It’s May 16th, 1975 near the top of Mount Everest.
Japanese climber Junko Tabei stares at the perilous strip of land separating her from the mountain’s peak. She shudders at the almost 20,000-foot drop on either side of the narrow ridge.
Trembling, Junko digs one of her spiked boots into the ground, but she struggles to find stable footing.
Unable to balance upright, Junko gets on all fours and straddles the ridge with her body. With her upper half on one side and her lower body on the other, Junko begins to crawl sideways.
But, as she crosses the ridge, she can feel her grip loosening.
Junko gasps as one of her feet slips out from under her. But she catches herself just before she falls.
Steadying her nerves, she kicks the spikes beneath her boots even harder into the ice, determined not to give up. With her eyes fixed on the end of the ridge, Junko begins to climb the narrow strip of land, before making her way to the top of Mount Everest.
Born in the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima in 1939, Junko Tabei grew up amidst widespread poverty induced by World War II. Junko, an especially small woman, was branded a “weak” child at an early age. And, she never grew taller than 4’9” or exceeded 100 pounds.
But, a fourth-grade field trip to the mountains planted the seeds of a lifelong passion that turned the diminutive Junko into a formidable climber. Throughout her life, Junko will defy expectations as the pull of adventure leads her to the top of Mount Everest, making her the first woman to summit the world’s tallest mountain on May 16th, 1975.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 16th, 1975:The first woman to climb Mount Everest.
Act One: Finding Community
It’s 1962 inside an office building in Tokyo.
At her desk, Junko Tabei inspects a scientific research paper, scanning the document for grammatical errors.
But, as she reads, Junko’s mind wanders. For a moment, she lets herself look up from the paper and stare out the window. In the distance, she sees the outline of Mount Fuji and feels a pang of longing.
Junko’s fourth-grade field trip to the mountains left her enamored with climbing. But, the hobby was too expensive for Junko’s family to afford. And, with dreams of eventually becoming a teacher, Junko instead focused her attention on her education. Still, Junko never lost her interest in the sport.
Since graduating from Showa Women’s University earlier this year, Junko has worked as an editor for a scientific journal and earns enough money to finance regular climbing trips. She now participates in several climbing clubs, but all are intended to be male-only. And as the only woman in these clubs, Junko struggles to feel like she belongs.
On a recent trip, Junko was reminded of her outsider status. While some of the men welcomed her, others refused to climb alongside a woman. Many questioned Junko’s ability and her motives for trying her hand at the male-dominated sport. Some of her fellow climbers even accused her of climbing solely to find a husband.
Junko can’t help but feel the sting of some of the men’s comments. With each pointed remark, the male climbers remind Junko of a popular Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.”
Junko knows though, she will never give up climbing, no matter how hammered down her male peers sometimes make her feel. But, still, Junko longs for the day she no longer feels like the nail that sticks out.
With a sigh, she returns her attention to the manuscript on her desk and gets back to work.
Despite her peers’ barbs, Junko will not allow the male climbers to quell her passion for the sport. And, after seven years of participating in men’s organizations, Junko will decide to create her own community, forming Japan’s first all-female climbing club.
It’s May of 1970 at the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal.
A group of Japanese women climbs the area’s third-tallest mountain. At their helm is Junko. For a moment, she turns her eyes to the women behind her, checking that everyone appears comfortable with her pace.
Last year, Junko formed an all-female climbing club. And today, the group is on their inaugural expedition, a trek up Annapurna III. Standing at nearly 25,000 feet tall, this mountain is a formidable climb. And if successful, the team will become the first woman, and only the second expedition in history, to reach the top.
And so far, the task has proved difficult. As group leader, Junko has had to confront an unexpected obstacle: the Japanese value of stoicism, a code of behavior the women have practiced their entire lives. Junko and her fellow climbers have been conditioned to believe in the stoic virtue of silent suffering. And on the mountain, this principle has translated into a troublesome lack of communication between the climbers.
Now, as Junko checks in on her fellow mountaineers, she notices a few women lagging behind. Spotting their pale faces, she worries they may be silently suffering from altitude sickness.
