Books

Mountain High: Junko Tabei’s adventures at the top of the world

by Tim Hornyak

Contributing Writer

On May 16, 1975, Junko Tabei carved out her spot in history when she became the first woman to scale Mount Everest.

Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei, by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe, Translated by Yumiko Hiraki and Reiko Holtvet.
376 pages
ROCKY MOUNTAIN BOOKS, Nonfiction.

At the time a housewife and the mother of a 3-year-old, Tabei had survived an avalanche at 6,400 meters that struck in the middle of the night two weeks prior. Any normal person would have retreated, but Tabei picked up the pieces and continued straight into the “death zone” (the point above 8,000 meters where there is not enough oxygen for humans to breathe). She became the only member of her expedition, comprising a core group of 15 women, to make it to the top of the world when she summited with Ang Tsering Sherpa.

Some 75 percent of Japan is mountainous and it’s hardly surprising that the country has produced a number of world-class alpinists including Yuichiro Miura and Ken Noguchi. Tabei, though, broke new ground for women everywhere with her Everest ascent (she was only the 38th person to summit) as well as her 1992 completion of the “Seven Summits” — she was the first woman to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents, including Antarctica’s Mount Vinson.

When I interviewed Tabei in late 2013, I was taken aback by her physical stature. There she was, all of 152 centimeters tall and with a twinkle in her eye, like any Japanese grandmother intent on sharing a story about bygone years. In her office in Tokyo’s Ichigaya, she showed me something marvelous: the old wooden iceaxe from her Everest ascent.

“The final ascent was a step-by-step struggle, but when I arrived I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of achievement. It was more like relief. I couldn’t believe the climb was finally over and I had to go down instead of up,” she recalled. “The precious thing about that moment was, beyond being the first woman there, the summit of Everest was utterly beautiful, without a single manmade object in sight.”

Tabei was born in 1939 in Miharu, a small town in Fukushima Prefecture, the youngest daughter of seven children. As a young child she suffered pneumonia several times and was physically weak, performing poorly at sports, but she had a gift for singing. When she was 10, however, a school trip to Mount Nasu and Mount Asahi in the Nasu Mountain Range in Tochigi Prefecture changed her life.

“I’d never seen such scenery of sand and rocks and strange smells — even though it was a mountain, it had no greenery,” she told me. “There was a stream of hot water and it was cold at the top even in summer. This wasn’t something I had learned about in school. It was something I could experience directly, physically by walking and seeing it with my own eyes. It was really intense and I wanted more of it. That was the starting point for me and I still feel it.”

The experience made Tabei a tirelessly passionate alpinist. She went on to learn winter mountaineering after graduating from Showa Women’s University in Tokyo and, at a time when mountaineering clubs in Japan routinely banned women, she founded the Ladies Climbing Club in 1969. The following year, she became the first woman to reach the 7,555-meter summit of Mount Annapurna III.

I didn’t know it when I met her, but Tabei was suffering from cancer. She continued climbing peaks around the world after her 2012 diagnosis. In July 2016, she made it to 3,010 meters on Mount Fuji to encourage a group of students from parts of Tohoku hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. On her deathbed, she scribbled a note to her husband Masanobu, “I am not a sick person,” along with a sketch of Mount Everest. She passed away in October 2016 at age 77, having climbed the highest peaks of 73 countries.

Tabei became a celebrity with her conquest of Everest and wrote a number of books about her exploits. Until recently, most of her writing was only available in Japanese. Fortunately, excerpts have been translated and compiled into “Honouring High Places,” a beautifully illustrated retrospective from Rocky Mountain Books. It contains hair-raising tales of survival — and a very believable ghost story — as well as insights into Tabei’s indomitable spirit. In one example, Tabei relates how she gave a presentation at a Japanese university and one student asked whether it was true that female mountaineers aren’t good looking. She quipped, “If you look at me, you know that isn’t the case.”

“My impression of Tabei is one of strength, clear mindedness, confidence and determination. I love that she believed in a person’s will to succeed, and that all goals are achievable one step at a time,” says co-author Helen Y. Rolfe, who rewrote Tabei’s texts into first-person memoirs. This was an opinion shared by many; as part of the fact-checking process, translator Yumiko Hiraki contacted one of Nepal’s embassies to confirm the spelling of a Sherpa’s name. The embassy’s response was immediate: “For Junko Tabei, we’ll do anything.”

Tabei’s legacy includes the Junko Tabei Fund, which is dedicated to promoting outdoor activities such as Mount Fuji trips for students, and a new permanent exhibit at the Miharu History & Folk Museum. But perhaps the most important thing she left behind can be seen on mountains throughout Japan.

In the memoir that closes “Honouring High Places,” her longtime friend Setsuko Kitamura writes: “Whenever I see hikers and mountaineers, irrespective of age and gender, wrapped in bright-colored outfits here and there in Japan, I cannot help taking it as the new scenery made possible by Junko Tabei, as that sight was not present or even thought of prior to her Everest (expedition). By demonstrating that we, the women, can do, and then we the middle-senior aged can do as Tabei did when she reached that age group, she continued opening the door to nature for all.”