How do you describe the view from the highest point on Earth?
Standing atop a space smaller than a tatami mat, where the blue sky seemed within reach, the 36th person to reach Mount Everest thought on this. Junko Tabei radioed her all-women climbing group at the base camp, “trying to give justice to the view from the top of the world.”
“Silvery clouds floated around the summits of the giant peaks, emphasizing the dramatic difference between Nepal’s rugged Himalayas and the endless, mildly sloped mountains of Tibet.”
Look, I don’t do heights. Yet even I had to wonder, as I delved deeper into Junko Tabei’s story, what it would feel like to conquer the highest peak in the world. But her journey to Everest began much earlier…
Born in 1939 in a small town in Fukushima, Junko Tabei spent her childhood playing among trees in the beautiful botanical environment. She was small in stature, and considered to be a “weak child.” But when she was ten, her life changed.
Her fourth-grade teacher, who Tabei credits for introducing her to the wonders of the mountains, took Tabei and a few other students on a field trip to Nikko National Park. There, she discovered with awe Japan’s natural onsens and the chilly mountain air that remained cold even in summer. She realized that “there were many things in the world for [her] to discover.” The joy of discovering something new sparked a love for mountaineering.
Her fascination with mountains remained strong all through secondary school and afterward. Although few women attended post-secondary institutions, her father supported the idea of higher education, so Junko Tabei attended Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, and in 1962, she graduated with a degree in English and American Literature (we stan a fellow lit-lover). During this time, she also sustained a passion for music. After graduation, she started working as an editor for the Physical Society in Japan. But the mountains still called to her.
Tea time! Even though mountaineering was trending in Japan, the adventurous activity was deemed inappropriate for young women. Actually, most climbing clubs banned women, so it took her a while to find one to climb with. Even then, participating in this male-dominated sport meant having to deal with silly rumors and the like. Who knew? Apparently, Japanese climbers were the original mean girls. To this extent, Tabei recalls that “Some thought I was there to meet men, but I was only interested in climbing.”
*Laughs in “you really thought”*
Boss-lady Tabei had no time for these hijinks, so in 1969, she formed the Ladies Climbing Club. Their slogan was “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.”
The club stemmed from a desire to climb the Himalayas with an all-women team, and six years later, that’s exactly what they did. But it wasn’t an easy road.
More tea! This is 1970s Japan, where many believed that men belonged outside, working, while a woman’s position was in the house. So when Junko Tabei and her all-women expedition group sought funding for their Everest summit, pretty much everyone shut the door in their faces, saying something along the lines of “you should be raising children instead.” To make matters worse, it was an economically challenging time. Money-wise, most people were hedging their bets, so nobody was willing to risk funding the expedition. Why? Because they believed an all-women team would fail.
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Eventually, they got funding from Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, and its branch of the Nippon TV Network. Still, the members had to pull from their savings to make up the rest. Tabei funded herself by giving piano lessons and teaching English.
In late March, the group set out: fourteen climbers, including 35-year-old Junko, and a doctor. Tabei left her three-year-old daughter Noriko at home with her husband. For weeks, they made their way up the mountain, moving from camp to camp and facing various challenges. Yet things were about to get a little complicated.
On May 4, in the middle of the night, an avalanche struck. Piles of snow buried the camp, trapping Tabei and a few others in a tent, and knocking her unconscious. It took three days before Tabei could walk and move normally. At this point, the team doctor and many others were ready to call it quits, but Junko Tabei wasn’t going anywhere. Except up.
I2 days later, on the morning of May 16, Tabei and her guide Ang Tshering Sherpa set out for the summit. Six hours later, their final challenge lay before them: a 15-meter knife-edge ridge (translation: death trap), which none of the expedition reports they’d read had mentioned.
All I’m saying is: if someone makes a movie about her life story I will 100% watch it.
Crossing the ridge was one of the tensest moments of her life, but cross it they did. And at 12:30 pm, Junko Tabei climbed onto the snowy summit and beheld the breathtaking view from the top of the world. After 50 minutes of jubilation and capturing the moments, they began their descent.
Upon her return, she was hailed for being the first woman to summit Everest, but to her, “[I] just simply climbed a mountain… I did not intend to be the first woman on Everest.
After her victory, Tabei continued climbing, and in 1992 became the first woman to scale the Seven Summits. Before she died in 2016, Tabei conquered 76 peaks all over the world.
Junko Tabei’s approach to life and mountaineering was the same: “No matter how slow a person walked, they could still reach the summit, one step at a time.”
Her quiet determination deeply inspires me, and her monumental summits across the world serve to encourage adventure seekers and women who prefer to stay on the ground alike.
Read more about Junko Tabei in her biography based on her memoirs, Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei, or in this adorable children’s book, Junko Tabei Masters The Mountains.
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