People Finder

Photo: Gertrude Benham in Nyasaland, Africa (1913)

Gertrude Benham


Gertrude Benham was an amazing woman. Born in England, she was reported to have made 130 ascents in the Alps before her only visit to the Canadian Rockies in 1904. Arriving in June it was her intention to spend the summer climbing in the Rockies and then travel to New Zealand in October. She certainly had a busy summer.

She generally climbed with Hans Kaufmann and Christian Kaufmann as guides and during her summer in Canada Gertrude reached the summits of many of the major peaks in the Rockies including Mount VictoriaMount LefroyMount StephenMount AssiniboineMount BalfourCharles Fay briefly crossed, the professor was an established mountaineer and had spent several successful seasons in the Rockies. Apparently the Geographic Board of Canada had asked Fay to select a mountain which he would like to be named in his honour. Heejee (Peak #1) in the Valley of the Ten Peaks was chosen and Professor Fay was determined to make the first ascent of the mountain that was to carry his name. But Gertrude Benham had her eye on this spectacular peak as well.

On July 19th she and Christian Kaufmann climbed the icy "Hourglass" couloir between Peaks #3 and #4 and reached a summit which they took to be Heejee. Upon their return to Moraine Lake it was pointed out to them by Walter Wilcox that the mountain which they had climbed was, in fact, not Heejee. The determined Miss Benham and Christian Kaufmann resolved to again ascend the couloir and make the first ascent of Heejee the next day but... Professor Fay and Hans Kaufmann were planning to make the first ascent that day as well.

Both parties set out but Professor Fay and Hans Kaufmann found difficult snow conditions and rock fall on their route above Consolation Lakes and were forced to abandon the attempt. Gertrude and Christian were successful. Professor Fay was very annoyed with this turn of events, writing later in a letter to Charles Thompson, "I should probably have made the first ascent on the new Mount FayMount LittleChristian Hasler jr. and Frederick Michel. Although Professor Fay did not make the first ascent of the mountain, his grandson completed the first ascent of the northeast ridge of Mount Fay in 1961.

Probably Gertrude Benham's most remarkable achievement was an incredible day which saw Gertrude and the Kaufmann Brothers setting out from Lake Louise at midnight, crossing Abbot Pass between Mount Lefroy and Mount Victoria (2922 metres), descending to Lake O'Hara, ascending Cataract Valley and climbing to the summit of Mount Stephen (3199 metres) by a previously unclimbed ridge, and descending to the Town of Field by lantern light arriving at 3:00 am. Thirty-five kilometres of travel involving a total elevation gain of a staggering 2800 vertical metres were involved in this very long (27 hours) day's effort.

Gertrude went on to climb in New Zealand and Japan before returning to England via Australia and India. She visited the Alps a total of seventeen times. Later she crossed central Africa four times and visited the Himalayas on several occasions. During her 1913 trip to Africa she crossed the continent from west to east, the trip taking eleven months. She travelled alone, hiring different groups of natives to carry her supplies as she progressed.An all-round lady, she also did embroidery and knitting, made her own clothes, painted, and collected wildflowers. She died at sea at the age of seventy-one while returning from one of her solo trip across Africa.

[Additional Information: Smith, Cyndi. "Off the Beaten Track". Lake Louise: Coyote Books, 1989]


[Additional Information: Smith, Cyndi. "Off the Beaten Track". Lake Louise: Coyote Books, 1989]