Annie Smith Peck was an American teacher who became a pioneer mountaineer during the suffragette movement. In particular, she hung a “Votes for Women” flag at the top of Mount Coropuna in Peru. Although she remains the only woman to have made the first ascent of a major summit, her choice of climbing outfit has often overshadowed her climbing accomplishments.
Born in 1850, Peck was the only sister of four brothers. She grew up with a competitive spirit. Like pioneer traveler Ida Pfeiffer, she felt she could do whatever her brothers did. However, education was one area in which, despite her persistence, she was forced to quit early.
Finally, when she was almost twenty, and after years of unwavering advocacy, her father supported her desire to enroll at the University of Michigan. Registrations for women had only opened three years earlier.
Her late departure did not hold her back. Peck graduated as a math and language teacher. She then continued her studies in classical languages, which is how her world eventually collided with climbing.
While traveling from Germany to Greece to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (the first woman to do so), Peck saw the Matterhorn for the first time. The chance encounter changed her life. From then on, she will put her career at the service of her love of travel and mountaineering.
It was not normal for women to climb mountains. In the 1880s, a deterrent for women was the difficulty of finding practical clothing for sports and outdoor activities. It was another 40 years before the first mountaineering and rock climbing instruction book included a chapter titled For the mountain woman. When Henriette d’Angeville climbed Mont Blanc in 1832, she wore a petticoat over men’s trousers and a boa. The outfit weighed over six kilograms.
Peck and other female climbers faced the same dangers as their male counterparts, with the added challenge of climbing in socially appropriate clothing. When Peck was starting out as a climber, she was expected to dress like she was going to the market.
Peck didn’t let those restrictions stop him. His first moderate peak climbs in Europe and the United States were aimed at developing his strength and skill level. She climbed in pants and quickly gained an unwanted reputation as a “pants climber”. Undeterred, she began to look for a greater challenge. In 1895, she climbed the Matterhorn.
The Matterhorn earned Peck celebrity status. However, her unwavering determination, strength, and remarkable courage continued to play the secondary role after the controversy over her attire. She climbed in a tunic to the hips, tall climbing boots, baggy knickerbocker pants and a felt hat secured with a veil. Her decision to wear pants left many wondering why she hadn’t been arrested, a legitimate possibility in 1895!
The first ascent of Mount Huascaran
After the Matterhorn, Peck was unstoppable. In the following years, she climbed Mount Orizaba in Mexico (at the time, the highest female climb in the Americas), Mount Cristallo in the Italian Dolomites, the Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps, and the Funffingerspitze in Austria. .
In 1902, she and three other women were founding members of the American Alpine Club (AAC). By now, Peck was over 50 but she was showing no signs of slowing down. She was ready for another record climb.
In 1903, she began the first of two attempts on Mount Illampu in Bolivia. Then in 1908, at the age of 58, Peck climbed the northern summit of Mount Huascaran in Peru with two Swiss guides. Achieving 6,768m had taken him four years and five unsuccessful attempts. Because Mount Huascaran had never been accurately measured, Peck believed he had broken two records: the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and the world altitude record for men and women.
Conflict on the file
Her summit was a world first and the north summit was later named Cumbre Ana Peck, in her honor. But the rise has sparked controversy.
Another founding member of the AAC, Fanny Workman, held the highest altitude record. Workman didn’t like the idea of having the title withdrawn very much and paid engineers to recalculate the elevation of Mount Huascaran. Engineers triangulated the peak and determined that Peck misjudged his 600m calculations. Workman kept his file.
A public conflict ensues. Peck was accused of willfully exaggerating the size of the mountain. She described the controversy as harder than the climb itself, in which one of her Swiss guides lost a hand and a half foot to frostbite. The climb had been “a horrible nightmare”, but the public arguments were worse. To help her cope, she even contacted polar explorer Robert E Peary, who was no stranger to the controversy.
The suffragette movement
Peck, an ardent suffragist, had perhaps inadvertently shone the spotlight on women’s rights. His male climbing gear and leadership role at the ACC helped break entrenched gender norms. Now she has taken a more direct position. In 1911, at the age of 61, Peck traveled to Peru and climbed five of the peaks of Mount Coropuna. At a summit, she placed a “Votes for Women” banner.
His banner was one of the many links between suffragettes and mountaineers. The first was Cora Smith Eaton’s “Votes for Women” banner, planted atop Mount Rainer. Eaton also wrote “Votes for Women” after her name in the register atop Glacier Peak.
Peck continued to push the boundaries into his twilight years. In 1929, she undertook a seven-month trip to South America. Using commercial planes, his air travel was the longest of any North American traveler at the time. At 82, she climbed her last mountain, Mount Madison.
When Peck passed away at the age of 84, she was on a world tour. She fell ill while climbing the Acropolis in Athens. She returned home but died of pneumonia.
Although his climbing accomplishments are not widely known, Peck’s legacy remains. During her lifetime, she published four books on her travels: The Search for the Apex of America (1911), The South American Tour (1913), Industrial and Commercial South America (1922), Flying Over South America: Twenty Thousand Miles by Air (1932).
She has received several awards including the Al Merito decoration by the government of Chile and a gold medal awarded by the government of Peru for its contribution to South American commerce and industry.
“Climbing is pure hard work,” Peck wrote. “the only real pleasure is the satisfaction of going where no man has been before, and where few can follow.”
About the Author
After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She graduated in travel journalism, supported it with travel industry certificates, and then started Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.
Now, she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular south coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being a mother to a beautiful baby girl. She maintains a “life is too short to do things halfway” attitude.