Japanese Climber Junko Tabei, First Woman To Conquer Mount Everest
Junko Tabei, a Japanese alpinist who became the first woman to scale Mount Everest and to ascend the highest summit of every continent, died on Oct. 20, 2016 in a hospital near Tokyo. She was 77.
The cause was stomach cancer, her husband, Masanobu Tabei, wrote on her website. She learned she had cancer four years ago but remained a fervent mountaineer, her family said.
Tabei (pronounced tah-bay-EE), who stood 5 feet and weighed just 92 pounds, endured rigorous training and conquered treacherous ice and snow in reaching the highest peaks in more than 70 nations.
She made the 29,029-foot ascent of Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, in May 1975 as a 35-year-old co-leader of a 15-woman expedition guided by six Sherpas.
The feat was hailed not only as a triumph of physical fortitude but also as a milestone for women — both in a field dominated by men and in a society in which, Tabei said, “even women who had jobs, they were asked just to serve tea.”
Trained as a teacher and working as an editor at a science magazine, she subsidized her expedition to the Himalayas by giving piano and English lessons. When her finances fell short, she got a late infusion of funds from the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and Nippon Television.
During her training for the climb, and the climb itself, she left her 3-year-old daughter with her husband, who is also a mountaineer, and relatives.
Edmund Hillary of New Zealand had been celebrated as the first to reach Everest’s summit, in 1953, and Tabei would say self-effacingly that she was merely the 36th climber (by some counts the 39th) to successfully make the ascent. Her team followed Hillary’s route.
Along the way an avalanche buried the team’s camp, about 9,000 feet from the summit, and knocked her briefly unconscious.
Twelve days later, having left the rest of the team at the camp, she reached Everest’s south summit, just below the peak. There she discovered a narrow icy ridge — forming the boundary between Nepal and Tibet — flanked by sheer 15,000-foot drops.
“I had no idea I would have to face that, even though I’d read all the accounts of previous expeditions,” she told The Japan Times. “I got so angry at the previous climbers who hadn’t warned me about that knife-edge traverse in their expedition records.”
Crawling sideways, with her body straddling the ridge, “I had never felt that tense in my entire life,” she said. “I felt all my hair standing on end.”
Undaunted, she struggled on her hands and knees to the top, arriving at a relatively flat rectangular area that she described as “smaller than a tatami mat” (the traditional Japanese floor covering, typically measuring 3 feet by 6 feet).
“All I felt was relief,” she told Sports Illustrated in 1996.
Since then, as the Nepalese government has granted more permits and as technology has improved, thousands of climbers have reached the summit.
Junko Ishibashi was born on Sept. 22, 1939, in Miharu, in Fukushima Prefecture in central Japan, about 140 miles north of Tokyo. She grew up in relative poverty during World War II, stigmatized, she said, as “a weak child.”
Her interest in mountaineering was piqued, she said, when, at age 10, she tagged along on a school field trip to climb Mount Asahi and Mount Chausu, each a little more than 6,000 feet high, farther south.
After graduating with a degree in English literature from Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, she abandoned her plans to teach, worked at several jobs to support her climbing and then devoted herself full time to mountaineering.
In 1992, Tabei became the first woman to mount the Seven Summits. After Everest, she climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 1980, Aconcagua in Argentina in 1987, McKinley (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.
She later focused on environmentalism. In 2000, she did postgraduate work at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, where she studied the degradation of mountain terrain caused by garbage and human waste left behind by climbers, especially on Everest. She also wrote books and directed a preservation organization, the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by their daughter, Noriko, and son, Shinya.
Since 2012, Tabei had climbed the 12,388-foot Mount Fuji each summer with high schoolers from northeastern Japan, including students from her birthplace in the Fukushima region, an area severely affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In July, she made it only halfway, but she cheered the students on.
“Even if it is hard, you can reach Japan’s highest peak if you climb step by step,” she said.
While Tabei’s mountain ascents attracted publicity, she said that “climbing the mountain is its own reward.”
She told The Japan Times, “I never felt like stopping climbing, and I never will.”