When Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935) descended the Matterhorn after having summited in 1895, the world was up in arms. She wasn’t the first woman to have climbed the famed peak. That honor was given to Englishwoman Lucy Walker 24 years prior. Nope. As Peck celebrated her team’s success on one of the most technical climbs of the time, the focus of the general public was on whether or not she should be arrested…for wearing pants on the climb.
An accomplished mountaineer, author, and academic by the time of the Matterhorn ascent, it’s easy to imagine that this double standard didn’t rattle Annie Smith Peck in the least. If anything, it may have added fuel to the fire of woman who fought for the life she wanted at a time when women were expected to be grateful for the life they were given.
Back in 1874, at 27, Peck had battled her own family’s bias that she was a washed-up spinster teaching high school in Saginaw, Michigan. Ten years earlier, she had been denied admittance to Brown University – the same college her father and brothers had attended – because she was a woman. When the injustice of lacking an advanced education wore too deeply on her, she convinced her father to help support her through school so that she may, at minimum, enjoy the same level of education as her brothers (and the same degree in Greek and classical languages, to boot).
As Peck celebrated her team’s success on one of the most technical climbs of the time, the focus of the general public was on whether or not she should be arrested…for wearing pants on the climb.
She proved a talented academic and continued on to receive a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, before becoming the first woman to matriculate at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in Greece. As she fortified her mind, studying archeology and learning French, Spanish, and Portuguese, the mountains of Europe would foreshadow a new type of challenge for Peck.
In the middle of a successful 11-year run (1881-1892) as a professor at Smith College and Purdue, Peck returned to Europe at age 35 and started climbing small, increasingly technical peaks and mountain passes. These humble climbs led to more ambitious endeavors in the U.S., like an ascent of Mt. Shasta in the late 1880s. In 1892, she quit daily teaching and joined a lecture circuit that would allow her the opportunity to explore the mountains of Central and South America. This is where her skills as a mountaineer would be tested, and in most cases, would flourish.
After logging ascents of Mexico’s two highest peaks – Pico de Orizaba (18,491 feet/5636 meters) and Popocatepetl (17,802 feet/5426 meters) – and setting the women’s altitude record, Peck had summit fever. In her book, Search for the Apex of America, she wrote, “My next thought was to do a little genuine exploration, to conquer a virgin peak, to attain some height where no man [her emphasis] had previously stood.”
She traveled south to Peru and Bolivia in order to find and climb a peak higher than Aconcagua (22,837 feet/6960.8 meters). She was over 50, a woman, and on a quest that’s universal in understanding, yet foreign to the mores of the time.
While she obviously wouldn’t find a peak higher than Aconcagua, she was the first person to climb the north peak of Huascarán (21,830 ft/6654 meters), in Peru. It’s an ominous, snow-covered mountain with shattered glacier fields barricading the mid-mountain. In Bolivia, she made several attempts on the Illampu peak (21,276 ft/6485 meters), of Mount Sorata in the Cordillera Real. Reports differ as to whether or not her team summited.
“My next thought was to do a little genuine exploration, to conquer a virgin peak, to attain some height where no man had previously stood.”
Her books on her travels, supported by the keen sense of a studied archeology and anthropology, sold well and supported greater understanding, stronger relationships and increased tourism among the Americas. Peru honored her for her explorations and her contributions to celebrating the Peruvian culture. The country even named the North Peak of Huascarán “Cumbre Ana Peck.”
As her mountaineering career was winding down, Peck took a leading role in the women’s suffrage movement and was a founding member of the American Alpine Club. Among her many notable contributions to the mountaineering, exploration and the women’s movement, her most long-lasting contribution in the realm of historical badasses may very well be her unofficial designation as the first “dirtbag.” To every van-living, couch-surfing, tent-dwelling adventurer out there: It was Annie Smith Peck who first said, “My home is where my trunk is.”
A Woman’s Place Is at the Top: A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers is the definitive work on Peck’s life and climbs.