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Changed The Game: Junko Tabei, the first woman to ascend Everest, quietly moved mountains for women’s rights

Eric Edholm
·8-min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

WHM
WHM

Junko Tabei was fond of telling people, in her unpretentious and self-deprecating way, that she preferred to be called the 36th person to reach the summit of Mount Everest rather than the first woman to do so.

But despite her traditional Japanese upbringing, this was not a woman who defaulted to the demure role most expected of her during her life.

Tabei — who stood all of 4-foot-9 and an estimated 92 pounds — was a giant in the world of alpine mountaineering. And also in the realm of women’s empowerment, where she was viewed as a titan who fought for reimagining what women could accomplish (and be allowed to even attempt) in modern society.

She grew up in a world where, after starting a mountain climbing club following college, “We were told we should be raising children instead,” she told Japan Times in 2012, at the age of 73.

She did raise children — a daughter, Noriko, and a son, Shinya. But Tabei also established herself as one of her generation’s greatest climbers, having ascended many of the Earth’s greatest and most fearsome summits, including the highest peaks in a dizzying 70 different countries. Believe it or not, she actually fell short of her goal of reaching the highest peak of every country in the world.

Tabei died in 2016, hailed as a hero, a philanthropist and a beacon of light for women who too often felt left in the dark.

Junko Tabei was the first woman to reach the summit of Everest on May 16, 1975, at the age of 35. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)
Junko Tabei was the first woman to reach the summit of Everest on May 16, 1975, at the age of 35. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)

Junko Tabei blazed her own path to the top

Born in 1939, Tabei grew up in post-feudal Japan — the early stages of Emperor Hirohito’s 62-year reign — where economic depression, increased military expansion and a rise in fascism and Japanese nationalism underscored the limitations for women.

Young girls then were typically viewed as future homemakers, subject to the belief of “three submissions” — they first submitted to their fathers, then eventually to their husbands, and finally, in old age, to their sons.

Arranged marriages were not uncommon during this time, and girls often married as early as their teens. Women’s suffrage wasn’t enacted until 1947, following the Axis’ loss in World War II.

Tabei appeared an outlier in this world.

The fifth daughter of seven children, she was born to a printer and was regarded as frail and weak as a child. But during a class climbing trip at the age of 10, she discovered her taste for the sport while ascending two 6,000-foot peaks, Mount Asahi and Mount Chausu. Tabei appeared to find the perfect diversion to fit her temperament.

“It wasn't like a competition,” she told Sports Illustrated in 1996. “Even if you go slow, you can make it to the top. Or, if you must, you can quit at the middle.”

But the sport was expensive, something her family couldn’t afford. So it was something she did sparingly through college while learning to be a teacher — considered a noble pursuit for a woman — and help support her family in tough times.

After her schooling, however, Tabei rediscovered climbing and joined some men’s climbing groups. She was not roundly accepted. Some of the climbers felt she was joining simply to meet a prospective husband.

Tabei was just there to dive into her pursuit of climbing, unaware of where that would end up. The teaching career was tabled, and Tabei eventually took on jobs to help support her love of mountaineering. Before long, she realized she had a rare talent at it, summiting all of Japan’s major peaks, including Mount Fuji.

That’s when she set her sights even higher.

Tabei’s terrifying, empowering 1975 Mount Everest expedition

By 1969, Tabei was well aware that some men in her field would never be fully accepting of women’s infiltration. Some men refused to climb with her. As a result, she decided to start the Joshi-Tohan Club, a women’s mountaineering group whose slogan was: “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.”

The group ascended several notable peaks, including Annapurna III in Nepal (where they established a new route to the top). And it was on this trip where the women often struggled to conform their inner struggles in a world of traditional Japanese culture, where the concept of quiet resolve ran anathema to the enormous challenges they faced with daunting climbs.

“When we began the climb, we were determined to only show each other our strong sides,” Tabei told SI. “When you are climbing a mountain, your life depends on the exact opposite. You can't be reserved and not say what you think or feel.”

