First Woman to Scale Mount Everest, Dies Age 77

Image belongs to Jaan Künnap

Junko Tabei, the first woman to reach the top of Mount Everest, passed away on October 20th, 2016 from abdominal cancer. She was 77.

Her record achievement on May 16th, 1975 formed a landmark for Japanese women at a time when it was popularly thought that a woman’s place was in the home, and her promotion in the workplace was unimaginable.

Then few supported her expedition’s bid to conquer Everest (“we were told we should be raising children instead,” she recalled), so she paid her own share by teaching piano, made climbing pants from old curtains, stuffed her own sleeping bag and made waterproof gloves from the cover of her car.

More difficulties followed on the mountain. Encamped 6,500m up in a glacial valley, the expedition was woken by the sound of an avalanche rushing down the Lhotse and Nuptse wall. Junko and other climbers were pinned in their tent by the snow. Unable to get up or see, she managed to grab the penknife that hung around her neck and hold it up. As she blacked out, a support climber grabbed it, cut through the tent, tunnelled through the snow and called for help.

An avalanche in the same valley is captured from a safe distance.

Although shaken by the experience, she continued to lead the expedition on a summit attempt less than two weeks later. On May 16th she successfully crossed the sky-high ridge separating China and Nepal, and buried a thermos of coffee in the summit snow to announce her arrival to the mountain goddess.

Following her success on Everest, Junko became an outspoken advocate for sustainable mountaineering. During her graduate studies at Kyushu University she researched the Everest garbage problem and found that more than 1 million litres of urine had been released at Base Camp (5,364m) as of 2000, leading to pollution of the meltwater that villages below depended on. Also as director of the Japanese chapter of the Himalayan Adventure Trust, she helped in the building of an incinerator to reduce the trash left behind by climbers.

Over the years she kept on scaling peaks. By the time she was 70, she had conquered the highest points of 56 countries, and written seven books as well. She also became the first woman to reach the highest summits of all seven continents.

After her cancer diagnosis in 2012, Junko continued to mountaineer in places like Oman, Niger and Luxembourg, only slowing down in her last months.

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