“It doesn’t get any better than this, Nia!” I exclaimed to my nine year old daughter.
It was July, 2014 and we were hiking in morning sunshine through a broad grassy basin, high in Peru’s White Mountains. Behind us and way, way up above us, the mighty ice wall of Mount Huascarán soared clear as a bell. Its twin summits make up Peru’s highest point, at 22,205 feet. It’s the fourth highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Next to it rose Chopicalqui, equally mind-blowing even though it’s a paltry 20,846 feet. “Thank you, thank you for coming on this with me Nia,” I said for the seventh time. “You do NOT know what this means to me.”
“All right, already,” she replied between huffs of breath.
Walking in mountains is my favorite thing to do in the world. Walking amidst snow-and-ice covered mountains tends to knock me on my butt, bring huge lumps to my throat, and tears to my eyes. And these were among the prettiest and mightiest mountains I’d ever had the utter joy of being with. The fact that almost all their ice will likely be gone in a few decades added to my intense emotions.
The peaks didn’t have quite the same effect on Nia, but she was being a cheerful trooper. And she’d easily extracted promises of two ice creams plus a bracelet when we got back to town. The glorious day spread before us along the trail to Lago 69, a tranquil tarn tucked beneath the western glaciers of Mount Chakrarahu (20,029 feet). We paused in the meadow to take some sips of water and share a peanut bar.
“IT DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS!” I yelled in Spanish to a woman and man as they came up the trail.
“Where are you from?” the woman asked me.
“United States, Colorado,” I replied. “How about you?”
“Peru,” the pretty lady said, “But I’ve lived in Boston for the past thirty years.”
“I can see why you can’t stay away from here!” I said.
“I’ve climbed them,” she added, and pointed to Huascarán. “I even climbed that one, back in the 1980s.”
“Wow. Congratulations!” I smiled at her in amazement.
She took a few more steps and paused. “I was the second Peruvian woman to climb it,” she said, and then continued walking.
“Wow!” I called after her, trying to think of something else to say. “Who was the first woman?”
She paused again. “The first woman to climb Huascarán?”
Nia and I nodded.
The lady smiled. “The first woman to climb it was the first person to climb it.”
Annie Smith Peck was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1850. She was the only girl in her family among three boys. Later she admitted this fact probably had something to do with it.
Education for Annie began at Dr. Stockbridge’s School for Young Ladies, and continued at Providence High School and then a prep college for teachers. And that looked to be about it. Annie tried to get into Brown, but was turned down on account of her gender. By the time she was in her mid-twenties she’d gone about as far as a woman could go, professionally, in those days: she was the principal of a girls’ school in Michigan. “Is this all there is?” I can’t help hear her saying.
But times were a-changing. In 1871, the University of Michigan began accepting women. Annie signed up, and got her bachelor’s and her master’s there, specializing in Greek and Classical languages. She went on to become one of Purdue University’s first female professors, a capacity in which she made a two-year sojourn to Europe in 1884-85 to do additional studies.
Something happened to Annie in Europe. In Italy, Switzerland, and Greece, she discovered she adored climbing mountains. She also discovered that the mountains didn’t give a rat’s ass she was female.
Annie got back to the States and took a job teaching at Smith. By 1892 she found she had enough to say that she could support herself by lecturing on topics ranging from archeology to travel to–especially–mountaineering. She quit teaching and hit the road.
Annie’s notoriety grew in 1895 when she reached the top of the Matterhorn on her third try. It wasn’t so much that she was the third woman to accomplish this feat, rather it was that she did it dressed in (gasp) trousers. Until then, mountain climbing ladies wore skirts. Annie’s photo-in-pants was printed in quite a few newspapers alongside stories examining the hot topic of “what women should do and what they can be.”
The next stage of Annie’s life makes complete sense. She fell in love with South America, all of it, especially its mountains. By the time she was in her 50s she was looking for the Western Hemisphere’s highest peak and eager to be the first to climb it. Annie incorrectly estimated Huascarán to be taller than Aconcagua, and set out to conquer it. She also misjudged Huascarán’s north summit as being higher than its south (it is actually 375 feet lower).
And thus in 1908, at age 58, after four years and five tries, Annie became the first person to summit Huascarán (north peak), accompanied by two Swiss-born mountain guys. The north summit is named Cumbre Ana Peck in her honor. No one made it up the south peak for 14 more years.
It wasn’t a cake walk. One of her party lost a hand and half a foot to frostbite, a loss she described as a “horrible nightmare.” However she accomplished this mission and others, emerged victorious, and published a book about it: The Search for the Apex of America: High Mountain Climbing in Peru and Bolivia, Including the Conquest of Huascarán, with Some Observations on the Country and the People Below.
And she kept going. This is a happy story. There is no tragic ending. Annie lived a long and very full life, doing all kinds of things in addition to mountaineering (writing, traveling, lecturing, etc.). Her pursuits included working hard for women’s rights, and she served a term as president of the Joan of Arc Suffrage League. On one of her many Peruvian climbs (Coropuna, in 1909), she planted a Votes for Women pennant on top.
As Annie neared 80, airplanes began transporting passengers. Seizing the day, she took off at age 82 on a seven month journey across South America, traveling mostly by plane. Then she wrote a book about it: Flying Over South America, Twenty Thousand Miles by Air.
Three years later, at age 85, she headed off on a lecture tour across Europe. She fell sick in Greece and returned to New York, where she passed away after a short illness.
Annie’s final climb was 5,636-foot Mount Madison, in New Hampshire.