Overlooked No More: Gertrude Benham, Who Climbed the World One Mountain at a Time

“I am never lonely,” she told The Daily News of New York in 1928. “How can I be when there is so much to see and admire in the world?”

She financed her trips with a budget of about 250 pounds a year, the equivalent of about $13,000 today, trading embroidery and calico for food along the way. For entertainment she carried books: a pocket Shakespeare (for drama), Richard D. Blackmore’s “Lorna Doone” (for romance) and a copy of the Bible (for spiritual uplift).

She displayed little interest in the conventions of her peers — she never married, for instance — but her adventurous lifestyle did not always gain her favor.

Her efforts to enter Tibet by a forbidden route several times led the governing Anglo-Indian administration to create a special file on her. In one of many letters Benham wrote on the matter, she tried to convince officials that she wasn’t, as they believed, a nettling presence. Rather, she wrote, she was “a very quiet and harmless traveler.”

Benham documented her treks in journals, sketches and photographs, many of which are on display alongside her boots at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. She also collected plants along the routes she hiked. She was elected to become a member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1916, a prestigious academic network that funded and published geographical research. But she resigned within six months, after her lively descriptions of local people and scenic views rankled the society’s more science-minded writers.

Benham’s last expedition was in 1935, to study the natural landscape of an archipelago in the South Pacific. Her plan was then to take one last trip around the globe before settling down on Britain’s South Coast. Three years into the journey, however, she died aboard a ship off the coast of East Africa.

The exact circumstances of her death are unknown, but what appears to be certain is that to the very day she died, in February 1938, she maintained, as she put it, “the spirit of wanderlust that has entered my soul.”