recorded use of oxygen on a mountaineering expedition, although the cumbersome cylinders were later abandoned.

Thus provisioned, the little party arrived at a Peruvian coastal city in July and embarked by train on an almost vertical climb up the Andes' western range for the Peruvian-Bolivian border. Their destination was Lake Titicaca, the world's highest lake. Within 60 hours of travel, Peck later reported, they had ascended by train to nearly 15,000 feet above sea level, "sufficient to disturb the interior economy of all save the soundest constitution." Annie suggested that the party rest and acclimate to the higher altitudes, but the professor insisted they go on, despite his complaints of a severe headache, and continue across Lake Titicaca by steamer. Mount Sorata loomed up over the far southern shore, but another train journey was needed to bring them to La Paz, Bolivia's capital city, followed by an arduous journey of several days by mule to finally arrive at the foot of Sorata.

The first phase of the climb passed uneventfully as the group made camp at 15,000 feet; but then the male treachery that would plague Peck during her entire climbing career struck. First, the professor refused to leave camp for the next segment of the ascent, pleading severe nausea and headaches, while the porters complained that the snow line was much lower than in previous years and, lacking proper footwear, obstinately declined to continue further. Worse, they grew threatening enough that one of the Swiss guides proposed calling in the military. In the face of growing disorganization and with the South American winter coming on, Peck felt she had no choice but to give up and return to La Paz. "To manage … men seemed beyond my power," she later wrote. "Perhaps some of my more experienced married sisters would have done better." The professor and the Swiss guides abandoned her in La Paz while Peck found some consolation in reaching the coast by crossing Peru's daunting "Pampa of Islay," a 100-mile stretch of desert which she traversed by mule in the company of a native mule driver and an American man she had met. "In strange lands, far from home … one is apt to feel that all men from the United States are brothers," she wrote in a decidedly more charitable mood toward the opposite sex. "Most men under such circumstances are disposed to be polite." She arrived back in New York in the early winter of 1903, but left for Peru again in June 1904, still determined to climb Mount Sorata.

This time, her traveling companion was an Austrian who claimed Alpine experience, but once again Peck failed to make the summit of Sorata because of what she believed was male incompetence, including a near-fatal plummet into a deep crevasse when two of her porters untied themselves from her support rope as she teetered on the edge before pulling herself back. Then, within two hours of the summit and with night coming on, the Austrian and the porters refused to entertain her suggestion of making an overnight cave camp and insisted they descend. Again, Peck had no choice. It was her last attempt at Sorata, even though later measurements based on her diary suggest she may have been within 400 feet of Sorata's 20,867-foot summit, making her the first person to reach such an altitude on the mountain's slopes. "Oh, how I longed for a man with the pluck and determination to stand by me to the finish!," she later complained.

Despite these laments, Peck resolved not to leave South America until she had scaled a major peak. She abandoned Sorata in favor of the far more formidable Huascaràn, another "virgin peak" rising from Peru's remote northern wilderness. She found the brawny ex-seafarer who accompanied her to Yungay in a hotel in Lima, where she heard him speaking fluent Spanish to the hotel clerk and, again arriving at one of her spontaneous and unfortunate character judgments, decided to ask for his help in climbing Huascaràn. Her first sight of Huascaràn from Yungay filled both of them with a sense of foreboding. "Many thousand feet rise the rocky slopes," Peck later wrote after her first glimpse of the twin-peaked behemoth. "The immense glacier below the peaks was so visibly and terribly cut with a multitude of crevasses that it seemed impossible for the most skillful, much less for men wholly inexperienced, to find their way through such a maze." All went reasonably well during the first three days of climbing, as Peck's party made its tortuous way toward the mountain's north peak with avalanches thundering around them, but the final assault across a crevasse-riven glacier and up a treacherous rock cliff stalled when Annie's brawny ex-seafarer proved so inept with the guide rope that she was obliged to abandon it. Then the other male members of the party—porters and a newspaper editor from the Peruvian press—refused to go any farther. Peck struggled on alone, and without a guide rope, for a few more feet to plant a cross made by the natives in Yungay at the edge of the glacier. "This courageous American woman, notwithstanding that below her feet was a precipice reaching down to the glacier, took the cross and resolutely traversed this dangerous place where at every step she was liable to go down to certain death," the newspaper editor later reported to his readers. The ex-seafarer, whom Annie quickly paid off and dismissed as soon as they were off the mountain, confessed to having been so frightened that he intended never to climb another mountain again.

