Name ID 2276
Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector
Page Number: 8
Extract Date: 1909
Benham’s ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro should alone have written her into the record books, but few of the histories of the mountain even mention her name.
Attempts to climb the mountain by all-male parties had started back in the 1860s, but it was not until 6 October 1889 that a team under the direction of Hans Meyer reached the summit of what was called ‘Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze’, now known as Kibo.
Climate change has rendered the mountain far more accessible to modern climbers than it was in the early 1900s, when snow lay thickly on its peaks and climbers could quite easily sacrifice their lives to the sudden blizzards that could sweep without warning across the notorious higher slopes.
It is generally assumed that a certain Frau (Clara?) von Ruckteschell was the first woman on the mountain when, in February 1914, she accompanied the St Petersburg-born army officer and artist, Lieutenant Walter von Ruckteschell (1882-1941). It appears that the Von Rukteschells failed to reach the Kibo summit.
The first British woman generally recognised as having achieved this distinction was the twenty-two-year-old Londoner, Sheila Macdonald (later Mrs Sheila Combe), who on 31 July 1927 reached the summit of Kibo in the company of William C. West, a member of the Alpine Club.
The first British male to complete the ascent, despite numerous earlier failed attempts, appears to have been the celebrated geographer Clement Gillman (1882-1946). Gillman possibly made his first assault on the mountain as early as 1909, about the same time as Benham, but apparently did not reach the summit until 1921.
Unfortunately, when Benham first saw the report of Macdonald’s ascent in The Times, she was in the West Indies and the newspaper was already several weeks old. By that time she could hardly be troubled to contradict the report, leaving it to a friend to inform the newspaper of her ascent eighteen years earlier.
This friend, whom Benham had met in Nigeria in 1913 and was possibly the colonial officer Selwyn Grier, wrote to The Times under the pseudonym ‘West African’, reporting Benham’s ascent and commenting briefly on her 1913 crossing of Africa. A somewhat belated account of Benham’s ascent of Kilimanjaro was carried by a brief article in the Daily Mail in February 1928.
However, in 1931 a certain Colonel E.L. Strutt wrote to The Times supporting Sheila Macdonald’s claim to have been the first woman to conquer the peak, stating: ‘Miss Gertrude Benham, about 1911 [sic], reached the rim of the crater – some two-three hours below the summit – and never claimed to have gone any higher’. In fact Strutt was perfectly justified in passing the accolade to Macdonald.
Benham had reached the edge of the crater now known as Mawenzi (5149 metres or 16,890 feet), which is the second highest of Kilimanjaro’s three peaks. Rather than being, as Benham put it, ‘not much difference in height’, the higher peak, Kibo, stands at 5895 metres or 19,340 feet, and nowadays involves a challenging ascent over lose open scree. Benham might have accomplished this, given another day, but modern climbers prefer to make the final assault at night or in the early morning when the scree is frozen together.