After reaching that peak, the dream of conquering Everest first was planted. Tabei applied to the Nepalese government in 1971 for the right to climb the 29,029-foot mountain but would not have it approved until four years later. In the time in between, she and her group trained for the unnerving mission and helped raise sponsorships to fund it.

Then in May 1975, the then-35-year-old Tabei led a 15-woman, six-Sherpa expedition up the world’s tallest mountain — one only 35 people (some accounts say 38) had reached the top of since Sir Edmund Hillary first did it in 1953.

As the expedition group slept just past midnight on May 4 that year at Camp II (at 21,326 feet), they heard the unmistakable rumble of an oncoming avalanche — a phenomenon none of the women had experienced before.

Junko Tabei, left, first woman to climb Mount Everest, waves flags of Japan and Nepal during a reception hosted in her honor in Katmandu in 2005. (AP photo/Binod Joshi)
Junko Tabei, left, first woman to climb Mount Everest, waves flags of Japan and Nepal during a reception hosted in her honor in Katmandu in 2005. (AP photo/Binod Joshi)

They were leveled by its force. Freezing wind blew sheets of ice and snow down on their encampment and enveloped them completely. Some were trapped in their tents. Tabei was pinned down under four of her fellow climbers. After picturing her then 2-year old daughter, she blacked out and went unconscious.

Incredibly, none of the climbers died. Tabei was badly bruised and beaten from the avalanche, needing to be pulled out of a snowdrift by her ankles, unable to get out herself. Her first thought upon rescue? “As soon as I knew everyone was alive,” Tabei told SI, “I was determined to continue.”

But because of some bouts of altitude sickness and a shortage of oxygen canisters, part of the group was forced to head back to base camp. Tabei was nominated, along with one Sherpa, to continue on alone.

Twelve days later — her body still riddled with pain — Tabei reached the tiny summit. Ten days before that, Tabei couldn’t even walk from her injuries. Her only emotion in that moment, she said, was relief.

Prior to that, she felt anger. As the group reached Everest’s south summit, just below the mountain’s peak, Tabei discovered that the final feet might be the toughest: a 15,000-foot ridge engulfed in icy slopes and a narrow path to the top. Tabei needed to crawl its length one hand and knee at a time, as fearful of death, she said, that she’d ever faced.

Tabei was in the dark about the ridge, having read up extensively on every prior Everest expedition.

“I got so angry at the previous climbers who hadn’t warned me about that knife-edge traverse in their expedition records,” she told The Japan Times.

But the climb was an international success story, and it helped open the door for thousands of people — and countless women — to chase their dreams climbing. Metaphorically or otherwise.

Junko Tabei’s enduring life and legacy

Tabei continued climbing well into her 70s, establishing herself as one of the field’s greatest achievers. Without a shred of ego.

“I did not intend to be the first woman on Everest,” she said.

In addition to climbing the tallest peaks in at least 70 countries, Tabei became the first woman to finish the “Seven Summits” — the highest peak on every continent — in 1992. She also led 44 all-women expeditions worldwide.

Even after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2012, she made several notable ascents. By 2016, the disease had fully consumed her, but Tabei nonetheless led a group up Mount Fuji. Her fellow climbers on that trip were mostly young people who were affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Three months later, Tabei died at the age of 77.

Her legacy was rooted in climbing, but Tabei was also an advocate for the environment and worried about the vast commercialization of Everest — one she invariably but inadvertently had spurred — and the effect it had on the mountains. In 2000, she earned a postgraduate degree in environmental science focusing on the impact by humans to the mountain.

“Everest has become too crowded,” she said in 2003. “It needs a rest now.”

But Tabei’s spirit never rested. Neither did her legacy.

Just prior to her death, she had an asteroid (6897 Tabei) named after her. Three years later, a mountain range on Pluto, Tabei Montes, was named in her honor based on the tradition of naming Plutonian mountains for “historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in the exploration of the Earth, sea and sky."

And Google commemorated what would have been Tabei’s 80th birthday in 2019 with one of Tabei’s most enduring slogans: “Do not give up. Keep on your quest.”

The enduring impact of Tabei’s quests during her incredible life live on to this day.