Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Mountaineer Annie Peck was reclining on a chaise lounge surrounded by roses and orchids, watching several women as they hunched over her birthday cake, trying to light all eighty-four candles. Her black hair, lightly streaked with gray, was pulled back in a bun. At the head of the table, a news photographer stood behind a camera, waiting to capture the moment.
A hush descended on the dining room of the Upper West Side apartment. The candle-lighting ceremony was almost done. Eighty. Eighty-one. Eighty-two. The tiny candles began to slide, like an avalanche, down the slopes of the white frosted cake. A toppled candle sputtered, shooting embers onto Miss Peck’s dress. Her friend, Blair Niles, casually reached down and brushed off the embers.
Annie Peck is sitting before the cake; Blair Niles is looking on, to the immediate left of Annie
It was October 19, 1934. Blair Niles was an officer of the Society of Woman Geographers. She had invited the Society’s members to Miss Peck’s birthday celebration. (Out of respect for their eldest member, they addressed her by her surname.)
Blair reminded the assembled women of Miss Peck’s late start as a mountain climber.
"Miss Peck, a former college professor, started climbing mountains at 45 when most men think they’re too old.”
When Annie’s parents found out she planned to climb the Matterhorn, they wrote her:
“If you are determined to commit suicide, why not come home and do it in a quiet, lady-like manner?”
This comment only strengthened Annie’s resolve. She became the third woman to ascend the Matterhorn and the first to climb in knickers and without a corset. One man became enraged when he saw Annie’s unorthodox climbing outfit. He yelled, “Go home where you belong!”
At age 58, Annie set the record as the first American to climb the 21,812-foot summit of Peru’s Mount Huascarán, then thought to be the highest point in the Western hemisphere. Even more impressive was her tenacity in achieving this record. It was her fifth attempt to climb the mountain.
Male explorers tried to diminish her accomplishment by jeering at her climbing outfit.
She wore layers of long underwear, sweaters, knickerbockers, long socks, boots, mittens, and a fuzzy scarf. But her mask attracted the most attention. As Annie put it, she wore a white woolen face mask with “a rather superfluous mustache painted on it.” Whenever reporters asked why she wore a mustached mask, Annie responded that it was the only mask she could find to protect her face from the cold. But Blair knew that her friend had mastered the art of attracting the media’s attention.
Annie was pragmatic about wearing her climbing apparel:
“Men, we all know, climb in knickerbockers. Women, on the contrary, will declare that a skirt is no hindrance to their locomotion. This is obviously absurd. For a woman in difficult mountaineering to waste her strength and endanger her life with a skirt is foolish in the extreme.”
Blair addressed the assembled birthday crowd: “Two years ago, at age 82, Miss Peck strolled up Mount Madison in New Hampshire just for fun.” The women applauded.
Annie Peck was an outspoken woman who believed that women could do almost anything a man could do and often could do it better. But Blair’s beloved friend frequently irritated people, especially men. In 1911, newspapers announced that Annie (then age 60) had a head start in a race against Hiram Bingham (age 36) to the top of Mount Coropuna in Peru. (After his death, Bingham would become the prototype for the film character Indiana Jones). Annie wrote to Bingham, taunting him. She asked if she could provide him with information about the mountain since she was looking at it, ostensibly to offer him tactical information about the climb. But she was provoking him, knowing she had superior knowledge of the mountain because she was looking at it while Bingham was nowhere near it. He was in Cusco, discovering Machu Picchu.
Bingham chafed at her offer and called her a “hard faced, sharp tongued old maid.” He suggested that if she was so intent on being a good sportsman, she could postpone her climb until he reached the summit.
On her way to Coropuna, Annie told a reporter:
”A woman who has done good work in the scholastic field doesn’t like to be called a good woman scholar. Call her a scholar and let it go at that. I have climbed 1,500 feet higher than any man in the United States. Don’t call me a woman mountain climber.”
