First Woman to Climb Everest Dies, Her Revolution Continues

Climbing can be hard for women to break into. Junko Tabei fought to change that.

In the often male-dominated sport of climbing, a few women have made it easier for others to succeed in the field. The sport lost one of these pioneers this week.

Junko Tabei, the first woman to conquer Mt. Everest, died Thursday of peritoneal cancer at age 77. Her lifelong love of climbing propelled her to summit the world’s highest peak, climb a mountain on every continent, write books about climbing and family and help earthquake survivors by promoting climbing.

She also opened doors for female climbers from all over the world.

Tabei summited Everest, at 8,848 meters, in 1975. In the 40 years since her ascent, many women have followed in her footsteps. More than 400 women have since reached the summit, including youngest, Malavath Poorna, who was 13 when she reached the top, and Lapka Sherpa, who has reached the top more times than any other woman.

Mount Everest was first summited in 1953. More than 7,000 people have reached the summit since then, but only around 200 have done so without supplemental oxygen. Most climbers are aided by the Sherpa people, who have served as guides in the Himalayas for hundreds of years.

In this vintage photograph, a climber treks along a rock face as part of the Everest climb.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ASSOCIATED PRESS


Sherpas trek across a river carrying supplies as part of an Everest climb in this vintage photograph.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

This vintage climbing photograph shows hikers going around a bend as a part of their Mount Everest climb.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ASSOCIATED PRESS


Japanese climber Junko Tabei, the first woman to summit Mt. Everest in 1975, is greeted by friends during a procession celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ascent of the world's highest mountain on May 27, 2003 in Kathmandu, Nepal.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAULA BRONSTEIN/GETTY IMAGES

First to reach the top of the world, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were all smiles in Kathmandu, Nepal, where they posed in their climbing gear weeks after their famous ascent.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

The first American woman to summit Everest without using supplementary oxygen, Melissa Arnot, has also summitted the mountain more times than any other non-Nepalese woman. She has said she wants women to be able to thrive in the climbing community.

Climbing is not necessarily easy for women now that the sport has opened up to them, however. Ben Ayers, director of a program that helps remote villages in Nepal, pointed out additional challenges, including some Tabei raised in a book about the difficulties she faced having a family while pursuing climbing.

“Professional mountaineers like Melissa are forced to be equal parts explorers and media personalities,” he said. “And, for women, this includes the unavoidable casting as sex symbols and criticism when female athletes become parents, yet continue to take risks in the mountains.”

Tabei’s climbing career started with a women’s mountaineering club founded after she graduated from Showa Women’s University, where she learned to climb. She and 14 other club members went on an expedition in the Himalayas when it was unpopular for women to do so.

“Back in 1970s Japan, it was still widely considered that men were the ones to work outside and women would stay at home,” Tabei told the Japan Times.

She didn’t let that stop her, though, and has continued to climb since, spending her life climbing and promoting climbing. She was the first woman to reach the highest point on each continent, also known as the “Seven Summits” climb. Tabei set a new goal of climbing the highest mountain in every country, and succeeded at climbing more than 60.

“I’ve never felt like stopping climbing—and I never will,” she said.

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