No Heights Too Steep

Ms. Magazine

February 2013

The First Woman to Climb Everest is Now an Activist

DURING HER ASCENT OF Mount Everest in 1975, Junko Tabei narrowly avoided disaster. The Japanese mountaineer was buried in an avalanche as she
slept in her tent, more than 20,000 feet above sea level. After being rescued by her sherpas, Tabei opted to continue. Twelve days later, on May 16, she
reached the summit, becoming at age 35 the first woman to climb Mount Everest.

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Tabei recalls her relief as she gazed down from the icy, wind-swept roof of the world. But there was still a cruel descent. “It was much harder than climbing up,” Tabei remembers. “You need physical strength, but also need to push yourself mentally as well.”

She told herself to take one more step—something she still tells herself during climbs: “Eventually it must end.”

Nearly 38 years later, the 73-year old wife and mother of two is still climbing mountains—and helping others along the way. In 1992, Tabei became the first woman to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on all continents. Her life’s goal is to climb the highest mountain in every country. She has summited 60 so far, most recently in Algeria.

Junko Tabei, first woman to climb Everest

Junko Tabei, first woman to climb Everest

But after an earthquake and nuclear reactor meltdown devastated Japan’s Fukushima prefecture in March 2011, Tabei has focused close to home. Home is Tokyo, but she was born in Fukushima and is lending support to evacuees—by walking alongside them, literally. Since June 2011 she has led more than 14 hikes for hundreds of evacuees, men and women from age 30 to 80. Most treks were near Tokyo, while two hikes for tourists in safe areas of Fukushima encouraged support for the ravaged prefecture. The idea came when Tabei visited evacuees in shelters. “They said, ‘We’ve got nothing to do,’” she recalls.

Climbing mountains might seem irrelevant after trauma and loss, but many evacuees joined the treks. Though most had never hiked—many walked in sneakers—Tabei says she “could see the face of people changing. They were much brighter. Walking in nature really gives people courage.”

Tabei is not new to activism. She is chair of Himalayan Adventure Trust Japan, a nonprofit with about 1,000 members that works with Nepalese villagers near Everest and also fosters environmental conservation in Japan. Projects in Nepal include installing an incinerator to dispose of rubbish left by hordes of climbers.

“In 1970 in Kathmandu there were no cars—only rickshaws and cows. There was no pollution,” she says. “Now it is full of tall buildings;the air is polluted.” Thousands descend on the Himalayas during climbing season, and Tabei worries about water contamination and environmental degradation.In 2011 she was Nepal’s goodwill ambassador for tourism, tasked with raising awareness about the environment.

Protecting mountains and encouraging others to climb them is vital to Junko Tabei. Climbing her first mountain was “a great experience that opened the door for my future,” she says. “Being in the mountains is life itself.”

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