Even as we fix our eyes on the future of women’s exploration and adventure, let’s not forget those who blazed the trail behind us. Whether it was climbing Long’s Peak well before it was a standard route, pushing through a broken rib to collect plants, fighting for suffrage and climbing in pants, traveling to France for a pilot’s license, or ascending the Seven Summits, these five women paved the way to “firsts,” new discoveries, and shattered ceilings.
Isabella Bird (1831-1904)
Born in 1831 in North Yorkshire, once riddled with health and spinal issues, Isabella Bird became a prolific adventurer, writer, naturalist and the first woman to be selected as a Fellow to the Royal Geographical Society. Writing for publications from the age of 16, Bird travelled to America in 1854 and wrote her first book An Englishwoman in America, jumpstarting her traveling career. In 1872, she visited Hawaii and climbed Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both active volcanoes.
There’s plenty of lore about Bird’s expeditions: the time she rode horseback through a blizzard with her eyes frozen shut, when she spent months snowed in at a cabin, or when she was pursued by a one-eyed outlaw in the Rocky Mountains. In 1873, Bird headed to the newest state in the union, Colorado, because of its “healing air.” With the help of Jim Nugent, Bird ascended Long’s Peak, a 14’er that kills hikers to this day, and her book on Rocky Mountain National Park helped propel the conservation movement in the later 19th century.
Following Colorado, Bird trekked through the Hokkaido region of Japan with a translator and lived among Ainu tribe, the indigenous people of the island. In 1888, Bird explored India, where she founded a hospital, and Tibet, and then made her way to Tehran, half-dead, with Major Herbert Sawyer, only to continue alone for six months through Iran, Kurdistan, and Turkey. From Korea to Manchuria to Siberia, Bird documented and photographed the issues of the late 19th century where she almost drowned, broke ribs, was attacked by a mob, and witnessed decapitated heads. Just before her death in 1904, she travelled to Morocco to live with the Berbers and was gifted a black stallion from the Sultan
Her writing and photography were featured in journals and magazines for decades. Bird paved the way for the female adventurer in the 20th century while also developing the role of the photojournalist. As the Spectator commented: “There never was anybody who had adventures as well as Miss Bird.”
Annie Peck (1850-1935)
“I decided in my teens that I would do what one woman could to show that women had as much brains as men and could do things as well if she gave them her undivided attention.”
As a founding member of the American Alpine Club and a prolific climber and suffragette, women’s ability to climb any mountain held Annie Peck’s attention. Graduating from Rhode Island Normal School in 1872, Peck reached the common education level for a woman of her time but refused to slow her academic career. Through ambition and determination, Peck enrolled at the University of Michigan, which had just opened its door to women. Graduating with honors in 1878 in Greek and classical languages, Peck quickly earned her master’s in Greek and was the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
At thirty-five, academic endeavors left Peck searching for a new challenge, and she picked up the newly formed sport of mountain climbing, without oxygen tanks or supportive equipment, during her time as a lecturer at Smith College. She began with smaller, technical passes that quickly led to larger climbs like Mt. Shasta. In 1892, Peck began a lecture circuit that enabled her to climb in the central and south Americas, climbing Pico de Orizaba and Popocatepetl. At 44, Peck became the third woman to climb the Matterhorn but the first to do so in pants. Soon, Peck’s lectures became as much about her climbing as her academic interests and wrote “Apex for the Search of America.”
At 50, Peck was the first person to climb the north peak of Peruvian Nevada Huascaran (21,000+ ft). Her books of her travels and anthropology bolstered tourism of the Americas and led to Peru naming the north peak “Cumbre Ana Peck.” Peck was a leader in the suffrage movement and climbed Peru’s Mt. Coropuna in 1909 to plant a “votes for women” flag at the top. At 82, her last ascent was New Hampshire’s Mt. Madison.
A dirt-bag at heart, Annie Peck is attributed with saying: “my home is where my trunk is.”
Ynes Mexia (1870-1938)
“She was the true explorer type and happiest when independent and far away from civilization. She always made light of privations and dangers.” – T. Harper Goodspeed
Ynes Mexia is proof that it’s never too late to be a trailblazer. Ynes Mexia’s childhood was tumultuous – bouncing from Washington D.C. to Texas and, finally, to her father’s house in Mexico City in her teenage years. By thirty-four, Mexia was operating a poultry and stock-raising farm in Mexico City when she married a man much younger who worked for her. After essentially running the business into the ground, Mexia divorced her husband and fled to San Francisco to start a new life away from her business failure, marriage troubles, and father’s conniving mistress and stepson.