Just five days later, Peck attempted Huascaràn again, this time only in the company of native porters from Yungay. Again, the mountain defeated her, blasting the party with a major storm on the second day of the climb and stranding them some 2,000 feet below the saddle connecting Huascaràn's two peaks. Slogging their way through another two days of arduous climbing, Peck's party reached an altitude of some 18,000 feet—the highest point on Huascaràn anyone had ever reached—before they finally retreated because of continued bad weather. But Peck remained convinced that, with better equipment and more careful planning, she could reach the summit. Accordingly, she spent much of the remainder of 1905 and the first half of 1906 seeking funding in New York for a third attempt, although she had to settle for $700 offered to her by Harper's Magazine—hardly enough to buy her the Swiss guides and modern equipment she wanted, but sufficient to find her once again in Peru by early June 1906. She recruited Indian porters, ignored warnings that the American gentleman she met in Lima who asked to accompany her was emotionally unstable, equipped the party with the heavy woolen socks, ice picks, climbing irons and Alpenstocks that had been lacking from previous expeditions, and began her third assault of Huascaràn in late July. The usual trouble started only two days into the climb, as the party camped on a glacier in bitter cold wind for the night. The Indians declared they would go no farther; the "loco," as they called Peck's American companion, claimed he had developed colic from eating rice only half-cooked in air so thin it took two hours to boil water; and everyone declared they were reluctant to tie themselves to the guide rope for fear of being dragged down by another's fall. Annie struggled on with just one of the Indians and the ailing loco, but got no closer to the north peak than on her previous attempt when she decided to once again retreat. Within a week, she was at it again, and again in the company of the loco, whose idea it was to try once more; but this fourth attempt fared even worse than the others when the American did, indeed, seem to lose his emotional balance and disappeared for an entire night, narrowly avoiding freezing to death when Annie found him lying on a ridge and dragged him back to camp. Equipment was lost down crevasses; an amateur climber the American had brought along abandoned the party with Peck's climbing irons; and the guides demanded more money before they would climb beyond the 17,500 feet the party had reached by the second day. Again, Peck called a retreat, at which point the American broke away from the party, reached Yungay on his own, and disappeared. Annie later heard that he had been institutionalized by his family.

At this point, Peck finally admitted that Huascaràn had defeated her, at least for the moment; but instead of returning to New York, she indulged her deepening fascination with South America by visiting the world's highest copper mine, located near Lima and some 14,000 feet above sea level. Even a fall from a mule that resulted in several fractured ribs failed to keep her from attempting to find the source of the Amazon in the Raura Range, then a pristine wilderness where few had ever set foot. Her identification of two glacier-fed lakes in the Range as possible sources still stands, for even today the exact source of the world's longest river remains in dispute. But Huascaràn still gripped her imagination as she returned to New York in 1906. Harper's, thrilled with the exciting story Peck gave them about her last failed attempt, quickly offered another $3,000 to fund another expedition, but Peck was determined not to tackle Huascaràn again until she had enough money for proper equipment and her favored Swiss guides. Consequently, it was not until 1908 and a generous donation from a wealthy New York doyenne that she felt ready. Peck was now 58 years old.

Before sailing for Peru, she stopped off in Washington to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow adventurer if a less enthusiastic supporter of Peck's vigorous calls for women's suffrage. Although "not quite committed to Woman Suffrage," she later wrote in her diary, "he was not the sort to decry women's ability or, when it had been proved, to throw stumbling blocks in her way." Peck was also pleased to note that Teddy Roosevelt had become an honorary member of the American Alpine Club, of which she had been a founding member. Dashing on to her ship at the last moment, she arrived back in Yungay by early August. On the morning of August 6, she began a new assault on Huascaràn, but again was forced to turn back after a record eight days trying to reach the summit. The litany of disasters was by now familiar—one of the two recalcitrant native porters forgot to pack the film for the camera Peck intended to use to document the climb; a Swiss guide complained of altitude sickness and left the party; and backpacks containing food rations and even their portable stove disappeared down bottomless crevasses. When the party finally straggled back into Yungay on August 15, everyone expected Peck to give up once and for all despite the fact that she had come closer to Huascaràn's north peak than in any of her other four attempts, reaching an estimated 22,000 feet. Further surprise ensued when Annie announced that once she re-provisioned, she would immediately undertake a sixth climb. Ten days later, she was off again.

Peck felt sure of victory on her sixth try, for she had assembled the most complete set of equipment in her climbing history, even though a modern-day rank amateur would find the gear laughably inadequate. Peck reported that she wore "three suits of lightweight woolen underwear, two pairs of tights, canvas knickerbockers, two flannel waists [i.e., vests], a little cardigan jacket, two sweaters, and four pairs of woolen stockings." For the first time, she wore a woolen ski mask, having worn no face protection of any sort on her previous climbs and suffering badly from sunburn and blistered skin. The expedition departed on August 28. The new stove Annie had purchased was nearly lost on the second day, when one of the guides carrying it slipped into a glacial crevasse but was pulled out as the stove clattered deeper into the chasm. With the stove retrieved after a treacherous descent on a rope by Peck's one remaining Swiss guide, the party soldiered on until they had climbed to within a few hundred feet of the north peak by the third day. Stopping to take measurements and gather her energy for the final attempt, Peck was outraged to find that one of the guides had slipped away and climbed alone to the summit, stealing the distinction from her. Still, after six tries, she finally stepped onto the 40-foot-wide summit of Peru's highest mountain and accomplished the goal she had set for herself so long before.

