At 4ft 9ins, Junko Tabei may have been small, but she was mighty. Defying all stereotypes, the Japanese mountaineer became the first woman to climb Everest in May 1975. Seventeen years later, Junko completed the “Seven Summits” – climbing the highest peaks of all the continents. She was the first female to achieve such a feat.
Junko’s incredible life story has proved a huge inspiration, encouraging and inspiring many women to take on their own walking holidays and adventures around the globe. Let’s take a look at her unbelievable achievements.
Born to Climb?
Junko was born in Miharu, Fukushima, in 1939. She fell in love with climbing after a school trip at ten years old, leading her to join a climbing club – at which she was usually the only woman in attendance. Unbelievably, some of the men refused to climb with her, while others thought she was only a member of the club to find a husband. It’s no surprise then that in 1969 she formed her very own climbing club – and this one was for women only. Junko worked her way up, quite literally – scaling many a mountain until she was a recognised mountaineer. It wasn’t long before Junko set her sights on climbing Everest and joined the four-year waiting list with a group of women from her Club.
Upon raising sponsorship for their Everest expedition, the ladies were repeatedly told they should be at home “raising children”. Even after a newspaper and TV network agreed to sponsor them, they were still short – so each woman had to pay a large sum from their own pockets. No less than 15 mountaineers and six Sherpas set out to reach the summit, but at 9,000 feet camp was buried by an avalanche. Junko was buried and knocked unconscious, but the Sherpas managed to pull her out, and incredibly there were no fatalities. Junko took a few days to recover but carried on up, with just a guide for company. Twelve days later, she reached the summit on her hands and knees and made history.
Nonetheless, Junko insisted she’d rather be known as the 36th person to climb Everest rather than the first female.
The Seven Summits
Junko’s achievement made her a household name in Japan, but she shied away from the attention and instead set her sights on another history-making mission – to become the first woman to complete the Seven Summits challenge, climbing the highest peak on all seven continents. By 1992, she’d conquered Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mt. Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Mt. Elbrus in Europe, Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, and Puncak Jaya in the South Pacific.
A Lifetime Passion
In 2002, married mum-of-two Junko returned to school to study ecology. She was passionate about overcrowding on Everest, insisting it needed a “rest”. Junko also served as the director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, dedicated to preserving mountain environments. Junko was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2012 but that didn’t stop her leading a youth exhibition up Mt. Fuji in July 2016. She passed away just three months later, at the age of 77.