Travel trailblazers: Gertrude Benham

The fact that there isn’t already a biopic about Gertrude “Truda” Emily Benham is an absolute mystery. Her life story is stuffed full of incredible anecdotes, her journals rich with luscious descriptions of her adventures. And yet, despite all of this, Benham is largely forgotten.

Benham was born in London in 1867, the youngest of six children, and instead of marrying (as expected of a Victorian woman) she devoted herself to nursing her parents until their death. After her mother passed away, Benham took her small inheritance and travelled straight to Canada, arriving in 1904 at the age of 36.

In Alberta was the Valley of Ten Peaks, which until recently had only been referred to by numbers in order of how tall they were. However, peak number one (or Hiji, as it was known in Nakoda language) was named after the American climber Charles Fay, who planned to be the first to climb it and decided to stake his claim a bit prematurely. After a series of misadventures for both climbers, including Benham accidentally climbing the wrong mountains (somehow) and Fay struggling with snow conditions, it was Benham who was first to climb Hiji. Disgruntled, Fay decided to settle on naming the second tallest peak after himself – only to learn that Benham had already beaten him to the punch there as well. Embarrassing.

In another story that’s just ripe for cinematic treatment, Benham was set on climbing Kilimanjaro in 1909. A German officer warned her that the peak “had never been climbed by any Britisher, man or woman, and very seldom by anyone else.” Later on her trek, after finding some skeletons of ill-fated predecessors, the porters gave up. Benham kept going, and in doing so became the first woman to reach the peak of Kilimanjaro.

Travelling was Benham’s passion in life. She sustained herself by selling needlework that she completed en route and she spent months living with local communities and wrote extensively about them. During the First World War, while stuck in Britain, her brief stint as a member of the Royal Geographical Society ended as her accounts of living within other cultures clashed with the “rational” approach taken by the other members. When British colonial rule in India attempted to limit passage into Tibet, Benham became such a thorn in the authorities’ side that they had an entire dossier on her and proclaimed her a “thorough nuisance.”

Over the course of her life Benham climbed over 300 mountains and circumnavigated the globe seven times, often crossing vast distances on foot. Part of the reason why few have ever heard of her is that she never sought fame or glory: she simply travelled because that was what she loved to do. When she finally died in 1938, she was 71 years old and three-quarters of the way through her eighth trip around the world. The boots she wore in Tibet are currently on display at the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, creased and worn down, the perfect representation of a no-frills woman who loved to explore.

Her spirit is best exemplified in this quote from 1928:

“I am never lonely. How can I be when there is so much to see and admire in the world?”


Featured image by Eberhard Grossgasteiger via Pexels. 

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