"My recollection of the descent is as of a horrible nightmare," Peck wrote some months later in a book about her accomplishment, for the party did not reach the mountain's summit until late afternoon and was forced to make their descent to the nearest camp on the ridge between Huascaràn's two peaks by weak moonlight. She slipped at least six times, sliding perilously close to the edge of the glacier and oblivion before being checked by her guide rope and hauled back; and for the first time in her climbing career, Peck said, she felt terror. "Several times I declared that we should never get down alive," she recalled. A bitterly cold 48 hours huddled in a flapping tent followed, for the party was too tired to continue and the alcohol to light their stove could not be found. Worse, the guide who had sneaked to the peak ahead of Annie was now severely frostbitten after refusing to wear the extra layers of socks and shirts she had provided and was barely able to walk. After five days on the mountain, nearly two days of which had been without fire or water, the party finally reached Yungay and the news was telegraphed to the world that Annie Smith Peck had become the first person (the rebellious guide notwithstanding) to reach the summit of Peru's mighty Mount Huascaràn.

Peck's triumph was soon tarnished by a challenge to the estimate of Huascaràn's height on which her claims of having reached the highest altitude of any human being were based. (Mount Everest would not be conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary for another four decades.) Huascaràn, she had estimated based on readings she had taken the day before she had attained the summit, stood at some 24,000 feet; but her claim was immediately challenged by Fanny Bullock Workman , a wealthy socialite who, with her husband, had been climbing peaks in the Himalayas while Peck was exploring the Andes. So incensed were the Workmans that they spent $13,000 to send a team of surveyors to Yungay to determine the exact height of Huascaràn's north peak, which they set at 21,812 feet. "She has not the honor of breaking the world's record," groused Workman in an article published in Scientific American, "for my two ascents of respectively 22,568 and 23,300 debar her from that honor in the case of women, while a number of men have made ascents exceeding her highest." Peck retorted that she had never meant her estimate to be taken as an accurate measurement and pointed out that while the Workmans could afford to spend $13,000 to send a surveying team to South America, she had been forced to make do with less than half that sum to actually climb the mountain. Besides, she pointed out, even if the Workmans' figure were correct (and it was close to the figure accepted today), she was still the first person, man or woman, to climb to the summit of Peru's highest and most formidable peak.

Peck published in 1911 her description of her feat, although the Workmans' continued gibes about her claims meant it took Annie two years to find a publisher. Her financial situation grew so precarious that she was obliged to write to her friend Robert E. Peary, who had led his famous expedition to the North Pole, for a loan. "I thought when I had climbed my mountain my troubles would be over," she wrote to him, "never dreaming that fate could pay you such a shabby trick." Still, Peck was now a world celebrity as she entered her sixth decade. She continued her love affair with South America by lecturing extensively there on her experiences, and took advantage of a climb up Peru's second-highest peak, Nevado Coropuna, to plant a "Votes For Women" flag on its summit and have a photograph of it distributed throughout the United States. She delivered her lectures in Spanish in Lima, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and other South American cities; and by 1911 she had traveled so extensively on the continent that she was able to publish her own guide book, illustrated with her own photographs, of a tour from Panama to Tierra del Fuego. In 1922, her intimate knowledge of Latin America was put to good use in producing an economic survey which became required reading for the Pan-American Union, formed to foster economic ties between North and South America.

She went where a chipmunk wouldn't go!

—A mountaineering guide

In the late 1920s, as she approached 80 years of age, Peck discovered a new passion in the nascent aviation industry. She met in New York with Wilbur Wright who, with his brother Orville, had achieved the first free flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, just as Peck was preparing for her first climb of Huascaràn; and she hoped that her success in Peru might even tempt Charles Lindbergh to offer her a ride aloft. "Had he been aware I had climbed higher on my two feet than he in his airplane, perhaps he would have asked me," Peck said after no such invitation was forthcoming. But when air service from Panama to several South American cities was inaugurated in early 1929, she finally took to the air. Peck determined to tour South America by air and did so during 1930, visiting every country except Venezuela and covering some 20,000 miles in seven months.

But even Annie Smith Peck had to admit that her age was beginning to tell. The air tour would have been exhausting for anyone, but when she collapsed just before attending a dinner in her honor in New York in November 1930, she admitted that it was due to "ten years' overwork." She recovered quickly enough, and felt well enough to continue climbing small mountains in New Hampshire during her early 80s. In 1934, after celebrating her 84th birthday, she embarked on what was to have been a 75-city lecture tour through Europe, but she returned to New York after fainting while attempting to climb the Acropolis in Athens, the tour's first stop. Again, she seemed to revive; but after a short illness in the early summer of 1935, Annie Smith Peck died peacefully in her Manhattan apartment.

Opinions of Peck's actual expertise as a mountain climber vary, some pointing to a penchant for under-provisioning and poor choices for guides that sometimes led to lamentable results, while others stress that the fact a woman of her time even dared to set foot on a mountain mostly under her own power is credit enough. But there is no dispute over Peck's remarkable accomplishment in setting herself a formidable goal and reaching it, no matter how long or difficult the journey. Another single-minded woman, Amelia Earhart , recognized a kindred spirit when the two met in the early 1930s. "Miss Peck," observed Earhart, "would make almost anyone appear soft."


Olds, Elizabeth Fagg. Women of the Four Winds. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Peck, Annie Smith. A Search for the Apex of America. NY: Dodd Mead, 1911.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York