Do you know who the first woman to climb Mount Everest was? I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t until last week. Somehow, I’ve always known that the first man to climb Mount Everest was Sir Edmund Hillary. Why didn’t I know who the first woman was, too? To support Women’s History Month and make up for my ignorance, today I’m acknowledging the remarkable life of the first woman to climb Mount Everest in Nepal.
Let’s set the scene: it’s May 1975, the Vietnam War has ended, the first Hollywood blockbuster film, Jaws has been released and Margaret Thatcher has been voted the new leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. Meanwhile, somewhere in Nepal, Junko Tabei (pronounced tah-bay-EE), a 35-year-old, five-foot-tall Japanese climber has become the first woman to scale just over 29,000 feet to the top of Mount Everest, with a 15-strong all-female team, along with six Sherpas, only 12 days after she was pulled from an avalanche which left her unable to walk.
She was determined to finish what she had come to Nepal to do, despite repeated requests from people in her team to descend. She was the only woman in her party to the summit. In her memoirs, Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei, which I devoured over a weekend, she recounts making it to the top on her hands and knees. This wasn’t long after she drew a birthday cake on a card for her daughter – who was turning three back at home – and mailed it from High Camp. The achievement was hailed not only as a triumph of physical endurance but also as a milestone for women, both in a field dominated by men, and in Japanese society where women were supposed to stay inside making the tea.
She was born in Miharu, Fukushima in 1939 and became hooked on mountains and climbing at 10 years old after her schoolteacher took her class on a trip to Japan’s Mount Asahi and Chausu. She began climbing regularly soon after with a club while studying for a degree in literature at Showa Women’s University.
I knew not many of my university friends could relate to how I felt in the mountains, that the release I had there was nothing like what they experienced in their fashionable world of shopping. I could hardly explain how much I needed to climb and to be among the peaks. The rocky landscape had become a part of me,” she says in her memoirs, Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei.
In Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei, she describes scenarios of blatant sexism. She found it hard to find a climbing club that would accept women, describing how some men refused to climb with her. Several articles online also quote her as having said that some men accused her of wanting to join their clubs just to find a husband. Nevertheless, she persevered and ignored the naysayers, continuing to enjoy her hobby. In fact, she went on to establish a women-only climbing club in 1969, called the Joshi-Tohan Club, literally translated as the Women’s Mountaineering Club. In 1971, she led their first expedition 7,000-feet to the top of Annapurna III in Nepal, the 42nd highest mountain in the world.
Soon, Tabei turned her sights to Everest. The four-year waiting list gave her time to start preparing with her fellow climbing club members. They started with Japan’s Mount Fuji working their way up to the Matterhorn, to become well-known Japanese climbers by 1972. The Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition, as it would come to be called, was 15 women strong. They were working women. To pay for these expeditions, Tabei also worked as an editor of a scientific journal and taught piano and English, after requests for funding were met with sexist comments like, ‘You should be raising children instead,’ which, she and one other in the group were already doing.
Having achieved her goal of climbing Mount Everest, she said she didn’t need to climb anymore. Yet, by 1992, she had completed the Seven Summits. After Everest, she climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 1980, Aconcagua in Argentina in 1987, McKinley, which is now known as Denali, in Alaska in 1988, Elbrus in Russia in 1989, Vinson Massif in Antarctica in 1991 and Carstensz Pyramid (also known as Puncak Jaya) in Indonesia in 1992.
Later on in her life, Tabei studied ecology and researched the effect climbing traffic has on Everest and high-alpine environments. She later became director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, a group committed to protecting these mountain environments. Although she was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 she continued to climb until her body could no longer handle it. She passed away in 2016, at 77.
Read about her incredible life in Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei.