Passport to Adventure: Junko Tabei

Passport to Adventure – our series highlighting bold women who defied expectations throughout history – is back! This month we’re highlighting Junko Tabei, a legendary mountaineer from Japan.

Junko Tabei (born 1939) was a Japanese mountaineer, renown worldwide for being the first woman to climb Mt. Everest. Defying societal and gender expectations, Junko never deterred from her passion of climbing, which blossomed from a very young age.

After learning that women were prohibited from joining mountaineering groups in 1970’s Japan, she founded a climbing club with the mantra that women could and should lead their own expeditions. Her club (Joshi-Tohan Club) conquered Nepal’s Annapurna III and set their sights on Mt. Everest, which had a 4-year waiting list for climbing permits at the time.

An illustration of Junko Tabei by Ashley Hay

Junko led 15 women from her new mountaineering group on the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition in 1975 to Everest’s summit. Before setting off, they lobbied for sponsorships to fund their expedition. Due to the aforementioned sexism, they struggled to raise adequate funding and had to create makeshift gear like sleeping bags themselves, and relied on recycled material.

While on their ascent, Junko and her climbing group encountered a massive avalanche, which buried Junko and knocked her unconscious, along with four other club climbers. Luckily, the trusty sherpa they brought along saved them. Junko was injured from the encounter, but after a couple of days of rest she and her team blazed ahead to their goal. After a tumultuous climb, there was only enough oxegyn bottles for one woman to continue, and Tabei was nominated to finish the climb, catapulting her to international fame.

Junko never stopped climbing. In 1992, she became the first woman to mount the Seven Summits in the world – the highest mountain on each continent. From Nepal to Indonesia, she conquered Everest, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Elbrus, Denali, Vinson Massif, and Carstensz Pyramid.

Her love for climbing didn’t end with the physical sport. In 2002, Junko returned to studies and focused on Ecology. She researched environmental degradation and later joined the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan as their director, and even authored books on the topic. They were focused on protecting the fragility of high-alpine environments in order to preserve them.

Sadly, Junko was diagnosed with cancer In 2012. She kept climbing as long as her body allowed her, and passed away in 2016.

You can read more about Junko at The Heroine Collective and adventure journal.

Check out this adorable video from PBS Kids about Junko as well;