Teased as a child for being a “weakling,” Junko Tabei turned that weakness into her greatest strength. Weak lungs made Tabei seem “sickly” as a child. As an adult, Tabei only reached a height of four feet, nine inches. But her lack of height has little to do with her stature. Tabei was the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 16, 1975. And that after surviving an avalanche. Born in Japan May 23, 1939, Tabei discovered her love of climbing during a school outing. Tabei accompanied a teacher climbing Mt. Nasu when she was only ten years old. It may have even been that her small physique gave her an advantage over other children when it came to climbing, but Tabei found that she enjoyed climbing and especially enjoyed the fact that it was not a competitive sport. Tabei graduated from Showa Women’s University with a degree in English literature in 1962. She began her career in earnest after graduation and formed the “Ladies Climbing Club: Japan (LCC) in 1969. By 1975, she had already climbed a number of mountains, and set her sights on Mount Everest The highest mountain in the world, Everest stands 29,029 feet above sea level. Until 1975, the summit had not been reached by any woman.
Climbing Mount Everest
Nihon Television and The Yomiuri newspaper decided to send an all-woman team to Nepal to climb Everest. Tabei was chosen as one of the fifteen women from hundreds of applicants. After training, the women went to Kathmandu to begin their expedition. With the help of nine Sherpa guides, people indigenous to the Himalayan region, they began their adventure. Only a few days into the journey in early May, all the climbers and the nine Sherpas were buried beneath an avalanche while camping at approximately 6,300 meters. Tabei was unconscious for several minutes before a Sherpa was able to dig her out. But, with the persistence characteristic of a true mountain climber, Tabei reached the summit of Everest twelve days later and became the first woman to do so. Her sheer determination to succeed was obvious as she led her team to the summit, sometimes crawling on her hands and knees. The avalanche she experienced on Everest did not dampen Tabei’s mountain climbing enthusiasm. But she certainly learned a few things. “The mountain teaches me a lot of things. It makes me realize how trivial my personal problems are,” she said. “It also teaches me that life should not be taken for granted.” If anything, climbing Everest only strengthened her love of the sport.
The Seven Summits
Tabei is also the first woman to climb the “Seven Summits”: the highest mountains on seven continents.
- Mount Everest – 29,029 feet – on the border of Tibet and Nepal.
- Denali (the “Great One” a/k/a Mount McKinley) – 20,320 feet – Alaska – temperature gets down to -40 degrees at night – highest mountain peak in North America.
- Elbrus – 18,442 feet – an inactive volcano in Russia
- Aconcagua – 22,841 feet – the Andes, South America.
- Carstensz Pyramid – 16,023 feet – Indonesia
- Kilimanjaro – 15,092 feet – Tanzania, Africa.
- Vinson – 16,050 feet – Antarctica – named for Georgia congressman Carl Vinson, a supporter of Antarctic research
Since Tabei conquered the “Seven Summits,” with her 1992 climb of the Carstensz Pyramid, more than twenty women have followed in her footsteps to conquer those mountains.
Free Spirit of the Mountains
Tabei met her husband on a mountain and the only time she has ever taken any real break from mountain climbing was a couple of years when she was pregnant with their two children. Little else has slowed down this amazing woman. Not even getting older. Going into her seventies, she continues climbing every chance she gets. She is also director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, dedicating her energies to preserving mountain environments. Tabei has been called a “housewife climber” and an “Everest mommy.” But, in Tabei’s own words, “Call me the free spirit of the mountains.”
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