The name, Kilimanjaro” is nearly synonymous with the concept of the Victorian or Edwardian explorer in the pith helmet overcoming unimaginable danger and discomfort to push back the fog from the edges of human knowledge and win glory for themselves and their sponsors. Kilimanjaro is the epitome of the grand adventure hidden in the Heart of Darkness. The name, itself, might mean “The unconquerable mountain.”
In the 1860’s, westerners began trying to climb Kilimanjaro, but they were unsuccessful until 1889 when geologist, Hans Meyer summited Kibo and named the peak in honor of Kaiser Wilhelm (years later it was renamed Uhuru Peak). Meyer later attempted to reach the peak of Kibo’s little sister, Mawenzi but failed.
When you think of the Victorian/Edwardian pith-bedecked explorers, do you know what is missing from that image? Women.
Well, I was casting about on the Internet and came across the following blurb on some Kilimanjaro trivia site. It was the first I’d heard of Gertrude Benham.
Gertrude Benham (22) of London reached the top of Kilimanjaro, alone. Her porters, scared of melting snow thinking it was bewitched, chose to stay behind in an ice cave. It was thought she was ‘immune’ to mountain sickness.
22 years old! That’s almost a schoolgirl! Well, it turns out that Gertrude Benham had been a mountaineer and explorer since her schoolgirl years, having climbed Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn as a child with her father. I came across this later photo in an article about some of Benham’s exploits in Malawi.
Then imagine my delight when I found that British explorer and historian, Raymond Howgego had written an extensive biography of Gertrude Benham based on obscure primary sources, hand-written letters, and previously classified government documents. A long summary of Mr’ Howgego’s biography is available at his website. The following is an exciting excerpt from the section on her daring, solo ascent of Kilimanjaro!
From Nairobi in October 1909, Benham took the train to Voi, and at the mission house at Dabida waited three days while collecting porters for the westward trek across the Serengeti. After two day’s march, in intense heat and red dust, the porters drinking all their water by midday and becoming so exhausted that Benham had to walk behind to chivvy them along, they reached Boma and entered German territory. From here Benham could see the two great peaks of the mountain – Kibo, the higher at 5895 metres, glistening with snow. She stopped the night at the Moravian mission at Mamba, where she was advised to proceed to the German-occupied hill town of Moshi where she would find a guide capable of leading her up the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
Moshi is to be the Roaming Parkers’ base of operations for our ascent of Kilimanjaro in January 2018.
Climbing through dense forest intersected by deep ravines, she arrived the next evening at Moshi, where the officer in charge of a small contingent of German soldiers confirmed that Kilimanjaro ‘had never been climbed by any Britisher, man or woman, and very seldom by anyone else’. Benham started out from Moshi at 6.30 the next morning with five porters, two guides and a cook boy, hacking a path through dense forest.
Interestingly, that is almost the same ensemble of guides, porters, and cooks that the Roaming Parkers will have.
No precise dates are provided in the various accounts of the journey, which must have taken place October or early November 1909.
October, as part of one of the rainy seasons, is probably one of the worst times to make an attempt at climbing Kili, but could she have known that?
The first camp was pitched at 10,000 feet (3050 metres), just beyond the limit of the forest, and provided splendid views across the plains below. Leaving most of the luggage in a single tent, the party headed up the mountain, the porters carrying firewood and blankets, until two hours later they came across two skeletons of members of a previous expedition who had died from cold and exposure.
This reads like an Indiana Jones movie! We think we have it tough these days – look at what this young woman had to deal with, trekking into the unknown!
This discovery seriously unnerved the porters, who regarded it as confirmation for their belief that the mountain was the dwelling place of evil spirits. When no amount of arguing, threatening and bribing would convince the porters to go a step further, Benham shouldered the bags herself and started out alone. This action immediately shamed the cook boy and two of the more intrepid porters into following her, the remainder electing to stay behind and guard the camp. The snow line was reached 1200 metres below the summit, and an ice cave discovered where a previous expedition had made its camp. One of the boys collected some drifting snow, intending to take it home to show his friends and family, but when the snow began to melt in the heat of the camp fire, the guides thought it bewitched and resolutely refused to go any further.
Overnight camp was established in the ice cave, then on the next day, after one of the guides had pointed out the best route to the summit, Benham pressed on alone, passing 16,000 feet (4880 metres) and a short time later coming to glacier ice covered with drifting snow. Apparently immune from mountain sickness, and climbing alternately on rock and snow, she reached the rim of the crater at 2 pm, looking inside and taking care to step on rocks rather than snow that might be overhanging the cavity.
She made the climb during the daytime when the temperatures are somewhat higher. Consider that nowadays, climbers make the final ascent at night with headlamps so that the freezing temperatures will help to stabilize the volcanic scree by freezing it in place.
She reported: ‘My first feeling up there was that of being absolutely on top of the world’. The highest point seemed to be some distance ‘to the left’, but as there was ‘not much difference in height’, and ‘since the snow slope was steep’, she decided not to make for the higher peak but instead begin her descent. Navigating by compass through thick mist, and following the marks made by her ice axe on the way up, she managed to locate the camp in the ice cave, although only after glimpsing the bright red garments worn by the cook boy. By now her men had burned all the wood they had brought up, so a chilly night was spent in the ice cave. The early morning brought a fall of snow but conditions soon became beautifully clear, affording glorious views of mounts Kibo and Meru, Lake Jipe to the southeast, and beyond it the Ugweno Range. The descent brought the party back to the first camp at 11 am, and on the next day Benham’s porters arrived with food and provisions from the Moravian mission, together with a note of congratulation from the missionaries themselves. Benham dismissed her porters so as to remain alone at the camp for a further four days, sketching the magnificent views before descending to Moshi. After settling her accounts and paying off the guides, Benham returned via Taveta, from where the resident German commander, recorded only as ‘Captain L.’ took her on a tour to Lake Chala, a crater lake surrounded by sheer cliffs. Making her way back across the Serengeti, she arrived at Mwatate, packed her tent and such things she did not require, then walked to the railway station at Voi, from where a train brought her to Mombasa in November 1909. On 27 November she despatched a brief letter to The Times, recording her travels and her ascent of Kilimanjaro, then at Mombasa boarded a cargo steamer which would take her to Madagascar and Mauritius.
Benham had actually summited Mawenzi (you remember Kibo’s little sister?) which had stumped the famous Hans Meyer who is credited with being the first to reach Kibo’s peak.
It’s kind of curious that she expressed no severe difficulty ascending Mawenzi, which had stopped Meyer, but she declined (wisely) to continue to the peak of Kibo. But Meyer had climbed Kibo (it took him 3 tries) but failed at Mawenzi.
That suggests to me that Meyer and Benham must have been of a similar level of expertise because when people are performing at the very edge on any given day one expert might succeed where the other fails or vice-versa.
The virtually unknown Gertrude Benham was certainly the most widely-traveled female explorer/adventurer during the pith-age and might have even been the most widely-traveled explorer including the guys. Her contributions to humanity’s knowledge of our world were incalculable. You should definitely go read up on the long version of Mr. Howgego’s biography of Benham at his website or purchase a copy of the full version!