When I first decided to write about remarkable women paving their way, I focused on trailblazers—epic women doing amazing things and breaking barriers. One woman who truly fits the bill is Junko Tabei.
Junko Tabei is a freaking badass. Pardon my language, but she is. She was the first woman to summit Mt. Everest, and she led other women on climbing excursions as well! Talk about blazing a trailer and lifting others with you.
Junko was born in Fukushima in 1939. She was one of seven children and considered weak and sickly in her youth. However, she didn’t let that stop her from joining her class on a climbing field trip to Mount Nasu when she was ten years old. That trip started her love affair with climbing.
Unfortunately, Junko Tabei came from a low-income family, and they couldn’t afford to buy her climbing gear or take her on expeditions. She tried to do some climbing in high school, but it was constrained and no one knows where she climbed during this time.
She was able to join a women’s climbing club when she went to college at Showa Women’s University. While on an outing with a club, she discovered the Alpine Club, an all-male climbing organization. She longed to join, but membership was restricted to men at the time. So, after graduating, she started her own club – The Ladies Climbing Club. Their slogan was “let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.” It was the first all-female climbing club in Japan.
Preparing for Mount Everest
After a smaller successful expedition to scale Annapurna III, the Ladies Climbing Club decided to climb Mount Everest. One of Tabei’s main goals before the expedition was to gain sponsorship however many people at organizations at the time dismissed the idea of a women’s expedition to scale Mount Everest. Women should be home raising babies, not climbing mountains, was the common theme of denial.
Junko Tabei didn’t let that kind of sexism get her down. She managed to score two sponsorships for the expedition, one from a newspaper and the other from a television channel. Those two weren’t even close to enough to pay for the entire exhibition, so the Ladies Club had to be frugal and hustle. They made their own sleeping bags, sewed their own gloves, and even collected jam and provisions from their students. At the beginning of 1975, they were ready.
Scaling the Mountain
Fifteen women from the Ladies Climbing Club joined the expedition to Mount Everest. It was known as the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition (JWEE). They followed the same path that Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (the first confirmed climbers to reach the peak) took in 1953.
The Women’s expedition was not without hardship. In early May, an avalanche struck the camp, burying Junko Tabei. Fortunately, a Sherpa was able to dig her out, but she lost consciousness for 6 minutes. The Ladies Climbing Club didn’t let the avalanche stop them. On May 16, 1975, Junko Tabei reached the summit – the first woman in history to achieve such a feat.
Upon returning from the JWEE, Tabei became a minor celebrity. She did the news circuits and even had a TV mini-series made about her. She wasn’t a fan of the fame, though – she just wanted to keep climbing. And that she did.
In 1991, she scaled Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, and in 1992, she reached the summit of Punkak Jaya in Indonesia, becoming the first woman to climb the seven summits. In addition to climbing, she worked in ecology, dedicating her life to helping preserve the landscapes she spent so much time enjoying. Her main focus was studying the effects of wastes that human climbers left on Mount Everest and how it affected the landscape. Tabei passed away in 2016, at the age of 77.
Why I Admire Junko Tabei
There is so much to admire about Junko Tabei. She wanted something, and she didn’t stop until she made it happen. She was an adventurer and a trailblazer. One of the main reasons I admire her is that I want to be like her! I want to live a life full of expedition and adventure (though I don’t actually want to climb Mount Everest, that sounds terrible).
I also admire her because she persevered in the face of extreme sexism. Can you imagine, as a woman, being repeatedly told you couldn’t do something because you should be at home raising babies? I know this attitude is still prevalent today, but it’s not nearly as ubiquitous. We still have a lot of sexism to deal with, but it was women like Junko Tabei who paved the way for the rest of us to be able to follow our own dreams. I admire her greatly for that.
Extraordinary Women Paving Their Own Way
Women’s history month is almost over, and so this ends our short mini-series on incredible women who paved their own way. I hope that learning about Susan Hendrickson, Katherine Johnson, and Junko Tabei was fun for you. Maybe if I come across more stories of awesome women, I’ll continue to share them!