The most enduring feat of the late alpinist Junko Tabei – becoming the first woman to climb Mount Everest – almost ended in disaster. On the 4th May 1975, 2,500 metres from the summit, Tabei’s all-female camp was overwhelmed by an avalanche. Pinned underneath her four companions, she just managed to pass a penknife to the expedition leader to cut them free of the collapsed tent’s fabric before she passed out.
It took two days before Tabei was able to walk, let alone climb, but midway between the safety of base camp and the eternal satisfaction of Everest’s summit, she was determined to continue.
Twelve days later Tabei and Ang Tshering, the Sherpa guiding her, rested on Everest’s South Summit. Astonishingly, none of the previous summiteers had warned the duo of the final challenge, one that made her “shudder with shock and anger”. Tabei would have to negotiate a slender 15-metre ridge – a knife-edge beset by howling winds that forms the frontier between Nepal and China – knowing that one mistake would see her plunge to certain death: 5,000 metres to Tibet on one side and 6,000 metres on the other.
With her upper body in Chinese territory and her legs in Nepal, she crawled with the monkey grip of a condemned prisoner at the final hour. “I had never felt that tense in my entire life.” Everest’s tiny rectangular summit – “smaller than a tatami mat” – brought only relief. After a lifetime of doubt, perseverance and scorn in her native Japan she returned home to a hero’s welcome.
A victim of Japan’s post-war devastation, Tabei grew up a frail child – in her late teens she measured a diminutive 4ft 9in – yet a school trip to climb 2,291-metre-high Mount Asahi piqued her interest in mountaineering. Though cultural norms precluded a career as a full- time mountain climber, after graduating from university in 1962 she joined several male-only climbing clubs. Many members joked that she only signed up to find a husband, and ironically she did find one. Ignoring the disapproval of her parents she married fellow climber Masanobu Tabei who, as she went on ever-more dramatic climbs, would hold down a job at Honda, caring for their two children.
In 1969 Tabei smashed social barriers by forming the first all-women climbing club. The society’s charmingly naive motto, ‘Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves’, summed up the group’s simple expectations. Their first challenge was to fund a mission to Annapurna, a Himalayan mountain that has the highest fatality-to-summit ratio of the 8,000-metre-plus peaks. Typical of the group, Tabei worked overtime at her day job as a science editor, moonlighting as a piano tutor and English teacher in order to fund the trip.
The club’s pioneering southern ascent up the 7,555-metre-high Annapurna III a year later was so demanding that only four climbers reached the peak. Even the film in the expedition cameras fractured in the bone-chilling cold. But it was there, at the summit, that Tabei realised she would have to trade the stoic suffering and monotonous grind of Japanese employment to become a career alpinist.
Unlike today, when a thousand climbers crowd Everest every year, in the 1970s the Nepali government restricted summit attempts to one per season. The Japanese group had to wait five long years for their once-in-a-lifetime assault. Even for the now-famous summiteer, sponsorship was hard to come by in patriarchal Japan – “We were told we should be raising children,” Tabei recalled. So instead, climbing pants were fashioned from old curtains, and sleeping bags and gloves were stitched on Tabei’s sewing machine, using fabric purloined from her waterproof vehicle cover.
Undaunted and unbowed, Tabei went on to top another 55 of the world’s most challenging peaks. These include the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each continent), the formidable Antarctic massif of Mount Vinson in 1991 and the snow-topped equatorial peak of Puncak Jaya, a year later. Until her death in 2016, the ever-modest Tabei scorned success, claiming she was “only the 36th person” to climb the world’s highest peak. “I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest,” she once said in a nod to the ‘size matters’ machismo that has tempted around 5,000 mostly male climbers to follow in her wake. “It’s only a mountain.”