When she ascended Coropuna's eastern peak, Annie planted a “Votes for Women” flag there. She thought she had won the race against Bingham and headed home. But Annie became strangely silent when she realized that she had not scaled the mountain’s highest peak, which was on the western side. “No wonder she doesn’t talk about it much,” Bingham wrote his wife about Annie, whom a news reporter had described as a “pretzel-faced person, dressed in leather clothes and odd knickerbockers, standing, staff in hand on top of a high peak.” The next year, Bingham climbed the highest summit. He had beat Peck to the top of Coropuna, but he had not broken her record of climbing the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Mount Coropuna was almost 2,000 feet shorter than Mount Huascarán, a previous ascent.
As the women handed out birthday cake, Blair thought that Annie was one of the treasures of the Society of Woman Geographers. As John Finley, the president of the American Geographical Society said at Annie’s eightieth birthday party:
“You have brought uncommon glory to women of all time.”
Blair had co-founded the Society for women like Annie—women in male-dominated fields who traveled the world and accomplished incredible feats despite their systematic exclusion from male explorers’ clubs.
Society members benefited from their new contacts in the Society. Shortly before Annie left for a series of airplane flights across South America in 1931, she asked Blair what she should bring. Unlike Blair, she had never been on a plane. Blair recommended a waterproof coat and a wool sweater. She suggested, “I would get a nice sporty aviation cap, with googles and fastening under the chin. Pictures of you taken in it would be good for publicity.”
Blair assisted Annie with news media. When she held an 80th birthday party for Annie, she wrote explicit instructions, knowing how stubborn she could be: “You will speak for about thirty minutes; after that, we will have tea and congratulations. Yes, indeed I did know it that it was your birthday as well as the birthday of your book, and the tea is given in honor of both those occasions. I have arranged to have the New York Times and World Wide Syndicate photograph you at 4 o’clock.” The book Blair mentioned was Flying Over South America, which chronicled her 20,000 miles of flights over South America at age 79. At Blair’s request, Amelia Earhart had recently endorsed Annie’s book. She wrote: “When I plan my trip southward, I shall use Flying Over South America as a reference. Perhaps I shall even take a copy with me in the cockpit to remind me that I am only following in the footsteps of one who pioneered when it was brave enough just to put on the bloomers necessary for mountain climbing.”
Annie was not shy about announcing her accomplishments, nor was she reluctant to point out a man’s deficiencies. Once a reporter introduced Annie: “This is Annie Peck, the mountain climber, who has ascended higher than any woman in the western hemisphere. Am I right, Miss Peck?”
Annie replied:“I would not put it that way."
“Better say I have climbed higher than any man in the western hemisphere.”
When her male expedition members refused to climb Mount Sorata in Bolivia because they were afraid of being attacked by indigenous Indians, she wrote, “To manage three men seemed beyond my power. Perhaps some of my more experienced married sisters would have done better. Rage and mortification filled my soul!”
When a rumor reached America that she had climbed Mount Sorata, she told the press: “If it hadn’t been for a man I should have climbed to the top of the mountain.” When the reporter asked for details, Annie reiterated, “I’ll tell you why I failed. It was all on account of a man.”
She complained of another male climber: “He had proved to be of no real service, declaring everything to be impossible and groaning over his discomforts; he hadn’t slept, he had a headache, he couldn’t eat this, he didn’t like that; he was in no respect amenable to my wishes, and tiresome with his voluble protestations. So I sent him on his way back to Lima.”
Annie explained to a reporter:
“One of the chief difficulties in a woman undertaking an expedition of this nature is that every man believes he knows better what should be done than she.”
Among the things that the men “knew” better than Annie, was the most appropriate attire for a woman mountain-climber, even though they had never tried climbing a mountain in a corset and skirt. But Annie's female competitor, Fanny Bullock Workman, apparently a slave to fashion, also criticized Annie’s decision to climb in pants, noting, “I have never found it necessary to dispense with the skirt.”
Workman being carried over a river
Annie thought the aspersion was ridiculous: “I dare assert that knickerbockers are not only more comfortable, but more becoming, whether to the stout or slender figure.” She rejected the notion that she was reckless in her apparel or actions: “I do not do foolhardy things and take risks although people think I do. The difficulties and dangers of mountaineering are greatly overestimated by those who have no practical acquaintance with this form of athletics. All it takes is a sure foot and steady head in high places, a sound heart, strong lungs, and good nerves.”
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