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Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935)

“I began to think that, as I seemed to be posing as a mountain climber, I had better really do something in the line worth while, so I went to Mexico,” Annie Peck told the New York Times in 1898. Three years earlier, in 1895, she had climbed the Matterhorn and come back to the U.S. to give lively illustrated lectures, making her the very public face of American mountaineering. She had decided to earn a living from climbing, the first professional.

By 1897 she needed a new marketable feat and proposed climbing Mexican volcanoes. With New York World backing she traveled to Mexico City that spring to join other Americans to climb Popocatepetl and Orizaba, then thought to 18,205 feet high and a candidate as highest mountain in North America. Backed by the New York World, she traveled to Mexico City and joined other Americans to climb. She successfully climbed Popo and her partners for Orizaba were Lowell Observatory (Flagstaff, Ariz.) astronomers W.A. Cogshall and A.E. Douglass. Annie enjoyed the newspaper coverage and rightly claimed highest ascent by a woman.

Her market-driven goal became to break the world’s altitude record held by William Woodman Graham and Swiss guides for their 1883 Kabru (24,076 feet) ascent in the Sikkim Himalaya. Her idea was consistent with her approach to life in general: “If one’s work does not compare with men’s it is of little value.”

Rather than travel to Asia, Annie followed British expeditions to the Andes of South America. She embraced Edward FitzGerald’s initial estimate of Aconcagua elevation as 24,000 feet (January 1897), hoping there might be an as yet undiscovered higher peak.

She made five trips to Bolivia and Peru between1903 and 1911, continually searching for the apex of America. Usually cash-strapped she relied on local men with no climbing experience as companions and porters. In 1908, however, she and Swiss guides reached the North Peak of Huascarán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanc. She optimistically estimated its elevation possibly between 24,000 and 26,000 feet. American Fanny Bullock Workman and geography undid Annie’s quest for highest: Himalaya vs. Andes. Game, Mrs. Workman, 1906 Pinnacle Peak (23,300 feet), Nun Kun Massif.

Annie’s persistence and optimism are admirable as is her ability to support herself, first as an academic, then as a lecturer, writer, and photographer trading on mountaineering and travel, and then for nearly two decades as a well-connected expert, published authority, and advocate commercial and tourism opportunities in South America.

She may have wanted to be remembered first for her expertise in South American affairs, but even today what comes to mind is Annie as a climber, posed with ice ax and wearing knickers, ever her era’s personification of “mountaineer.”

 Profile by Sallie Greenwood, 2/26/2018