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Annie Smith Peck: Record-Breaking Mountaineer

Premiere: 6/10/2020 | 00:10:40 |

Annie Smith Peck, one of the first women in America to become a college professor in the fields of Latin, elocution, and archaeology, took up mountain climbing in her forties. She gained international fame in 1895 when she first summited the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps -- not for her daring ascent, but because she undertook the climb wearing pants rather than a cumbersome skirt.

About the Episode

Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935), one of the first women in America to become a college professor in the fields of Latin, elocution, and archaeology, took up mountain climbing in her forties. She gained international fame in 1895 when she first summited the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps — not for her daring ascent, but because she undertook the climb wearing pants rather than a cumbersome skirt. In 1908, at age 58 and after five failed attempts, Peck was the first mountaineer ever to conquer Mount Huascarán in Peru, one of the highest peaks in the Western Hemisphere (21,831 feet). The northern peak of the mountain was named Cumbre Aña Peck in her honor. A dedicated supporter of women’s suffrage, she hung a “Votes for Women” banner on her summit of Mount Coropuna, Peru in 1909. She continued to climb mountains into her eighties.

Interviewees: biographer Hannah Kimberley, author of A Woman’s Place is at the Top: A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers; mountaineer Vanessa O’Brien, who completed the Explorers Grand Slam, holds a Guinness World Record for summiting the Seven Summits in 295 days, the fastest time by a woman, and is the first American woman to summit K2.


- [Hannah Kimberly] Annie Smith Peck, achieved most everything that she set out to do.

from climbing the top of a peak no one else had to gaining the right to vote.

(upbeat music) ♪ They say I don't act right ♪ ♪ It's unladylike ♪ ♪ How I wanna live my life. ♪ - [Lorane Toussant] 1895 Zermatt Switzerland, 44 year old Annie Smith Peck summited the Matterhon, one of the most dangerous peaks in Europe.

While there were some women before her who climbed the Matterhorn, she became famous or infamous pretty quickly because she climbed in pants.

In 1895, there were women being arrested for wearing pants in public.

And actually being jailed for it.

There were stories of women falling into these large crevasses because they tripped on their long dresses or skirts And really, she just looked at it from a safety angle and thought why not use the same safeguards that men are using.

- [Juliana Margulies] Step by step up the rocky walls, where so many travelers have lost their lives.

It was indeed a moment of satisfaction to stand upon the famous peak more than 14,000 feet above the sea.

(soft music) - [Lorane Toussant] Anne Smith peck was born in 1850, the youngest of five children in the prominent Rhode Island family.

As a teenager, she regularly attended lectures on women's rights and racial justice.

- Her favorite lecturer was a young woman by the name of Anna E. Dickinson, who was an abolitionist and a suffragist.

There was no television or radio, so people stood in line for hours to get seats at these different lectures.

It was the entertainment of the time.

- [Vanessa O'Brien] 'I made up my mind 'that I should never marry 'and that it would be desirable for me 'to get my living as any boy would do.

'If I'm ever to be anybody or do anything, 'the time is now.'

- [Lorane Toussant] Despite a family's initial objections, - Peck chose to pursue higher education.

- During this time, people believed that it was dangerous.

Physically dangerous.

'If women participate in education, 'they will use all of their energy on their brains, 'and it will be sucked out of their reproductive system, 'which would eventually render the United States infertile.'

Her father, and her three brothers attended Brown, and she figured that she would follow in their footsteps.

But when she wrote to the president, he wrote back and said, we do not encourage education for women.

So Brown was out.

But the University of Michigan had just opened its doors to women in 1871.

So that's where she headed.

- [Vanessa O'Brien] 'I decided 'that I would do what I could 'to show that women had as much brains as men, 'and could do things as well, 'if she gave them her undivided attention.'

- [Lorane Toussant] In 1881, Peck graduated from the University of Michigan with a master's degree in Classical Languages.

- [Hannah Kimberly] Then, she applied to the American School of classical studies in Athens, Greece.

She was the first woman accepted to study there and spent a year there and ended up climbing different mountains throughout Europe.

- [Lorane Toussant] Peck returned to the US and became a professor of Latin at Smith, One of the first all women's colleges, - But she figured out she was not ever going to make the same amount of money that her brother made teaching.

And so she set her sights on the lecture circuit.

- [Juliana Margulies] 'My home is where my trunk is.

'It is a very little consequence to me 'that my actions puzzle some people.

