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A World of her Own
24 Amazing Women Explorers and Adventurers
By Michael Elsohn Ross
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2014 Michael Elsohn Ross
All rights reserved.
Annie Smith Peck
A WOMAN ABOVE THEM ALL
"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." — Annie Smith Peck
On her sixth attempt to achieve the first ascent of Huascar'n, the highest mountain in Peru, Annie Smith Peck and her climbing party endured howling wind, ice-crusted snow, and subzero temperatures. As the team crossed an ice bridge across a glacial crevasse, one of the porters slipped and fell. Fortunately, he was roped to the other climbers, who hauled him out uninjured. Unfortunately, his pack remained deep in the bottom of the crevasse. In it was a gas stove needed to melt snow for drinking water. Without drinking water they would have to turn back. However, they were able to continue after Gabriel, one of the Swiss mountain guides, fearlessly descended into the crevasse and retrieved the pack. It wasn't until late in the afternoon of the following day, August 31, 1908, that they reached the summit. Standing at the 21,833-foot peak, Annie Smith Peck had finally climbed higher than any other woman mountaineer in the Americas. As the group started the journey back down the mountain, Annie wondered if they would survive the perilous descent.
Born on October 19, 1850, in Providence, Rhode Island, Annie grew up far away from any peaks. The highest elevation in her home state was just a little more than 800 feet. Both her mother and father were from families that had settled in Rhode Island more than 200 years before Annie's birth. Her father was a prosperous lawyer and politician.
With three rambunctious older brothers, Annie naturally developed a tough and competitive character. She was just as bright as her brothers, but during this era women had few career options besides teaching. Thus Annie chose to earn a teaching certificate at Rhode Island Normal School (now Rhode Island College), though being in the classroom was not her ultimate goal. After teaching high school students for a short time, she decided to continue her education. She wanted to attend Brown University in Providence as her father and brothers had, but she was refused admission due to her gender.
Undeterred, Annie applied to the University of Michigan and was accepted as one of its first female students. After earning her bachelor's degree, she took time off to teach at a high school before returning to the university. In 1881 she was awarded a master's degree, specializing in Greek. That same year, she was appointed as a professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to teach Latin, elocution, and German — one of the first women college professors in the nation.
Despite this achievement, Annie was determined to continue her studies as her brothers had. She saved up enough money to travel to Germany to study music and improve her German. After a year she moved to Greece, where she became the first woman to enroll at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. It was in Greece that she climbed her first two mountains. Before returning home, Annie visited Switzerland and saw the Alps, including the towering Matterhorn Peak, for the first time. It was a life-changing experience.
Annie later wrote, "My allegiance, previously given to the sea, was transferred for all time to the mountains, the Matterhorn securing the first place in my affections."
From that moment Annie wanted to climb mountains, despite having learned that many climbers died ascending the Matterhorn, including members of the team that first reached its summit in 1865. She learned it had been summited in 1871 by Lucy Walker — an Englishwoman who climbed wearing a white print dress — and later that year by Meta Brevoort — an American who reached the summit garbed in men's pants.
Back home, Annie's growing reputation as a scholar led to an offer to teach at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, but at this point she was hooked by the romance of adventure. Though Annie was happy, her conservative parents were upset by her independent nature and desire for further education. After they learned of their daughter's plans to become a mountain climber, they practically disowned her. These concerns did not deter Annie from pursuing her dreams.
In 1888, Annie and her brother George scrambled up Clouds Rest, a massive granite peak in California's Sierra Nevada range (now part of Yosemite National Park). Annie felt exhilarated by climbing, especially as she loped up Mount Shasta, a 14,162-foot-high volcano in Northern California. In 1895, wearing a hip-length woolen tunic, a wide-brimmed hat, baggy-kneed trousers normally worn by boys, and calf-length canvas puttees, Annie ascended the Matterhorn, becoming the third woman to standatop the famous peak. Both her mountaineering feat and her climbing costume earned Annie notoriety. During that period in America, in places such as Arkansas, women were being arrested for wearing bloomers (long, baggy pants). Annie's courage and audacity struck a chord with American women, who were seeking the right to vote, more social freedoms, and professional opportunities. The Singer Sewing Company gave away a photograph of Annie dressed in her climbing outfit with every sewing machine sold. This fame enabled Annie to earn her living by lecturing. On a placard that advertised her appearances, she proclaimed herself the "Queen of Climbing." Most women back then considered themselves old at the age of 45, but not Annie. She was poised to accomplish even more spectacular climbs of loftier peaks.
