How Gertrude Emily Benham’s climb has been overlooked in the history books as the first woman to climb Kilimanjaro
Gertrude benham Kilimanjaro

Gertrude Emily Benham was an English climber and adventurer who lived from July 1867 to February 1938. She was the youngest of six children and was born in London. She started mountain climbing as a young girl. She continued on to scale mountains on nearly all continents. In addition, Benham was a daring hiker who traveled by foot from Valparaiso, Chile, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. She continued her journey by hiking across Kenya and across Africa.

Benham also sketched while she was traveling, and her images were ultimately used to map the nations she visited. Benham never spent more than 250 British pounds a year traveling, either alone or with local guides. She was inducted as a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in 1916.

She scaled more than 300 mountains during the course of her lifetime. She made history by being the first woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

In her honor, Truda Peaks was given the name of a peak on Mount Rogers in Glacier National Park in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. The Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery is featuring her climbing boots.

Gertrude passed away in 1938 while traveling by ship from Africa to England.

Few of the history books of Kilimanjaro even mention Gertrude Emily Benham, despite the fact that her ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro alone ought to have cemented her place in history.

All-male groups had begun making attempts to ascend the mountain in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until 6 October 1889 that a team commanded by Hans Meyer succeeded in reaching the top of what was then known as “Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze,” today known as Uhuru Peak on Kibo.

Compared to the early 1900s, when the mountain’s summits were covered in deep snow and climbers might quite easily lose their lives to unexpected blizzards that may sweep across the infamous upper slopes without notice, climate change has made the mountain much more approachable to current climbers.

When she traveled with Lieutenant Walter von Ruckteschell, an artist and army officer from St. Petersburg, in February 1914, it is generally believed that she was the first woman at the peak (1882-1941). It appears that the Von Rukteschells were unable to climb to the top of Kibo.

The twenty-two-year-old Londoner Sheila Macdonald (later Mrs. Sheila Combe), who on July 31, 1927, climbed the summit of Kibo in the company of William C. West, a member of the Alpine Club, is usually recognized as the first British woman to have earned this distinction.

Read about Sheila McDonald, the first woman to climb Kilimanjaro

Despite multiple previous failed attempts, the renowned geographer Clement Gillman appears to have been the first British man to successfully finish the ascent (1882-1946).

Benham and Gillman may have started their ascents of the peak about the same time in 1909, but Gillman didn’t appear to reach the top until 1921.

Unfortunately, Benham was in the West Indies and The Times was already several weeks old when she first heard of Macdonald’s rise. She was barely able to bother herself at that point to refute the story, but a friend told the press about her climb eighteen years previously.

Under the alias “West African,” this acquaintance, who Benham had met in Nigeria in 1913 and who may have been the colonial officer Selwyn Grier, wrote to The Times to announce Benham’s ascension and to make a brief observation about her 1913 journey across Africa.

A small piece published in the Daily Mail in February 1928 provided a slightly delayed description of Benham’s climb up Kilimanjaro.

Although Miss Gertrude Benham reached the rim of the crater, approximately two to three hours below the top, and never claimed to have gone any higher, a certain Colonel E.L. Strutt wrote to The Times in 1931 confirming Sheila Macdonald’s claim to have been the first woman to climb the mountain. In actuality, Strutt had every right to award Macdonald the honor.

As the second-highest of Kilimanjaro’s three summits (5149 meters or 16,890 feet), Benham had reached the brink of the crater now known as Mawenzi.

In contrast to Benham’s claim that there is “not much difference in height,” the highest peak, Kibo, has a height of 5895 meters (19,340 feet), and now requires a difficult approach through loose, exposed scree. Given another day, Benham could have succeeded, but contemporary climbers prefer to make the last attack at night or in the early hours of the morning when the scree is frozen together.

Benham’s Kilimanjaro Climb in 1909

Benham landed at Moshi in October or November of 1909 when German troops affirmed that “neither a Britisher, man or woman, nor very seldom anyone else” had ever scaled Kilimanjaro. She hired two guides, five porters, and a “kitchen boy,” and at 6:30 in the morning she left for Kilimanjaro. At 10,000 feet, they set up camp after hacking their way through the jungle. They pitched a tent there to store most of their belongings before continuing up the mountain with the porters lugging firewood and blankets. They came upon two skeletons belonging to previous expedition casualties two hours later. The porters were alarmed by this because they thought it supported their notion that bad spirits lived on the mountain.

