Annie Smith Peck – Queen of the Climbers

Many women adventurers had it said about them that “she should have been born a boy,” but probably no more so than Annie Smith Peck. Just look at her; she scandalized the socialites in Rhode Island with her climbing attire. Here she models her outfit: wool tunic, knickerbockers (those baggy trousers), puttees (basically support hose), and a felt hat tied with a veil, as she leans on an ice pick.

Everything about her was anti-establishment. Born in 1850, she grew up in a wealthy family but she was always a disappointment because she didn’t conform to their expectations of womanhood. She went to college over the objections of her father and rejection of the dean of Brown University, who said, “Women are not encouraged to seek higher education.” She flaunted her singleness, calling herself “Miss Annie Peck.”

Like other women of her time, when she finished college she was expected to teach school, but she chafed at the restrictions and got a master’s degree in ancient studies in 1881. Then she studied in Germany, toured Italy looking for antiquities and lectured on Greek and Roman art. Her early trips were made without the help of her wealthy parents, who considered her a “hopeless case.”

Then Annie met the passion of her life – the Matterhorn. While in Europe teaching, she started climbing and was “fired with a determination to see this wonderful rock pyramid.” After climbing part way up she was hooked, and she spent the rest of life climbing. She said,

“My allegiance previously given to the sea, was transferred for all time to the mountains, the Matterhorn securing the first  place in my affections.” 

She climbed smaller mountains for practice then climbed the Matterhorn in 1895 at the age of 45. Then she started looking for more challenges.

Challenges of High Elevation Climbing

Before I talk about Annie’s climbing adventures, I want to tell you about the dangers and challenges, to give you an idea of what climbers face:

  1. Altitude. The climbs she made in South America were at elevations around 20,000 feet. The atmosphere up there is only two-fifths at sea level, meaning the oxygen is very thin. Climbers are subject to s0roche – altitude sickness – which presents like seasickness and can be fatal at that altitude. Exertion increases the risk and the heart is overworked. This means burdens have to be lighter and care must be taken. Annie tried taking oxygen with her but oxygen tanks are heavy, canceling out the benefit.
  2. Cold. Fires burn lower in the scarce atmosphere, so it’s more difficult to stay warm and to cook food. Annie feared frozen feet more than anything, and she swore by her expensive boots. Food had to be easily prepared and digested. Chocolate and brandy were essential.
  3. Rough terrain. Climbing snow and ice covered mountains is terribly dangerous. Annie said the trek up the Matterhorn had dangers “where one’s neck may be broken in a variety of ways.”

Climbing in South America
Mt. Huascaran By Ondando – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

After some further climbing adventures and training, Miss Annie Peck set out to conquer mountains in South America. She was looking for a “virgin peak” where no man had previously climbed. She first tried Mt. Sorata in Bolivia, but she fell short in her attempt by 367 feet. Then she decided on Mount Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru.

Annie’s biggest problem on these climbs was finding reliable people to go with her. She wanted a “white man” on the trips because she was worried about being alone with the native men. But it turned out she was an optimist and a poor judge of people. All the men she hired were either cowardly, soft, or unreliable. She couldn’t rely on the locals who had never lived or worked at the highest altitudes. On her later attempts, she ended up hiring Swiss mountaineers to help her.

On her first attempt at Huascaran she found a soldier of fortune to help her, but he was “faint-hearted,” in her words. She contemptuously commented, “There was not the slightest danger.”

Mt Huascaran proved to be an almost impossible task. It took her six attempts to finally get to the top. She believed the peak was at 24,000 feet and that she had broken a world’s record. Then she described a most terrible descent during which she worried about surviving. She was 60!

After Her Big Climbing Achievement

 When she returned, her achievements were disputed by other climbers. One of them, Fanny Bullock Workman (you will read about her in another post later) spent $13,000 refuting Annie’s claims. Annie commented that she could have used that money!

Annie continued to climb but at lower altitudes. In 1929/30 she flew over South America, the longest air journey by a North American traveler at the time. In her 80s, she was still climbing. She also became an ardent suffragist. She died in 1935 at age 84, while traveling to Greece.

You can read more about Annie in this biography, “A Woman’s Place is at the Top.” I found much of my information about her here and in her account of climbing Mt. Huascaran, Uncommon Glory.

Why Annie Smith Peck is Important

I loved Annie’s persistence and her refusal to adhere to the norms of women at the time. She was a great adventurer and she accomplished much, in spite of her shortcomings. George Mallory, a famous climber, on asked by he climbed Mt. Everest, answered, “Because it was there.” Annie had the same kind of zeal for climbing.

As a woman, Annie was held to a different standard. Negative comments about her said, “She drove her men relentlessly,” she was “ambitious,” and “impatient.” Couldn’t the same thing be said of men explorers? Yes, she was ambitious. She wanted to be famous. All through her life, she kept all her correspondence from others and she demanded that others return her correspondence. She worked hard to get the money for her trips, and she was fiercely competitive.

Amelia Earhart said of her, “Miss Peck would make anyone appear soft.” Amen.


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