Tabei, Junko (1939—)

views updated

Tabei, Junko (1939—)

Japanese mountaineer who was the first woman to climb Mt. Everest. Born Junko Ishibashi in Miharu Machi, in the Fukushima prefecture, Japan, in 1939; graduated from Showa Women's College, Tokyo,

1962; married Masanobu Tabei (a mountaineer), in 1959; children: daughter Noriko (b. 1972); son Shinya (b. 1978).

Made first all-female ascent of Central Buttress on Tanigawa-Dake (1965); was the first woman to climb Mt. Everest (1975).

Junko Tabei was born Junko Ishibashi in Miharu Machi, in the Fukushima prefecture of Japan, in 1939. While on school holiday at age ten, in a spirit of youthful independence, she climbed Yumoto (6,562 ft.). But the exuberant escapade was rare, since Tabei had an unhappy childhood and adolescence, hampered by societal restrictions. Then, just before college graduation, she began climbing once more. "[I]t was like some vital organ in my body had started to function again. This was the real me and I discovered myself by climbing mountains. I felt a great sense of freedom."

In 1962, she joined the Hakurei Mountaineering Club and found a job with the Japanese Physics Society, editing the Journal of European Physics. She trained on the highest mountain in Japan, Fuji (12,388 ft.), practicing how to break a fall with her ice axe. At 22, she climbed Goryu Dake and was soon out-climbing her companions. She then changed to a more demanding seven-member club, Rhyu ho toko. In 1956, she and Rumie Saso made the first all-female winter ascent of the Central Buttress (Ichino-kura) on Tanigawa-Dake. Saso was later killed on another expedition while trying to save her falling second.

In March 1970, Tabei joined an all-women expedition, which included and was led by Eiko Miyuzaki (Mrs. Eiko Hisano), to climb Annapurna III (24,787 ft.) in the Himalayas. Of the eight climbers and one doctor, Tabei alone reached the summit on May 19th.

In 1975, she (as climbing leader) and Miyuzaki (as overall leader) planned an attack on Mt. Everest, but when they sought backing from the Japanese business community, they were told it was folly. Everest was the highest mountain in the world, said the business leaders; it was subject to frequent storms, and there was a race against time because of the coming monsoons. Ten women attempting to climb Mt. Everest would undoubtedly fail. Finally, a newspaper and television station underwrote the venture, but the budget was lean. In 1973, an Italian expedition had cost £600,000; the 1974 Japanese Mountain Association assailed the mountain with the help of £200,000. Tabei's group had amassed only £86,000.

Despite this, the women proceeded, though they had to deal with a shortage of jumars, a mechanical device that aids climbing up fixed ropes; instead, they had to climb hand-over-hand. On May 3, 1975, having retreated to Camp II because of worsening weather, Tabei and her tentmates were awakened by an avalanche. When the sherpas dug them out, Tabei's legs were badly bruised and her hips stretched from being pulled out. The television crew began to write off the attempt, and there was mounting pressure on Tabei to abandon the cause. They had lost valuable time and the monsoons would soon start. But after three days, Tabei began to walk again. On May 10, she and Sherpa Sirdar Ang Tschering started up the mountain once more. By May 16th, they were preparing to attack the summit. Wrote Birkett and Peascod in Women Climbing:

Deep powder snow made the going very arduous. After reaching the South (lesser) summit they followed the ridge, which became increasingly knife-edged, to the technical crux, the Hillary step (a small, but very steep snow couloir, named after its first ascensionist, Edmund Hillary). The crest of the ridge was too narrow to walk on, so they traversed below it on one side, using the edge itself as a handhold…. A slip here would have been fatal, but soon the Hillary step was reached…. Resting many times, taking only one step at a time, she willed that there would be a last step. The sherpa's words: "Tabei San, this is the top," were just reward.

Thus, on May 16, 1975, Junko Tabei became the first woman to stand at the summit of Mt. Everest. She was 36. "Thank Goodness I don't have to go any higher," she joked. That same year, Phanthog , a Tibetan woman, followed. Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (1949–1996), the next woman to reach the top of Everest, died on the descent in the blizzard of 1996 that claimed seven other lives. It was one of the worst disasters in the history of Everest climbs.


Birkett, Bill, and Bill Peascod. Women Climbing: 200 Years of Achievement. London: A&C Black, 1989.

Tabei, Junko. Everest Mother. Shinco-Sha, 1982.

Unsworth, Walt. Everest. Allen Lane, 1981.