For a moment, Junko pauses, wrestling with what to do or say. She doesn’t want to draw undue attention to the struggling women and risk embarrassing them in front of the group. But, Junko also knows that, as group leader, it’s her responsibility to make sure everyone is okay and comes back down the mountain in good shape.
So, Junko makes her way to the back of the line. As she nears, she sees that the women appear lethargic and disoriented. But when asked how they're feeling, the women quickly brush off their leader’s concern.
Still, Junko can see that they need a break. She motions for the group to pause their ascent and waits for the women to recover, before setting off at a slower pace.
And over the coming weeks, Junko makes a point to encourage her fellow climbers to voice their limits and accept help from one another, while also reminding herself to do the same.
Before long, the expedition closes in on the mountain’s summit. And as the climbers draw near, Junko and one other woman are chosen to complete the final climb to the top. Together, they become the first women, and the first Japanese climbers, to summit the mountain on May 19th, 1970.
Though the physical feat will be historic, it will be the dissolution of the group’s social conditioning that will leave the most lasting mark on Junko. Reflecting on the expedition, Junko will later say, “When we began…we were determined to only show each other our strong sides," but "when you are climbing a mountain, your life depends on the exact opposite. You can't be reserved and not say what you think or feel."
Upon returning to Tokyo, Junko will carry a new assertiveness with her, finding the confidence and self-assurance necessary to set sights on her most ambitious undertaking yet.
Act Two: Tackling Everest
It’s 1971 at Junko’s home in Tokyo.
Inside, Junko sits at her dining room table and fills out paperwork for her climbing club’s next big venture, an expedition to Mount Everest.
Shortly after their ascent of Mount Annapurna III, Junko formed a fifteen-person team called the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition and began training for the trek.
But, before the team can ever set foot on the mountain, they need to obtain permission from the government of Nepal. Junko needs to submit an application for a climbing permit that will dictate their place in Everest’s formal climbing schedule.
But Junko’s permit request is only the first step in securing their shot at climbing Mount Everest. Beyond completing the necessary physical training, the women still need to find the money to finance the Expedition.
For months, Junko contacts potential donors. But no one gives her any money. Instead, most tell her that it’s impossible for women to climb Mount Everest. Now the mother of a young daughter, many also tell Junko that women like her should be raising children, not climbing mountains.
But Junko is persistent. She finds a willing donor in the owners of a Japanese newspaper and television network, who agreed to fund Junko's endeavor but not enough to cover all of the costs. Even with their assistance, each group member still needs to come up with 1.5 million yen, the equivalent of 35,000 US dollars today.
To help raise this money, Junko teaches piano lessons out of her home. She also reduces her expenses by making her own climbing gear from scratch, creating waterproof gloves out of the cover for her car, and sewing trousers from old curtains.
In the end, the group manages to raise the necessary funds, and, eventually, the government of Nepal approves the Expedition’s climbing permit. Still, it will be four years before the team receives their place in Mount Everest's climbing schedule. But, in the spring of 1975, Junko and her teammates will finally head to the Himalayas.
It’s the night of May 4th, 1975 on the slope of Mount Everest.
Junko tosses and turns inside her sleeping bag at her team’s camp, trying her best to fall asleep. After weeks of climbing the sub-zero temperatures, Junko is eager to finish their ascent of Everest. But with a strenuous last leg still to come, Junko knows she needs the rest to make it to the top.
At just over 29,000 feet, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain above sea level in the world. So far, Junko and her team have climbed for nearly two months and scaled over 20,000 feet. At their current pace, they will reach the mountain’s peak in a couple of weeks. But tonight, Junko forces herself to stop thinking about the logistics and expedition, and instead, do her best to relax. Eventually, she falls into a deep sleep.
But soon, an ominous rumbling wakes her. As Junko sits up in her tent, she realizes it’s the sound of an avalanche. But, before she has time to react, it sweeps down the mountain, collides with her tent, and buries her in her sleeping bag.
Trapped and unable to breathe, Junko thinks of her three-year-old daughter and wonders what will happen to her if she dies. For a brief moment, Junko imagines her daughter weeping at her funeral back in Tokyo. But, Junko quickly stops herself from thinking that way. She’s determined to stay alive for her daughter, her teammates, and herself.
