I decided in my teens that I would do what one woman could do to show that women had as much brains as men and could do things as well if she gave them her undivided attention.”
Annie Smith Peck
Annie Smith Peck was a fearless mountain climber, an author, and an activist for women’s rights. She was born in Rhode Island in 1850 to wealthy parents who stressed education. Peck had three older brothers that never allowed her to play with them. Peck later commented that she vowed she would one day prove her worth to them. Annie Smith Peck was academically brilliant earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Greek and classical languages from the University of Michigan. Upon graduation she accepted a position as a professor of Latin and elocution at Purdue University- one of the first women in the United States to attain such a rank. Peck continued to set records as the first female student accepted to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. When she returned to the United States, Peck took a teaching position at Smith College and, by 1892 had become so well renowned that she was able to resign and support herself by giving public lectures.
On a trip from Germany to Greece in 1885, Peck was struck by the magnificence of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. She decided, at the age of 44, to pursue mountain climbing- an unheard-of pursuit for women. Her first official climb was in 1888- Mount Shasta, California. Peck became unstoppable. She finally climbed the Matterhorn in 1895- an ascent that brought her notoriety in the mountaineering community as well as the general public. Some sources credit her as the first woman to climb the Matterhorn while others credit her as the second or third. Regardless of her rank, she was the first woman to make the climb in trousers versus a skirt!
Despite the magnitude of her achievement, Annie Smith Peck did not stop there. She continued climbing notorious peaks throughout the world, achieving her greatest triumph with her record-breaking ascent of the 22,205-foot Peruvian Mount Huascaran in 1908, at the age of 58 no less! At this time, the exact height of Huascaran, as well as many others of the world’s highest peaks, was not fixed, and Annie believed she had climbed the highest summit in the Americas. While later measurements revealed the peak to lower than she initially thought, Peck was still the first person to scale this particular peak, which was subsequently named “Cumbre Ana Peck.”
In addition to the intensity of her countless notorious climbs, Annie also had to “cope with the ridicule of many male mountaineers, limited funding, and equipment which, since it was designed for men, was often ungainly and ill-fitting.”¹ In fact, for her Huascaran climb, Peck designed personalized mountain shoes and had them made to her order. She also painted a mustache on her face mask as a comment on the gendered leanings of the sport.
A strong supporter of women’s suffrage, Peck climbed Peru’s Mount Coropuna (21,083 feet) in 1909 and planted a “Votes for Women” pennant on its summit. Annie also travelled extensively by air around South American in order to showcase the safety for tourists- substantially changing the image of South American countries at the time. It was on these journeys that she based four books. Peck continued to travel and climb mountains across the world almost until the end of her life; her last ascent was of New Hampshire’s Mount Madison at the age of 82!
Annie Smith Peck died in New York in 1935
Annie Smith Peck is my shero because she was a winner. She was accepted to the University of Michigan a mere two years after they began accepting female applicants, she encouraged tourism in South American at a time when the area was considered extremely dangerous, and she brushed aside what was expected of senior citizens by refusing to bend to the limitations of old age. As I learned more about her life, it became increasingly harder to tell her story in a concise manner because everything she did, she did extraordinarily well. Annie Smith Peck is an example of the difference between surviving and succeeding- a lesson that is extremely pertinent to every-day life. It is so easy for me to get caught up in the routine of doing nothing or, even worse, escaping reality through TV or internet trolling. When I think of how much time I have wasted in comparison to Peck’s countless hours of achievement, I’m embarrassed and inspired to do better.