Junko Tabei preferred to be known as the 36th person to climb Everest, despite the fact that her achievements—becoming the first woman to summit the world’s tallest peak and the first to climb the Seven Summits—called for more than just remarkable skill and fitness. Tabei faced virulent mid-20th century sexism, defying cultural expectations for women, who, at the time, and especially in her home country of Japan, were thought to be nothing more than homemakers.
Born in Miharu, Fukushima in 1939, Tabei wasn’t a hardy child. Regardless, she fell in love with climbing at ten years old on a class trip to Japan’s Mounts Asahi and Chausu. She began climbing in earnest with a mountain climbing club while she pursued a degree in literature and education at Showa Women’s University. Most often, she was the only woman on climbing trips and at club meetings.
Some of the men refused to climb with her, others accused of being there just to find a husband. She persevered, forming relationships with some of the more welcoming older climbers, and in 1969 founded her own climbing club—this one for women.
The diminutive climber—she stood just 4’9″—worked her way up from Japan’s Mount Fuji to the Matterhorn and by 1972 had become a recognized mountaineer among Japanese climbers. Her Ladies Climbing Club—founded on the idea that women could and ought to lead their own far-flung expeditions—took a successful 1970 expedition, led by Tabei, to Annapurna III. Afterward, Tabei turned her sights to Everest. There was a four-year waiting list, but she and a group from her Ladies Climbing Club took the slot and began preparations.
The Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition, as it would come to be called, was 15 women strong. They were working women—some were teachers, one was a computer programmer, another a counselor. Tabei and one other woman were mothers. They struggled to find funding for their trip and were repeatedly told by prospective sponsors that they should be raising children instead. After finding a few meager sponsorships, the group members each had to pay a sum close to the average yearly salary in Japan. They made their own sleeping bags, collected leftover jam packets from school lunches, and made goods from recycled materials to sell as fundraisers.
The group made it to Everest in the spring of 1975 and began working their way up the mountain. At 9,000 feet, they were hit with an avalanche while they were camped beneath the Lhotse face. Tabei was buried and knocked unconscious. Miraculously, her team’s six Sherpas were able to pull her from the debris, and no one suffered fatal injuries.
Tabei’s injuries left her unable to walk for the next two days. Determined to finish what she had come to Nepal to do, she summited anyway, 12 days after the avalanche. She was the only woman in her party to summit, and she made it to the top on her hands and knees. Eleven days later a Tibetan laborer named Phanthog became the second woman to summit and the first to climb from the Tibetan side. By 1992, Tabei had completed the Seven Summits.
In 2002, Tabei returned to school to study ecology and became an influential figure in the fight to protect and preserve wild places. Her research focused on the environmental degradation of Everest due to heavy climber traffic, and she served as director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, a group committed to protecting fragile high-alpine environments from the traces left by hikers and climbers.
She was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 but continued to climb until her body could no longer handle the strain. She passed away in 2016, at 77. She left behind a legacy of profound human achievement and environmental activism, and her tireless efforts to make the mountains a space where women were welcomed and respected marked a turning point in climbing history.
For more, read Tabei’s collection of stories and memoirs, Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei.