Imagine all the possibilities. Open up a world map. Decide where, when, how and with whom. Then pack your knapsack and go. It’s that simple for Junko Tabei when it comes to climbing mountains, no matter how high.
Tabei is the first woman to scale the “Seven Summits” — the highest peaks on all seven continents.
She conquered Mount Everest in 1975, Kilimanjaro in 1980, Aconcagua peak in South America in 1987, Mount McKinley in Alaska, Elbrus in Georgia in 1989, Vinson Massif in Antarctica in 1991 and Australia’s Kosciusko in 1992.
When Tabei arrived at the summit of the world’s tallest mountain at 8,850 meters and hit the headlines, she was quoted as saying: “I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest. It’s only a mountain.”
Twenty-eight years later, at age 63, with a husband and two children, Tabei says she is nowhere near giving up her favorite pastime, which began at the age of 10 when she went on a summer trek to Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, with her homeroom teacher.
“I returned from Patagonia for television shooting two days ago. In May, I’m planning a 10-day trip to Cuba, where I’ll climb a 2,000-meter mountain, and in the summer I’m going to Turkey,” she said earlier this month.
“I met my husband on a mountain, so my family has always been very supportive. I’m going to continue climbing until I’m incapable. Maybe when I’m 70 I’ll slow down, but until then, I’ll keep going and do whatever my body can handle,” she said.
As a child growing up in Fukushima Prefecture, Tabei, the youngest of seven siblings, had weak lungs and often came down with a high fever and pneumonia. She never considered herself an athlete.
She got serious about mountain climbing soon after graduating from college, where she had her first rock-climbing experience. She chose the sport because it allowed her to work at her own pace and was noncompetitive.
What the 152-cm-tall Tabei appreciates most about climbing is its simplicity. Her daily workout consists only of stretching, eating properly and walking with custom-made shoes.
“Anyone with a pair of feet who can walk can climb,” she said. “The most important thing is not being concerned about having the money, time or skills to climb, but the desire. Don’t think too hard. Just do it.”
Although Tabei admits climbing involves life-threatening risks and that there have been times when she’s considered quitting altogether, the unseen beauty of nature and its unlimited healing power have lured her back each time.
“The mountain teaches me a lot of things. It makes me realize how trivial my personal problems are,” she said. “It also teaches me that life should not be taken for granted.
“When I’m exhausted at the end of the day, I’m thankful that I’m at least safe and alive. When my child gets a bad grade on a test, I tell myself it’s not a big deal. I don’t gripe. I’m able to look at the bigger picture. Climbing has changed my values.”
Tabei said mountaineering has also taught her to become a more humble person and less accustomed to the age of modern technology, in which devices “can be turned on or off with a single switch” and people complain when something breaks down without warning.
“Once you’re in the mountains, there’s no convenience store to run to when you’re hungry,” she joked.
Tabei is director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, an organization dedicated to preserving mountainous environments, and she travels around the country to talk about her passion.
She schedules seven or eight overseas tours a year in addition to her monthly visits to mountains in Japan, including skiing trips.
Aside from the two-plus years she spent away from climbing owing to pregnancy, Tabei’s yearly agenda since 1970 has always focused on scaling mountains and making friends in the process.
When asked how she would really like to be referred to after already being dubbed a “housewife climber” and “Everest mommy,” Tabei was quick to reply with a smile: “I’m a free spirit. Call me the free spirit of the mountains.”
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