October 07, 1985 12:00 PM

by Elizabeth Fagg Olds

Annie Smith. Peck was 57 when, in 1908, she became the first person to climb the 21,812-foot northern peak of Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru and one of the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. Like Peck, three other women who arc also the focus of this fascinating book battled not only exotic, dangerous environments, but early 20th-century public opinion, which regarded their adventure some spirit with a mixture of grudging admiration and disapproval. Olds’ four biographical sketches chronicle the exploits of Peck, amateur anthropologist and ethologist Delia Akeley, documentary filmmaker (and post-World War I U.S. spy) Marguerite Harrison and Arctic explorer Louise Boyd. Akeley was a Midwestern farm girl; the others were wealthy socialites. Their common denominator, in an age when serious scientific endeavor belonged almost exclusively to men, was their gender. Despite their trailblazing activities, each woman strove to preserve her femininity, even in the wilderness. Peck wore manly but practical knickers (earlier women climbers had worn skirts), yet Akeley sported silk underwear beneath her jungle attire. Olds’ accounts of particular incidents—Akeley’s efforts to stave off Belgian Congolese who were curious to discover whether her entire body was as white as her arms and face, for example—prove to be far more compelling than more general sections summarizing their travels. Olds also makes too little use of quotes from the women’s own writing. But she does demonstrate that their feats were milestones for womankind—and mankind too. (Houghton Mifflin, $17.95/$8.95)

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