Annie Smith Peck, born in 1850, was a mountaineer, an educator and a suffragist who broke many glass ceilings during her lifetime. She was a pioneering figure who paved the way for women in fields exclusively dominated by men and supported equal rights for women in education. Her vocal effort for women’s empowerment and equality was accompanied by many mountaineering expeditions. In 1908, she became the first woman to conquer Mt. Huascarán, the highest peak in Peru. In honor of her achievement, the northern peak of the mountain is today named “Cumbre Aña Peck.”
In her latest biography, “A Woman’s Place Is at the Top,” author Hannah Kimberley explores the life of Annie Smith Peck. Kimberley’s portrayal of Peck’s life shows that her expeditions were not mere adventures or explorations, but rather a series of determined efforts to overcome the barriers of gender inequality. In this interview with GlacierHub, Kimberley shares her writing process, as well as the research she did for the book.
GlacierHub: How did you come across Annie Smith Peck, and what about her fascinated you to write a biography?
Hannah Kimberley: I first saw Annie Peck on a poster from an antique shop. It showed Annie in her signature climbing costume and read, “A Woman’s Place Is at the Top: Annie Smith Peck, Mountain Climber, Scholar, Suffragist, Authority on North-South American Relations.” And I thought, who was this woman, and why have I never heard of her before? I started digging and ended up on a long and exciting journey to find out more.
GH: What did it mean at the time for Annie to become the first women to conquer Mount Huascarán in Peru?
HK: At the turn of the century, many climbers were still searching for “virgin peaks,” or unclimbed mountains. At the same time, they sought to break records in altitude. The fact that Annie reached the top of Huascarán, which was 1,500 feet higher than Mount Denali, and she was a woman, was viewed as a remarkable feat at the time. She also happened to be 58 years old when she reached the summit. Even today, we have odd thoughts about what’s appropriate for what women (much less 58-year-old women) can and should do. The answer, as we know, is that they can do anything.
GH: How did you find all the original letters written by and to Annie? Which one were you particularly fascinated by?
HK: Most of Annie’s letters, diaries, ephemera, etc. are housed at Brooklyn College Library’s Archives and Special Collections. There was also a second archive, The Valentino Collection, that I used for the book. This second archive is now also housed at Brooklyn College, as the Valentino family has since donated their materials to the college. It’s too long of a story to tell here about how I found all the materials; it’s like a Nancy Drew story, in fact.
The letters that fascinated me the most were ones in which ordinary folks were writing about seemingly ordinary events like the Mexican Revolution or Hitler’s rise in Germany as the events were happening in real time. It gave me so much more perspective than what I had read about in books. Many of the letters made history come alive for me, and that was really special.
GH: It was really interesting to see how you incorporated all the original writings (e.g. letters) and interviews to your own writing, as well as some interviews. Was this process difficult? Why did you think it was necessary to add some of them?
HK: Annie really wanted her story to be told. She hired an author in 1934 to write her biography; however, he never could garner any interest in the project. Unfortunately, he died without writing it. Once it was my turn to try to get her story out into the world, I knew that I wanted to incorporate Annie’s voice as much as possible. At the same time, I don’t think there’s any escaping looking at history through a contemporary lens, and so I tried to celebrate Annie’s achievements while pointing out that she was a product of her era and a flawed, complicated human being, as are we all.
GH: Once you were done with your research on Annie, did the writing come naturally or was it harder than expected? What about the writing process made it difficult?
HK: I did a lot of upfront research on Annie, so once I started writing, things just flowed. Her archive is huge. After reading 240 linear feet of diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, articles, and manuscripts that Annie generated over a lifetime, I got to know her pretty well— maybe more than some people in my own life.
GH: What was the biggest surprise while doing your research on Annie Smith Peck?
HK: There were lots of surprises along the way, but I really enjoyed how she connected to people in history with whom I was already familiar. For instance, she once rocked up to the White House and remarked to the attendant that she thought President Roosevelt would like to see her. The attendant said he had no doubt that the president would like to see Annie, and she visited with Roosevelt the following weekend. There is also correspondence in the archive between Annie and all sorts of statesmen including the consuls general of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay, and the president of Peru.
GH: What was the most satisfying to you about this project, including your research on Annie, as well as the writing process itself?
HK: The most satisfying part was getting the book out into the world. Annie always wanted it, and I got to deliver her wish. There is a great rejection letter to Annie’s first biographer from Russell Doubleday, who said that he was not interested in publishing a biography on Annie. The letter was dated August 1, 1935, and my book came out on the exact same date— 82 years later. You can call it coincidence, but I believe it was meant to be.
GH: How have people been responding to your book?
HK: The book has gotten some nice press and good reviews. My most popular interview so far has been with Meghna Chakrabarti on NPR’s Here and Now. I especially like it when I get to give talks about Annie and sign books for people. I have signed a lot of books for climbers, teachers, teenagers, grandparents— all who have gotten the same message from it, which is to never let gender, age (or anything else for that matter) get in the way of what you want to accomplish. The saleswoman at my local bookstore said that a father and daughter were in her shop, and he pointed to my book, read the words, “A Woman’s Place Is at the Top,” and said to his child, “Remember this title, always.” Those are the moments that inspire me.
GH: If there is one thing, among many others, you want the readers to think about while reading the book, what would it be?
HK: Annie was constantly told no. She was told she could not remain single. She was told she could not go to college. She was told she could not participate in politics. She was told she could not break records. And she was told that she most certainly could not climb mountains. For each no, she said, “Yes I can,” and then she did it.
There will always be rejections. Don’t let them stop you; find a way to do what you want in spite of them. It will make you happier, I promise.