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Queen of the Climbers

A new book unearths the little-known story of a 19th-century female mountain climber with a taste for self-promotion

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Annie Smith Peck, mountain climber, archaeology enthusiast, descendent of Roger Williams and master of self-branding, saved all of her correspondence. Convinced that her story deserved to be told, Peck demanded that her friends and family return the letters she sent them.

Despite such voluminous records, however, Peck’s legacy was long obscured by bizarre and sometimes violent events. Peck’s first aspiring biographer committed suicide. Her second died from complications caused by a car accident. Jonathan Valentino, whose family owned the house where Peck’s records ended up, began selling the collection on eBay, piece by piece. Then Hannah Kimberley, academic and author of the newly released A Woman’s Place Is at the Top, the first published biography of Peck, stepped in.

Upon discovering Peck in graduate school, Kimberley had been drawn to the mountain climber’s “stick-to-it-ive-ness and pluck.” Peck, she points out, “was a real late bloomer. She started college late, she started teaching late, she started lecturing late, she started mountain-climbing late. She was 58 when she climbed her highest peak, and 82 when she climbed her last one.”

Peck’s drive to leave a mark on the world, even as her first aspiring biographer could not sell the book he’d written about her, affected Kimberley “on a weird personal level”: “Because Annie really wanted it written,” she says, “I really felt like someone should do one for her.”

“I promised this woman that I would write her story,” she told Valentino, begging him to remove Peck’s records from eBay. The two struck up a correspondence and a few years later, Valentino had given her the archives to keep.

Peck, related to Roger Williams on her mother’s side, grew up on North Main Street in the 1850s and 60s and attended Providence High School. Her father, uncle and brothers matriculated at Brown and Peck could often be found on campus, although she was forbidden to attend: Higher education was considered bad for women’s health because it siphoned energy from their reproductive organs.

After earning several graduate degrees outside of Rhode Island, Peck began to offer private lessons and lectures, one of the few lucrative undertakings for a female academic at the time, on classics and archaeology. She also began to climb mountains, which gave her fodder for these lectures and kept her audiences riveted. Soon, she was gaining a reputation as one of the few female mountain climbers (who climbed in pants, no less), and often did not bother to correct false accounts of her valor and record breaking. In the days before social media, this was a woman who knew how to work the press in order to brand herself as she competed with other climbers to scale the highest mountains.

“It’s a real relief,” Kimberley says, to have concluded her decade-long exploration of Peck’s life. “There you go, Annie,” she says. “There’s your story.”  The book is available from St. Martin’s Press and Kimberley will be speaking at the Brown bookstore in September.