Keep On Your Quest

“I was stamped as a weak child.”

On 22 September 1939, Junko Tabei docked planet Earth at Miharu in Japan. The adults in her life considered her “frail. ” As an adult, she grew to the unimposing height of 4’9″.

Yet at the age of 10, she ascended two mountains in Japan, a trek that sent her on a trailblazing life. Two and a half decades later, Junko Tabei became the first woman to stand atop the roof of the world.

Mount Nasu - photo by uraomote_yamaneko

Tabei’s family lacked the resources to allow a young girl to become a frequent mountaineer, but, when she summited Mount Nasu, pictured above, and Mount Chausu, a passion for climbing kindled. After graduating from university, Tabei decided to reconnect with the mountains. In 1960s Japan, however, women weren’t supposed to climb. She decided to join mountaineering clubs, devoted solely to men. Tabei found some members accepted her; others thought the only reason a woman would pursue such an endeavor would be to find a husband.

She put the doubters aside and climbed all the major peaks in Japan, including the nation’s High Point, Mount Fuji.

She wanted a bigger challenge but found herself bumping up against the misogyny problem. What does one do if the men won’t let the women climb with them? Tabei decided to simply take the women herself! In 1969, she created the Joshi-Tohan Club, which translates to the Women’s Mountaineering Club. They adopted a rallying cry: “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.”

The Joshi-Tohan Club wasn’t messing around. For their first challenge, they chose Annapurna III, the 42nd highest peak in the world, rising 24,787 feet above Nepal.

Annapurna III - photo by Saroj Pandey

The club crushed the crag. Not only did they achieve the summit, but they also established a new route to do so. Junko Tabei and friends were the first women and the first Japanese humans to reach the apex of Annapurna III.

With one monstrous mountain under their belts, the club brimmed with confidence. Their next project? Top of the Earth! A team, called the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition, consisting of 15 women, decided to summit the world’s highest mountain. This declaration arrived in 1970, shortly after finishing Annapurna III. Encountering frequent criticism, such as women “should be raising children instead” of climbing mountains, the women found it hard to raise money for the excursion. Further, though they applied for a permit in 1971, they were not granted permission to climb Everest for nearly half a decade.

In 1975, finally, they reached the slopes of the hallowed crag.

Junko Tabei in 1985 on Ismoil Somoni Peak - image by Jaan Künnap

If the team thought the five years of fundraising and wrangling with red tape would be the hardest part about climbing Everest, they quickly found themselves egregiously incorrect.

On 4 May 1975, the team camped at 20,700 feet. Tabei later told Sports Illustrated she had never experienced the sound that awakened her that morning, but she instantly recognized it. A massive avalanche engulfed her and four team members. The force knocked Tabei unconscious. Fortunately, one of the team’s sherpa guides managed to extract her from the snow and she survived, though she was badly bruised and could hardly walk. By some miracle, every member of the team lived.

The group rested and recalibrated, deciding to only send one member of the team to the top. They chose Tabei for the task. Twelve days after the avalanche, on 16 May 1975, Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the acme of our planet. She and her guide, Ang Tsering, followed the same route that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used to become the first humans to summit Everest. Tabei later said, “I did not intend to be the first woman on Everest,” that she would prefer to be known as the 36th person to achieve the feat.

Even so, the Nepalese held a parade for her afterward. Fans lined the runways in Tokyo when she returned to Japan. Even the Japanese government congratulated her. Quite a turnaround from all the sexism she endured on the way up.

Junko Tabei on the the summit of Everest - Associated Press

The first woman to reach the peak of Everest was not done yet. In 1992, she reached the top of Puncak Jaya, the highest mountain in Oceania. Doing so, she became the first woman to complete the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent.

As Tabei aged, she continued to climb. She dedicated large portions of time to leading youngsters into the mountains. In 2012, she received a diagnosis of stomach cancer but kept pushing into the sky. On 20 October 2016, Junko Tabei died. Just four months earlier, despite the ravaging illness, she led children up Mt. Fuji.

She had simply followed her own advice. She had once stated a motto: “Do not give up. Keep on your quest.” Tabei followed this mantra to the end, perhaps leading the next generation’s young climbers on a path to greatness.

If those climbers wish to surpass the heights of Junko Tabei, they will need to reach lofty summits, indeed. An asteroid bears her name, as does a mountain range on Pluto. She easily merits a spot in the Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame at The Mountains Are Calling. Keep on your quest!

Photo by Jaan Künnap
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