On May 16, 1975, Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to climb Mount Everest. Taking on a sport traditionally dominated by men, Tabei’s career and legacy is one of breaking boundaries and putting her life on the line. In 1992, with her climb of Puncak Jaya on the island of New Guinea, she became the first woman to ascend the “Seven Summits,” referring to the highest peak on each continent.
Junko Tabei was born Junko Ishibashi in 1939 in Fukushima, Japan. She was initially a “frail” child. Nonetheless, she started mountain climbing at age ten with Mount Nasu in Japan, and fell in love with it. Due to her family’s limited means, she wasn’t able to do much more climbing as a child, and went on to attend Showa Women’s University with plans to become a teacher.
Upon graduating in 1962, Junko joined a series of men’s climbing clubs. Many of her fellow climbers did welcome her, but many others were not as welcoming. Some questioned her motives, assuming she was only there to find a husband. Others refused to go on expedition with her. She nonetheless persisted and would soon climb all the highest peaks in Japan. She married Masanobu Tabei at 27, a fellow climber.
In 1969, in response to the adversity she faced from male climbers, Tabei founded a women’s only climbing club called the Joshi-Tohan Club, the first ever established in Japan. Their first expedition was up the Annapurna III in Nepal in 1970, where she and fellow climber Hiroko Hirokawa became the first women and first Japanese to ascend the mountain. After the success of their expedition, they started to plan an expedition of Mount Everest.
The Everest expedition was a team of 15 climbers and would call themselves the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition, or JWEE. It attracted a great deal of media attention and a media crew was prepared to come with them, but it could not be sustained. The team of 15 climbers and 6 Sherpas began their ascent at the beginning of May 1975.
On May 4, their camp was hit by an avalanche. 5 of the climbers, including Tabei, were buried under the snow. She lost consciousness until she could be dug out. Miraculously all survived, but Tabei was badly injured and would take the next two days to recover. As soon as she and the other climbers were able, the expedition continued.
The expedition’s initial plan was to send two women to the summit, but there were only enough oxygen bottles for one woman to make the full ascent. The team nominated Tabei, who went on in the company of one Sherpa named Ang Tsering. Nearing the top, she encountered an icy ridge that had not been mentioned to the team in their preparation. She made it across crawling sideways, later describing it as the most tense experience of her life. After crossing, 12 days after surviving an avalanche, she and Tsering reached the summit on May 16, 1975.
After the resounding success of the JWEE, Tabei would go on to have an illustrious climbing career. In addition to reaching the Seven Summits, she stated her goal to climb the highest peak in every country in the world. By the end of her life she would climb at least 70.
She was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2012. She nonetheless continued to lead climbing expeditions, leading a youth expedition up Mount Fuji, the highest peak in Japan, in July of 2016. In October 2016, she ultimately succumbed to her illness.
Tabei received a torrent of media attention following her climb. This included a parade held in her honor in Kathmandu, Nepal, and a television series made about her expedition. An asteroid and a mountain range on Pluto were named after her. While alive she did admit, however, that she was not comfortable with the media attention, preferring to be known as the 36th person to climb Mount Everest rather than the first woman. Perhaps, however, that humility and determination were part of her legacy of proving that there would never be an upper limit to what she, or any woman, can achieve.