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Annie Peck proclaimed women’s rights from mountaintops

Posted in Adventure, America, Geography, Historical articles on Sunday, 30 October 2011

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This edited article about mountaineering originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 851 published on 6 May 1978.

Mount Shasta, picture, image, illustration

A photograph of Mount Shasta taken around the time of Annie Peck’s 1888 ascent

The American mountaineer, Annie Smith Peck, her guide and her Indian carriers huddled in their small tent way above the snow line on Mount Huascaran in Peru, camped between 4,000 and 5,000 metres. The summit was another 2,000 metres higher, but Annie was determined to beat the mountain and show that a woman could conquer a height where no man had stood.

Next day they carried on. Four more nights and days took their toll. On the last day came the worst blow of all: with the peak just a couple of hundred metres away they realized they were too tired to reach the summit and descend in safety. They had to turn back, but within two days Annie had made plans to set out again.

Annie Smith Peck was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1850, and started climbing in her mid-30s when she travelled to Europe to study archaeology. Her first important climb, to the top of the 4,400-metre Mount Shasta in California, was made in 1888 at the age of 38. Before taking up climbing, she earned her living by giving lectures on Greek and Roman archaeology but soon found audiences preferred to hear about her climbing adventures.

And adventures they certainly were. In 1895 Annie was in Europe climbing the Matterhorn; 1897 took her to Mexico, to the live volcano, Popacatepetl, and the 5,600-metre Mount Orizaba; 1900 brought her back to Europe for Monte Cristallo in the Dolomites and the Jungfrau. In the next few years she turned to the high peaks of South America: the 6,550-metre Mount Illampu in Bolivia, the 5,500-metre Raura mountains and the glacier above Lake Santa Anna, one of the sources of the Amazon.

Annie was set on climbing the unconquered Huascaran, and in 1908 raised $3,000, which was the minimum amount an expedition would take: money was always a problem. This time she sent to Switzerland and hired two experienced Alpine guides, Gabriel Zumtaugwald and Rudolph Taugwalder.

After the failure of the first attempt, Annie set off again on 28th August with her two guides and four Indian carriers. By 1st September they were encamped high above the snow line. At eight o’clock on Wednesday, 2nd September, Annie and the two guides set off for the north peak.

On the last slope below the summit, Annie and Gabriel Zumtaugwald stopped for a moment to try, vainly, to make some measurements that would tell them the height of the mountain, but Rudolph Taugwalder wandered off.

“Rudolph now appeared and informed me that he had been on the summit. I was enraged. I had told them, long before, that, as it was my expedition, I should like, as is customary, to be the first one to place my foot at the top. I was paying the bills.” Now, without a word, Annie went to the summit. “There is no pleasure here, hardly a feeling of triumph.”

Annie had climbed her mountain, but at a cost, and with disappointments still to come. Annie’s estimate that the mountain was 7,300 metres high turned out to be over-optimistic. Another woman climber, Fanny Bullock Workman, who had reached 7,100 metres in the Himalayas, sent three French engineers to measure the height accurately. It was 6,650 metres. Annie was upset at the money spent as much as at the measurement. “$13,000 seems a large sum to spend to measure the height of a single mountain which it cost but $3,000 to climb. With $1,000 more for my expedition I could have measured it myself.”

Annie continued travelling and climbing. At the age of 61 she was the first person to reach the top of the 6,500-metre Mount Coropuna in Peru where she left a “Votes for Women” pennant. At 82 she climbed the 1,650-metre Mount Madison in the United States. In 1934 she set off on a world tour, but had to return to New York, where she died six months later.

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