With payment she received from the New York World to write a newspaper story, Annie organized an expedition to the summits of Popocatepetl and Orizaba in Mexico. Despite these two volcanoes being much higher than the Matterhorn, ascending them was a less dangerous affair: neither required technical climbing on rock face. In 1897, when Annie reached the summit of Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America, she broke the record for the highest elevation yet attained by a female climber. When the ascent of Popocatepetl didn't match the "death defying" feat promoted by the newspaper, Annie's article described her climb as more dangerous than it actually was.
"My next thought was to do a little genuine exploration to conquer a virgin peak, to attain some height where no man had previously stood," Annie later wrote of her ambitions at this point in her life. She set her sights on South America, picking Sorata in Bolivia — thought at the time to be the highest peak on that continent. It took four long years for Annie to raise enough funds for the expedition, but finally on June 16, 1903, she boarded a ship bound for South America as the leader of her expedition. Traveling with her was a team of two experienced Swiss mountain guides and a professor of geology. The expedition's gear included compasses, four cameras, oxygen tanks, a camp stove, and rifles and handguns, as well as Admiral Robert E. Peary's Inuit suit, which he had brought back from the Arctic. The New York Times stated that Mount Sorata was estimated to be anywhere from 21,500 to 24,800 feet high. (It is now called Mount Illampu and is actually 20,892 feet high.)
Annie felt well prepared to reach the summit, but she was thwarted by the men in her expedition who turned back after reaching an elevation of more than 15,000 feet. The professor suffered from altitude sickness, and the sandal-clad porters understandably refused to trek through the deep snow. Annie was bitterly disappointed at having to turn back.
Annie's next choice was another high Peruvian peak, Huascarán, thought to be between 23,000 and 24,000 feet high. To get to this remote mountain region 450 miles south of Lima, Annie had to travel via train, boat, and finally on horseback to the town of Yungay. From there, at the foot of the mountain, she gazed upward in awe.
"The immense glacier below the peaks was so visibly and terribly cut by a multitude of crevasses that it seemed impossible for the most skillful, much less for men wholly inexperienced, to find a way through such a maze," Annie wrote of her coming challenge.
Locals doubted that the summit could be reached. Annie disregarded these apprehensions and departed on September 28, 1904, accompanied by a procession of well-wishers, including the governor and a local newspaper editor. Also along with her was an American man named Peter, whom she had hired to assist on the climb. By the fourth day of their ascent, they came within reach of the saddle between the twin peaks. Avalanches that cascaded down through the saddle forced them to switch to a more difficult route over rocky terrain. This ascent became worse when they were caught in a blizzard. Annie was determined to continue, but Peter refused to carry her climbing irons and camera, and the porters were unwilling to advance. Once again Annie was forced to retreat. But only five days after returning to Yungay, she set off again with five stalwart indigenous porters. As they neared the route to the saddle, their progress was slowed by a hazardous maze of crevasses and another blizzard. The several days needed to reach the summit required extensive climbing on ice and snow. Annie feared that her porters, who lacked warm clothing, would not survive the harsh conditions, so she turned back, vowing to make another attempt.
In less than two years Annie returned. This time she had funding from Harper's magazine in exchange for an article about her adventure. Both this climb and the next one were thwarted when porters refused to continue on to higher, more dangerous elevations, but Annie refused to give up. In August 1908 Annie returned to Yungay accompanied by two Swiss guides. On their first attempt, one of the guides, Rudolf, suffered from altitude sickness, and the other, more dependable guide, Gabriel, exhausted himself trying to do double duty. With just the one guide and two porters, Annie ascended to her highest point yet, the saddle between Huascar'n's twin peaks. Though they were within reach of the summit, it was too late in the day to press on. Gabriel was totally exhausted and their food supplies were nearly gone, so Annie decided to retreat.
Finally, at the end of August, Annie and her party set off once more. It was her sixth attempt, and she was more determined than ever to succeed. Though the final section of the climb below the summit was particularly treacherous, they climbed with extreme care and reached the summit in the late afternoon. Annie was elated but worried. She knew that descending in the dark would be particularly hazardous and that they must start back soon. She lingered to take photos from atop the peak but, anxious to make use of the remaining daylight, decided not to take time to measure the elevation.