Benham carried her own suitcase and headed off on her own after the porters refused to go on despite her pleas, threats, and offers of money. The kitchen boy and two of the more intrepid porters, who followed her, felt ashamed. In an ice cave, the smaller group set up camp. In order to show his family at home, the child gathered some snow in a cup. The guides refused to climb any higher as it began to melt by the fire because they believed it to be possessed.

Benham left alone the following morning after a guide showed him the way to the peak. At 2:00 pm, she arrived at the crater’s rim and recalled her initial impression of being “completely on top of the world.”

The highest point, according to the narrative she recorded of her ascent, was a little way “to the left,” but since there wasn’t much of a height difference and “since the snow slope was steep,” she chose to descend rather than attempt the higher peak. She was able to find the camp in the ice cave despite the dense mist by following the traces she had left with her ice axe, but only after recognizing the cook boy’s bright red clothing. Everyone stayed in the ice cave for a chilly night before descending to the first camp the next day.

Benham sent the porters and guides down before her and stayed in camp by herself for a further four days, sketching the scenery before departing for Moshi.

According to her biographer Raymond John Howgego, Benham reached the top of Mawenzi, the second-highest peak on Kilimanjaro at 5149 meters (behind Kibo, 5896m). Although I haven’t been able to read Benham’s own account, what Howgego quoted (see above) does make me wonder if she was on Kibo and reached what is now Gillman’s Point or even Stella Point… both on the crater rim, and from which the highest point would be “to the left” but “not much different in height.” But since we don’t know anything about Benham, that’s simply wild conjecture.

The omission of Gertrude Emily Benham from the history of Mount Kilimanjaro is regrettable. The other female climbers who have been recognized as “firsts” have all been European males. Even yet, it was little noticed until she sent a letter to The Times in late November 1909 outlining her adventures and climb of Kilimanjaro. Benham read about Sheila MacDonald, “the first woman to summit Kilimanjaro,” eighteen years later, in 1927. A friend then wrote a letter under the alias “West African” with details on Benham’s own ascent.

The Daily Mail published a brief story on Benham’s climb in 1909 and finally in 1928. Colonel Strutt then wrote to The Times to corroborate Macdonald’s claim that she was the first woman to reach the summit, stating, “Miss Gertrude Benham, circa 1911 [sic], reached the rim of the crater — some two to three hours below the peak — and never claimed to have gone any higher.”

However, a footnote on a German Wikipedia article appears to support my crazy theory that Benham was on Kibo rather than Mawenzi based on other locations mentioned in her account.

Gertrude Benham, the ultimate mountain climber

Benham learned to be a talented climber while spending her summers as a youngster climbing in the Alps with her father. In her twenties, she reached the summits of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.

Benham embarked on the first of many journeys she would undertake during her life in 1904 after inheriting some money from her parents’ estate in order to climb in the Rockies.

She made seven complete circumnavigations of the planet between 1904 and 1934, stopping in a variety of places including Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, India, Egypt, Corsica, the United States, Argentina, Uganda, Kenya, Tahiti, Nigeria, Mozambique, Cameroon, Tibet, Syria, the West Indies, Belize, Peru, and Chile.

She gathered ethnographic items along the trip, many of which she gave to the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

(You may wonder why there. According to reports, Benham had previously visited the museum and was so moved by its exhibits that she felt it would be the ideal location for her enormous collection to be left.)

The museum appears to be closed while undergoing renovations, however, some of the artifacts are viewable at Plymouth’s World Cultures website, including this coffee pot that Benham collected in Zanzibar and donated.

The BBC’s “A History of the World” programme included a pair of Tibetan boots that Benham wore “on my tramps to Leh” in 2010.

Benham was assisted by porters and guides while he went “alone” in the Victorian sense. While traveling, she took copious notes, drew pictures, and even stitched and knitted, picking up her needles whenever she tented in unfriendly locations. A woman of my own heart, without a doubt!

Benham set off on her last tour in 1935. In 1938, she passed away aboard a boat off the coast of East Africa, and she was buried at sea. I think she wanted to pass away on an adventure, which is probably what happened.

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