Plagued with depression, Mexia began hiking with the Sierra Club and discovered her love of botany. She began to take courses in natural science at Berkeley and embarked on her first botanist exploration in Western Mexico at the age of 55 with mentor Roxanna Ferris. Mexia may have fractured her ribs and hands from falling off a cliff in the search of plants, but she still returned with five hundred specimens, several new to science.
Working with Agnes Chase and Alice Eastwood, Mexia collected thousands of plant specimens from the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, and Peru. Many of her specimens, over 150,000, were deposited to the California Academy of Sciences, and scientists are still analyzing the genera she provided, as many as fifty new species and two new genera. Before her death in 1938, Mexia wrote extensively of her wild expeditions, pushing even her guides to their limits, like “Camping on the Equator” and “Three Thousand Miles up the Amazon.”
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, to a family of sharecroppers, Bessie spent most of her childhood supporting her mother by taking care of the household and her younger sisters when her father, George Coleman, left for Oklahoma in search of better opportunities. Completing the customary eight grades of education, Bessie saved and enrolled in 1910 at the “Colored Agricultural and Normal University” in Langston but ran out of money with one term left. Aspiring to “amount to something,” Bessie left for Chicago at 23, fleeing the Jim Crow laws of the South, and found whatever odd jobs she could before settling in as a manicurist. After five years in Chicago, witnessing her brother return from WWI and race riots, Bessie still felt the urge to do something greater took her brother’s teasing about French women flying to heart and decided to become a pilot.
When Coleman struggled to find someone in the states to teach her, she attended aviation school for seven months in 1920 in France at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudon. Flying the French Nieuport Type 82, she received her license from FAI in 1921, the first black woman to earn a license from the prestigious guild and the only woman out of 62 candidates that term. Upon return, Bessie performed air stunts for paying audiences while billed as “the world’s greatest woman flyer” by the Chicago Defender. Coleman pursued a range of opportunities: a brief movie career, a school for aviators, a beauty shop, and a lecture series. Defying racial and gender barriers, she toured across Texas, flying, parachuting jumping, and lecturing about aviation, all the while refusing to perform if the audience was not desegregated.
After years of hard work and investment, Bessie finally secured her own personal plane in April of 1926. But excitement turned to tragedy as the plane malfunctioned during a test flight and the piloting mechanic lost control of the plane sending Bessie several hundred feet to her death from the open cockpit. In her homage, William J. Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929, which educated and inspired fliers like the Tuskegee Airmen. Bessie Coleman now has a road named after her, a day in Chicago in her honor, and a commemorative stamp for her advancements.
Junko Tabei (1939-2016)
“I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest – it’s only a mountain.”
As a “weak child,” born in 1939 in Miharu, Japan, Junko Tabei was introduced to hiking at the age of ten on a class trip to Mt. Asahi and Mt. Chausu. After earning an English degree in Tokyo, Tabei abandoned her teaching plans to work odd jobs in support of her mountaineering career.
In 1969, Tabei, looking for female companionship on her climbs, started the “Ladies Climbing Club: Japan,” whose slogan read “‘let’s go on an overseas expeditions by ourselves” and was the first of its kind in Japan. Tabei recounts that she started the club after men refused to hike with her and accused her of using her climbs as a trap to find a husband.
In 1975, Tabei’s group JWEE, the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition, attempted Everest after Tabei and Eiko Hisano successfully summited Annapurna III in 1970. The group consisted of 15 working women, including two mothers, who had to pay nearly a year’s wages to make the trip after sponsors repeatedly told them they should be raising children instead. While camping at 6,3000 meters, an avalanche struck the camp, and Tabei lost consciousness for six minutes before being dug out. Twelve days later, Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Everest and was awarded the Gurkha-Dakshina-Bahu medal from the King of Nepal.
Following this, Tabei became the first woman to climb the Seven Summits in 1992: Everest (1975), Kilimanjaro (1980), Aconcagua (1987), Denali (1988), Elbrus (1989), Vinson Massif (1991), and Carstensz Pyramid (1992). In 2000, Tabei received a master’s in comparative social culture at Kyushu University where she studied the environmental impacts of garbage and human waste left by climbers. She directed the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan and served on the council of the Japanese Alpine Club and the Ministry of Environment. In 2012, after being diagnosed with cancer, Tabei continued to climb across across the globe and lead students up Mt. Fuji each summer. Junko Tabei passed away on October 20, 2016 but left behind a legacy of inspiration.
Haley Littleton is a writer, editor, and outdoor enthusiast living in Summit County, Colorado. Haley received her M.A. in Literary Theory from the University of Denver where she focused on environmental narratives. She is an editor for Outdoor Women’s Alliance and her work has been featured in Adventure Projects, Alpine Modern Magazine, Dwell Magazine, Elevation Outdoors, Outdoor Project, She Explores, and Ruminate Magazine among others.