'I shall not stay at home simply to stop there wondering.'

- [Hannah Kimberly] She started in antiquities that once the mountain climbing came more into focus, she would lecture on mountain climbing.

And she drew big audiences.

And her method was lecture circuit.

Save up, go explore, spend every last dime she had doing that, and then repeat.

- [Lorane Toussant] In the 1890s, the 1900s, Peck climbed a dozen mountains throughout Europe and Latin America.

- [Hannah Kimberly] In 1897, she heads to Mexico and climbs Mount Orizaba, which gives her the altitude record for women.

And so then she thought, 'well, I've climbed where no woman has gone.

'My next logical step is to go where no man has gone.'

- She wasn't just attracted to any mountain.

She was attracted to going to places that had not been climbed.

Because she realized the power of being there first.

My name is Vanessa O'Brian.

I am a mountaineer.

I have a Guinness world record for the fastest female to climb the Seven Summits.

(mood music) I then continued to the North and South Pole, I made it to the K2 in 2017 becoming the first American and first British woman to do so.

When you're actually climbing, you're so focused on survival.

You can't even imagine the conditions you are living outdoors for sixty weeks.

There is no shelter, and cold is anywhere from zero to minus 40.

It's really just a miserable experience the whole time.

And then once you arrive, it's incredibly rewarding, because you did it and you did it against all odds.

- [Lorane Toussant] In 1904, Peck set her sight on Mount Huascaran the highest peak in Peru.

She experimented it with out of the box ideas to overcome the weather challenges and high altitudes.

- Any pack were leather boots, four sizes too large to accommodate four pairs of woolen socks.

And she'd take the bottom of the boots and have nails hammered in and those would give her traction on the ice.

- [Vanessa O'Brian] Sometimes mountain climbers like poets may be born not made.

I climb not simply for the pleasure of saying that I have been there or for fame or glory.

It is because I love it.

- Men were always questioning whether she knew what she was talking about.

At the end of a long climb, she was the one who was expected to spend two hours getting the snow to boil and cooking and cleaning up afterwards.

There was always a power struggle.

(soft music) - [Lorane Toussant] In 1908, on her sixth attempt, Peck realized her dream to summit Mount Huascaran, the fourth highest peak in the Western Hemisphere.

She was 58.

- [Vanessa O'Brien] I am here at last.

After all these years, I had climbed where no mortal before had stood and higher than any man or woman now residing in the United States.

- Annie Peck does have the altitude record, but that doesn't last very long.

Because there's another woman climber named Fanny Bullock Workman and Fanny climbs with her husband in the Himalayas.

She also wants the title for highest peak, she hires a crew of engineers and she spent $300,000 which is a lot of money to go out and professionally triangulate the peak.

- [Lorane Toussant] Despite losing her altitude record to Bullock Workman by 2000 feet, Peck remained America's favorite woman climber.

- She was on various advertisement campaigns.

In 1910, every singer sewing machine went out with a package of photographs and postcards of Annie Peck.

One was called world famous explorers, and it was a set of 25 male explorers, and Annie.

- [Lorane Toussant] Having published several books about Latin America, she lobbied the U.S. government to appoint her as an ambassador to the region.

But was rejected for being too old, and a woman.

She became president of the Suffrage League and in 1911, planed a votes for women banner at the top of Mount Coropuna.

- Peck sets a good example for others to follow.

I carried UN's women's flag to the summit of K2 so I am dedicated to women's courses as well as science conservation, geographic exploration.

My hope is climbers start to really care, not how they change through the process but what they can get back.

If you weren't already a conservationist, by the time you climb the mountains with the glaciers receding, you realize that you have to lose and why it really matters.

In 1928, the North peak of Huascaran was renamed 'Ana Peck.'

She summited her final mountain at age 82.

Pack is this inspirational figure, both in terms of climbing but also in terms of women's rights.

Because we're still marching.

We're still climbing.

We're still demanding equality.

And so we're essentially standing on the shoulders of this very unladylike figure who were lucky enough to have had come before us.

- I love her determination, focus, bravery.

She didn't take no for an answer.

She saw every step as an opportunity, - [Hannah Kimberly] Being always a firm believer in the equality of the sexes, I felt that any great achievement would be of great advantage to my sex.

We should be free to do whatever we think we are qualified for.

(upbeat music) ♪ They say I don't act right ♪ ♪ It's unladylike ♪ ♪ How I wanna live my life. ♪


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