Unable to move, trapped under the huge weight of snow and ice, Junko can only pray that her teammates will find her in time. Under the pressure of the avalanche, Junko goes in and out of consciousness six times before her fellow climbers dig her out.
Bruised and injured, Junko spends two days resting and recovering her ability to walk. But, Junko is undeterred by the setback. As soon as she’s able, she resumes leading the expedition up the mountain. And in less than two weeks later, the women approach the mountain’s peak.
Originally, the group wanted to send two women to the summit accompanied by a sherpa; a member of a local tribe native to the region tasked with guiding climbers. But, as they near the top, it becomes clear that the sherpa can only carry enough oxygen to accompany one woman. After a group discussion, the team nominates Junko to complete the climb.
The remainder of the ascent proves perilous for Junko who is forced to crawl sideways across an unexpected narrow ridge leading to the mountain's peak. She will later describe her crossing of this 50-foot stretch as the most tense experience of her life. But refusing to turn back, Junko carefully and slowly traverses the ridge.
And on May 16th, 1975, Junko Tabei becomes the first woman, and only the 36th person in history to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
But it will hardly be the end of Junko’s climbing pursuits. Over the next 30 years, Junko will take part in 44 female climbing expeditions all around the world. She will scale the highest mountain on every continent, becoming the first woman to complete what is known as the Seven Summits challenge. And not long after, Junko will set a new goal of climbing the highest mountain in every country in the world. She will conquer 70 of nearly 200 mountains, but in the end, her mission will be cut short by a tragedy.
Act Three: Junko’s Legacy
It’s July 2016 at Mount Fuji in Japan.
Junko Tabei smiles as she leads a group of high schoolers up the mountain. After years of tragedy, Junko does her best to enjoy these moments of peace and happiness.
In 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan shook the country to its core, killing tens of thousands. A tsunami following the earthquake also led to meltdowns at a nuclear power plant in Junko’s home province of Fukushima, resulting in the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
In response to the devastation, Junko began organizing annual climbs up Japan’s Mount Fuji for the schoolchildren affected by the disaster in Fukushima. But, this year, Junko worried she wouldn’t be able to make the trip herself.
Four years ago, Junko was diagnosed with stomach cancer. For a while, she was able to continue with many of her mountaineering activities. But recently, her health has taken a turn for the worse. Still, Junko was determined to join the students on Mount Fuji one last time. Able to receive special permission from her doctor, Junko now happily climbs alongside the other children, scaling the same mountain that, decades earlier, was one of her first major conquests as a mountaineer.
But, as Junko reaches an elevation of 10,000 feet, she begins to feel her declining health catching up with her. Recognizing her new limitations, Junko stops short of the mountain’s peak. Instead of powering through like she might’ve done in her past, Junko turns around and begins her descent.
The Mount Fuji expedition will prove to be Junko’s last. Three months later, at the age of 77, Junko will pass away. Though most commonly celebrated for her ascent of Mount Everest, Junko Tabei will leave behind a legacy far more expansive.
At the age of 61, Junko obtained a master's degree in comparative social culture with a concentration on the environmental degradation of Mount Everest. Shifting her focus to ecological issues, Junko became an important voice for mountain conservation, devoting her time to preserving mountain environments and mitigating the ecological toll of mountaineers.
All the while, Junko remained a mountaineering anomaly, eschewing corporate sponsorship and instead working as a mountain guide, tutor, and public speaker to fund her expeditions entirely by herself.
By the time of her death in 2016, Junko became a role model, not just for women, but for anyone choosing to stray from the beaten path. Often in her public speeches, Junko revisited the old Japanese proverb that once echoed in her head, encouraging others to “be the nail that sticks out.” Because, in the end, it was Junko’s defiance of norms and expectations that allowed her to leave behind a legacy that extends even beyond her historic ascent up Mount Everest on May 16th, 1975.
Next on History Daily. May 17th, 1638. Pirates sack the city of Veracruz in New Spain, taking a large group of hostages, and holding them for ransom.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.