Annie remembered the descent as "a horrible nightmare." During the 48 hours it took to get off the mountain, they went without food or water. Annie slipped multiple times but was securely roped to Gabriel, who held on tight. Meanwhile, Rudolf, the other guide, lost his gloves, and his hands became badly frozen. As soon as they reached Yungay, they rushed him to a doctor. The damage was so severe that the doctor had to amputate one hand, a finger from his other hand, and half of one foot to prevent his death from gangrene.
News of her triumphant ascent was cabled around the world. Annie, who was then almost 60 years old, was a greater celebrity than ever. But her overestimation of the true elevation of the peak caused a controversy. Her claim to have reached an elevation of 24,000 feet, a world record for any climber, man or woman, rankled another woman mountaineer, Fanny Bullock Workman, who had reached an elevation of 23,300 feet in the Himalayas. Fanny and her husband paid to have the height of Huascarán measured, and it was determined to be only 21,811 feet high. Annie was not happy with the news and later responded in her first book, "$13,000 seems a large sum to spend for the triangulation of a single mountain which it cost but $3,000 to climb. With $1,000 more for my expedition, I should have been able with an assistant to triangulate the peak myself."
For the next few years, Annie divided her time between writing a book about her climbing adventures in South America and attending rallies demanding voting rights for women. In 1911, when Annie ascended Nevado Coropuna, Peru's second highest peak, she planted a banner emblazoned with VOTES FOR WOMEN on the summit. Later that same year, her book 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 People Below was published.
Unlike other women explorers who came from prosperous families, Annie financed her bare-bones expeditions without her parents' help. As a woman expedition leader, she experienced additional hardships not endured by male leaders. The men on her climbing teams often ignored her suggestions and attempted to take advantage of her financially, but they soon became aware, as her friend Amelia Earhart stated, that "Miss Peck would make almost anyone appear soft." Annie Smith Peck made her mark as an independent and determined adventurer and entertaining author.
In 1928, when Annie was 78 years old, the northern peak of the Huascarán was named Cumbre Aña Peck in her honor. In 1929 she embarked on two years of air travel around South America, covering 20,000 miles, and at the age of 80 she wrote her fourthand final book about her travels in South America. A short time later, she climbed to the top of New Hampshire's Mount Madison. It was her last climb. In 1935 Annie had to cancel a 75-day world tour when her health deteriorated. She was nearly 85 years old and had seen the country change to one where women could not only wear pants to climb a mountain, but they could vote as well. After returning to Manhattan, Annie died at home on July 18.CHAPTER 2
WHERE PASSION LEADS
"I was always adventurous, and I thought seeing a volcano erupt sounded more interesting than going to some cold observatory somewhere." — Dr. Rosaly Lopes
In 1981 Italy's Mount Etna erupted explosively, spurting up jets of molten rock 600 feet into the sky. Within a period of six hours, lava had flowed two miles down the mountainside, covering acres of farmland. Fortunately, only a few homes were destroyed; most of the lava had flowed between the two villages below the mountaintop. As soon as news of the eruption reached London University, Rosaly Lopes and her professor, Dr. John Guest, along with the other scientists on the UK Volcanic Eruption Surveillance Team madly rushed to catch a flight to Sicily, Italy. Due to delays they arrived at Mount Etna after the eruption had apparently ceased.
As Rosaly and John walked up the volcano to investigate a new 50-foot-high cone, a sound like broken glass fragments rubbing against one another alerted them that lava was still moving. Just as John said, "This thing is not dead yet," the cone exploded, sending fiery lava bombs into the air. Rosaly peered above her, ready to dodge any falling lava that might come their way. John had instructed his students never to run, because it is safer to keep an eye on the falling fragments of glowing rock. She was thus surprised when he shouted, "Run!" Together they dashed downhill to safety. With his years of experience of being around erupting volcanoes, John had judged that the bombs hadn't shot out very far from the cone. Therefore he and Rosaly could get out of their range before they hit.
Excerpted from A World of her Own by Michael Elsohn Ross. Copyright © 2014 Michael Elsohn Ross. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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