The other day I found myself struggling to get up a hill on my bike. It was a torrid afternoon in the mountains above a town. There was a long descending paved road at the top of the hill that would make a breezy, refreshing descent, but the heat and the pitch of the road did me in. I was about to dismount and walk the bike up to the top. But then I thought about Junko Tabei.

Hers should be a household name around the world, as familiar as Sir Edmund Hillary’s, because Tabei was the first woman to summit Mt. Everest. When she pulled it off in 1975, not only was she a housewife and the mother of a 2-year-old, she had just survived an avalanche that smashed her camp at 6,400 meters in the middle of the night.

Whenever I think “That’s it, I’m done,” I remember Tabei’s grit. In her fascinating autobiography Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei, which I wrote about for The Japan Times, Tabei describes how a journey, no matter how arduous, is made up of individual steps. Focusing on each step instead of the more daunting distance remaining is an important psychological tool that can help get you to the goal.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tabei in 2013, three years before she passed away. She showed me the hefty wooden ice pick she wielded on Everest and described the feeling of stepping onto the roof of the world: “The precious thing about that moment was, beyond being the first woman there, the summit of Everest was utterly beautiful, without a single manmade object in sight.”

Tabei is an inspiring example of steely-nerved determination, and I hope she gets more recognition both in Japan and overseas. Here’s the interview article, from InTouch magazine.

Peak Passion

A school trip proved the trigger for a career on top of the world for pioneering mountaineer Junko Tabei.

Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei in 2013. Photo by Benjamin Parks

The petite, grey-haired figure standing in a park in Ichigaya, central Tokyo, has bright eyes and a radiant smile that give way to a glowing sense of strength and determination in her face. These are the features of the first woman to climb Mount Everest.

Junko Tabei, a spry 74 years old, is one of Japan’s—and the world’s—great alpinists. She has scaled the highest peak on every continent in the world, a feat no other woman has achieved, and has been honored with the Japanese prime minister’s award. Yet, in conversation in her office near Kojimachi, she comes across as down-to-earth, even grandmotherly. 

Born into a family of seven children in the castle town of Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture, in 1939, Tabei’s introduction to climbing was at the tender age of 10. Her primary school teacher would lead trips to mountains in the Tohoku region, including a 1,900-meter volcano in a mountain range in Tochigi Prefecture.

This wasn’t something I had learned about in school. It was something I could experience directly, physically by walking and seeing it with my own eyes. It was really intense and I wanted more of it.

Junko Tabei

“I’d never seen such scenery of sand and rocks and strange smells. Even though it was a mountain, it had no greenery,” she says. “There was a stream of hot water and it was cold at the top, even in summer. This wasn’t something I had learned about in school. It was something I could experience directly, physically by walking and seeing it with my own eyes. It was really intense and I wanted more of it. That was the starting point for me and I still feel it at 74.”

Few Japanese were mountaineering in the aftermath of World War II, when Tabei took to the slopes. Aside from her teacher, her eldest brother also brought her climbing around Fukushima. While attending Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, she organized climbing expeditions to the Japan Alps, the vast range that stretches down the center of Honshu. In her 20s, she established one of Japan’s first female clubs for mountaineering (previously the preserve of male climbers and ascetics) and gained ice- and rock-climbing experience.

In 1970, Nepal opened its doors to foreign mountaineers. The following year, inspired by the pioneering ascent of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, as well as Japan’s Naomi Uemura, the first person to reach the North Pole solo, Tabei set the Himalayas as her next goal. She organized an all-female climbers’ effort to scale Everest, which, at 8,848 meters, is more than twice as high as Mount Fuji. It was named the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition.

Aside from bureaucratic obstacles (planning took three years), Tabei and her colleagues had practical problems. Not only were the climbing tools of the day, such as ice axes and oxygen tanks, at least three times heavier than present-day equipment, alpine wear for women didn’t exist. Tabei had to cut men’s pants and gloves to her size.  

Junko Tabei on Mt. Everest in 1975

Sponsored by Japanese media, the 15 women began their assault on Everest in 1975. Following the Hillary-Norgay route from 1953, the group was decimated by altitude sickness and were camping at 6,300 meters when an avalanche hit. Buried in the snow, Tabei lost consciousness before her Sherpa guide pulled her out. Most people would have headed back down the mountain, but Tabei persevered, finally unfurling Japan’s Hinomaru flag on the summit on May 16, 1975.

“The final ascent was a step-by-step struggle, but when I arrived I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of achievement—it was more like relief. I couldn’t believe the climb was finally over and I had to go down instead of up,” says Tabei, holding a weighty wooden ice ax from her climb. “The precious thing about that moment was, beyond being the first woman there, the summit of Everest was utterly beautiful, without a single manmade object in sight.”

I’d like to inspire people to have many experiences in nature, not with computers, but feeling the wind, the coolness, the smells of the earth with their five senses

Junko Tabei

Last year was the 60th anniversary of man’s first conquest of Everest, and since then thousands of people have climbed or attempted to climb the mountain, leaving behind tons of waste and hundreds of corpses. Motivated by this problem, Tabei acts as chair of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up mountain environments.

After decades of climbing (she has also written nine books about her high-altitude exploits), Tabei shows no signs of slowing down. While she became the first woman to complete the Seven Summits (climbing the highest mountain on all seven continents) in 1992, she has now scaled the highest peaks of more than 60 countries and continues to travel abroad about six times a year. “I’d like to inspire people to have many experiences in nature, not with computers, but feeling the wind, the coolness, the smells of the earth with their five senses,” she says. “We humans are the only creatures who walk upright on two legs, and it’s a shame if we spent all our lives sitting down and not using them.” 

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