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Junko Tabei: First woman to scale Mt Everest

She became the world’s first woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, the world’s highest peak, on May 16, 1975. Her passion was propelled in part by the quest to defy odds, challenge stereotypes and prove wrong the chauvinist notion that doubts the ability of women to achieve goals like climbing Earth’s highest point.

inspiring-lives Updated: Jun 03, 2020 16:58 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
On June 28, 1992, Junko Tabei ascended the Puncak Jaya in Indonesia to become the first woman to complete the Seven Summits — that include the highest peak in every continent.
On June 28, 1992, Junko Tabei ascended the Puncak Jaya in Indonesia to become the first woman to complete the Seven Summits — that include the highest peak in every continent. (Illustration: Biswajit)

Born on September 22, 1939 in Miharu town located in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, Junko Ishibashi was the fifth daughter among seven children. Belying the impression of being frail, she attended a class climbing trip to Mt Nasu when she was 10 years old. Inspired by the experience, she developed a lifelong passion for mountaineering.

CAREER

Ishibashi graduated in English literature and education. She joined mountaineering clubs and kept sharpening her climbing skills on peaks in Japan, including the country’s highest — Mt. Fuji.

She had put in a stint with the Japanese Physics Society and edited the Journal of European Physics. Following her marriage to fellow mountaineer Masanobu Tabei, whom she met in 1965, she established Japan’s first of its kind Ladies Climbing Club (LCC) with the slogan “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves”.

In 1970, Junko Tabei joined an all-women expedition led by Eiko Miyuzaki to climb Annapurna III (24,787 ft.) in the Himalayas. Of the eight climbers, she alone reached the summit. The LCC included a unit named the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition that would attempt to summit Mt. Everest.

EVEREST EXPEDITION

In 1975, Tabei, as the climbing leader, and Miyuzaki, as the overall leader, planned an ascent on Mt. Everest. While doing so, they decided to follow the same route to ascend Mt Everest that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had taken in 1953.

When they sought backing from the Japanese business community, however, they were told by some that the expedition was a folly, that the world’s highest mountain was subject to frequent storms and that it would be a race against time because of the coming monsoons. Still she succeeded in obtaining funding from Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and Nippon Television.

Unfazed by the negative feedback and logistical challenges, the expedition got underway. On May 3, 1975, having retreated to Camp II because of worsening weather, Tabei and her tent-mates were woken up by an avalanche. When the sherpas dug them out, she had sustained bruises on the legs and the expedition seemed headed for doom. After three days, however, Tabei decided to proceed with their attempt to climb the Everest. On May 10, she and Sherpa Ang Tsering resumed their ascent. On May 16, 1975, Tabei became the first woman to scale the Everest.

OTHER ACHIEVEMENTS

During 1990–91, Tabei reached the summit of Mt. Vinson, Antarctica’s highest mountain. On June 28, 1992, she ascended the Puncak Jaya in Indonesia to become the first woman to complete the Seven Summits — that include the highest peak in every continent. She also worked on the ecological front and in 2000, completed post-graduation at the Kyushu University in the environmental degradation of Everest. She became the director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, which works globally to preserve mountain environments.

Tabei was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer in 2012 but continued many of her mountaineering activities. She passed away at a hospital in Kawagoe on October 20, 2016.

Interesting facts

In the wake of her historic Everest ascent, Junko Tabei’s statements revealed that she was not just a passionate mountaineer but also a self- effacing person. She was quoted as saying in the Telegraph that rather than being known as the first woman to climb Everest, she wanted to be remembered as the 36th person to achieve the feat. “I did not intend to be the first woman on Everest,” she said.

In November 2019, a mountain range on Pluto was named in honour of Tabei’s achievements. She was honoured on the theme “Historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in the exploration of the Earth, sea and sky”.

Tabei was quoted as having said that she had founded the Ladies Climbing Club prompted by the manner in which some male mountaineers of the time looked down women mountaineers, their capabilities and seriousness towards the adventure activity. Later, when she tried to find sponsors for the Everest expedition, Tabei said that she was frequently told that the women “should be raising children instead.”

Sources: britannica.com, encyclopedia.com, Wikipedia

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