Junko Tabei at the Summit of Mount Everest in 2006. Photo by HipCamp

Junko Tabei – the first woman to conquer Mount Everest

ON this day in 1975, Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

It was a remarkable feat of not only endurance, but also determination. After all, the fiercely-guarded traditional social conventions of Japan at the time still dictated that women were expected to be housewives who raised children at the beck and call of their hard-working husbands.

Tabei, however, thought differently. She had an enduring spirit that longed to be in the outdoors – particularly the mountains.

It was a longing that was first ignited at school when a teacher took the then nine-year-old’s class to nearby mountains in her native Fukushima.

“The impact this had on me – the effect on my body and skin were unforgettable,” she recalled.

“It triggered an awareness that there were many things in the world for me to discover. When we reached the summit that day, I felt a joy of achievement that I had never experienced before.”

Alas, it was a feeling that was briefly lost.

As she was pigeonholed back in to Japanese societal norms, she would come to forget about her experience as a child. Moving to the city, she became depressed. Her close friends rallied around her and urged the diminutive young woman to come with them to the countryside.

She quickly began to fall in love with the outdoors – and the mountains – again. It came with a dawning realisation that, although she was only five feet in height, her stature did not have to be something that would hold her back.

“No matter how slowly a person walked, they could reach the summit one step at a time,” explained.

“I also understood that, in mountain climbing, no matter how hard the struggle became there would be no substitutions, no switch of players – one had to complete the task oneself.

“I had learned those lessons aged nine, and applied them to the rest of my life.”

At that time, Japan’s mountaineering clubs had a strict ban on women becoming members – even the possibility of discussing reform wasn’t entertained.

So, in 1969, in an act of utter stubbornness and defiance, she formed her own ‘Ladies Climbing Club’.

A year later, she announced her arrival on the mountaineering scene by becoming the first woman to scale the notoriously difficult Annapurna 3. To this day, the Annapurna range is widely regarded as the most dangerous in the world – a place where most male climbers fear to tread.

READ MORE: Irish climbing legend Noel Hanna dies on Annapurna

It sent shockwaves throughout Japan, and indeed the wider climbing community.

But she didn’t stop there. Keen to go one better and prove to her detractors the achievement wasn’t a one-off sideshow, she applied for a permit for herself and an all-female team for an attempt at the world’s highest point – Mount Everest.

Incredibly, many of the 15 women on the expedition kept their inclusion in the team a secret until 1975 when they took on the same route up the mountain that Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had used to make the very first ascent in 1953.

The climb did not go without incident. As they camped at 6,000 metres, they were engulfed in an avalanche.

Junko described the terrifying ordeal: “Within seconds, I could hardly breathe. The enormous pressure bore down on me. Confusion set in as I was tossed upside down – the tent whipping around in summersaults among the churning ice. I thought for a moment I was dead.”

READ MORE: I cheated death in an avalanche – here’s how…

Along with several others, she had to be dug out of the ice and snow. There was a discussion about abandoning the expedition and descending to safety, but the decision was made – largely on the determined insistence of Junko herself – to stay put for two days to recover from the cuts and bruises suffered in the avalanche before ascending further.

It was also decided that the group would split into two teams for the attempt at a summit.

The final ascent was made with just Junko and Sherpa Ang Tshering, but in the last few metres they encountered a very thin strip of ice they had not anticipated. They decided to lay flat and crawl on their sides.

“Clouds like cotton candy floated below me, as if I was looking out from an airplane,” Junko recalled.

“It was surreal to be at such a high altitude, knowing there was no room for mistakes. A fall would mean death.

“My hair stood on end beneath my helmet, my scalp shook, and goose bumps crawled up my back. I felt on the verge of madness from the extreme tension of the situation, yet we were able to continue.”

Eventually, they painstakingly crept their way to the summit.

Junko Tabei on top of Mount Everest in 1975

“When I looked through the camera lens, to take a photograph of Ang Tshering, and saw him standing there with flags from two nations in his hand, the reality of the Everest summit touched my heart for the first time,” she added.

“There was no higher place in the world than where we stood, and the sensation was tremendous.”

She and her team descended to a hero’s welcome – not just in Nepal, but also in Japan where her exploits were celebrated far and wide.

Her achievements were also a catalyst for change. Women throughout Japan were given a new sense of being able to achieve things for themselves. The shackles of a strict society that had held them back for centuries were cast off.

Male-dominated societies and clubs also began to dispense with ancient traditions forbidding women to be among their numbers. Even the men of Japan had been enthused by Junko Tabei’s determined spirit, and started to welcome women into their groups with open arms.

Junko had changed her nation for the better – a notion that grew to become a great source of pride in her later life.

Her climbing career didn’t end after Mount Everest. In fact it blossomed further. In 1992 she became the first woman to climb the highest peaks on seven continents.

Sadly, in 2012, Tabei was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Undeterred, she continued to climb, even leading a youth expedition up Mount Fuji in July 2016.

It would be her last peak.

Junko Tabei passed away in Kawagoe hospital on October 20 2016.

In 2019, a mountain range on the planet Pluto was named ‘Tabei Montes‘ in her honour.

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