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Once upon a time, there was a girl who climbed to the very top of the world. Her name was Junko Tabei. In fourth grade, her teacher Watanabe-Sensei takes her class on a trip to a mountain. It’s bigger than any Junko’s ever seen, and she’s determined to make it to the top.
After the trip, Junko becomes a mountaineer in body and spirit. She climbs snowy mountains, rocky mountains, and even faraway mountains outside of her home country of Japan. She joins climbing clubs and befriends fellow climbers as passionate as she is. Then, Junko meets her biggest challenge yet: the tallest mountain in the world.
Kit DesLauriers is the first person to ski the Seven Summits and the first woman to ski Everest. She is a two-time World Freeskiing Women’s Champion, earned a 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Award, and was elected into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019.
Once upon a time there was a girl who climbed to the very top of the world. Her name was Junko Tabei.
Junko was born in 1939, the youngest of seven siblings. Junko was small, and many believed her to be weak, but she had a mighty strength within.
As a girl, Junko played on Castle Mountain, which wasn’t much of a mountain at all. It was a decaying castle on top of a hill in the town center of Miharu, Japan. In the spring, she could see the vista of the entire town laced with pink, as the plum, peach, and cherry trees bloomed together.
If the weather was nice, Junko’s teacher, Watanabe-sensei, would invite the class to eat lunch at Castle Mountain. On one such day, he casually asked Junko’s class, “Who wants to go to the mountains this summer?”
Hands shot high in the air, and so an excursion to Nasu-dake peak, one of the hundred famous mountains in Japan, was planned.
That summer, Junko, Watanabe-sensei and a few classmates traveled by train, bus and foot, carrying backpacks stuffed with blankets and food. When the hiking began at Yumoto hot springs, they crisscrossed their way along the trail, chattering excitedly.
“The ground is somehow warm,” someone exclaimed. Junko bent down to touch the soil.
“Yes, this is a volcanic area, so hot water is running underneath the ground,” said Watanabe sensei. Junko was in awe.
The next day, Junko laced up her running shoes and hiked Nasu-dake. There, she was treated to a view from the top that was unlike anything she had ever seen. Standing on that small summit was enough to show her what lay beyond her hometown.
I’m Kit Deslauriers. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Junko Tabei.
When Junko applied to Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, she envisioned herself as an independent, intelligent, and popular woman.
Instead, when she arrived in Tokyo, she found she simply could not fit in. She was embarrassed that her dialect was less sophisticated than the other students, so she wouldn’t speak to anyone.
The girls-only students’ dorm was a stern environment, where Junko could never relax. Six girls lived together, waking at 6 a.m., and lights out by 10 p.m.
Junko’s anxiety worsened. The quietest of noises haunted her. If she noticed a dirty mug in the dormitory, she’d obsess over it. She could not sleep through the night, and her appetite disappeared. Eventually, Junko’s father came to see her and helped her seek the medical attention she needed.
The doctor prescribed time away from the city, so she went to stay at hot springs nearby where she hiked in the forest by herself and wrote in her diary. She used that time to decide what she wanted in life and weighed the importance of her schooling.
When she returned to school, Junko would no longer live in the dormitory and eventually, classmates found her more cheerful.
She was even invited on a hike! On her way home that day, she stopped downtown and bought a guidebook called Mountains Around Tokyo. Junko rediscovered her love for the outdoors and began to open up again.
Then, with no warning, a telegram arrived. “Father passed away; come home immediately.”
Despite the pain Junko felt about the loss of her father, she finished her last two years of college in Tokyo. Before graduation, she applied for an editor’s position at the University of Tokyo. Of the two hundred applicants, she was chosen for the job and started immediately.
Any moment that Junko wasn’t cooped up in the office, she wanted to spend climbing, so she sought out a mountaineering club that would accept women. Eventually, she joined a group of rock climbers who approached mountaineering differently. They traversed multiple routes up a mountain rather than the singular route to the summit that Junko always used.
Junko learned she’d need proper equipment to continue winter climbing on snow and ice. Her paycheck was only enough to cover rent and food, with a bit left over for train travel. Junko had to save money week by week to slowly gain what she needed for mountaineering.
On Junko’s first trip with her new mountaineering club, she donned a sixty-pound backpack. She was determined to prove her worth despite the stress and nervousness she felt. When she conquered the trail, more members started inviting her to climb with them.
One day, out of the blue, a woman named Rumie Sasou called Junko at work, asking her to meet that weekend at Shibuya Station. She had seen Junko climbing on several occasions and wanted a female partner.
When Junko got off her train, she was called over by Rumie-San. Junko was delighted to find that the two were of equal stature. They immediately hit it off and made plans to climb together.
Routes took longer to climb with a female partner, but somehow, Junko felt more rewarded by the accomplishment. Being physically more equal to one another seemed fairer to her. Rumie played an additional role in Junko’s life too – she became Junko’s closest friend.
Usually on Sundays, the routes were full and they had to wait their turn to climb. But on one particular day, the place was quiet. Of all the routes to climb, Junko had picked the same one that a man named Masanobu, who was well known among climbers, happened to be on.
Junko had seen Masanobu on several occasions before, but they’d never been on the same trails. Usually, Masanobu sat upfront in the more expensive train car. That way, he’d get off the train ahead of other climbers and have first pick of the climbing routes.
When Junko crested the snowy flat top of the route, Masanobu was eating an improvised dessert made from snow and laden with sweet red beans. He had it ready to serve to her as she finished the climb. Junko was amazed that Masanobu would carry something as heavy as a can of beans on a route.
After that experience, Junko often ran into Masanobu in various places. She felt humbled by his calm nature and matter-of-fact approach. Despite being an exceptional climber, he never thought less of those who climbed easier routes.
More than one hundred guests joined Junko and Masanobu in celebration of their wedding.
They went climbing on their honeymoon, traveling by train to the very south of Japan where monkeys jumped from one cedar branch to another. It was bliss!
In September 1967, Junko was twenty-eight years old and happy. She shared a deeply satisfying mountaineering life with her husband. But tragedy wasn’t far behind.
Even after marrying Masanobu, Rumie was still Junko’s closest friend and climbing partner. Before the seventh anniversary of Junko’s father’s death, Rumie called to invite Junko to climb. Junko explained that she would be away, traveling home to visit family and couldn’t make it.
When Junko returned to Tokyo, a telegram was waiting for her: “Rumie is missing. Come as soon as possible.”
Masanobu and Junko lost no time changing clothes, packing ropes, and calling all their climbing friends. By the time they arrived, Rumie’s mother was already there. Rumie had not yet been found. Junko sat with Rumie’s mother while Masanobu joined the search.
After several hours of searching, they learned what happened. When Rumie had tried to stop a climber from falling by grabbing her, she was instead pulled off the mountainside and fell as well. By a miracle, the other climber was stopped short when her backpack caught on a tree root. But sadly, Rumie had fallen out of sight.
There was only one solution for Junko: she had to embrace the sadness and begin to climb again. A year had passed since Rumie died, and it was time for Junko to push herself beyond the challenging routes of Japan.
On March 5, 1969, Junko met three other female climbers at a coffee shop. The premise of the meeting was straightforward: to plan a women-only expedition to the Himalayas. They’d call themselves the Ladies Climbing Club. The mountain of choice, Annapurna III. It was 7,500 meters tall, the height one needed to climb successfully before taking on the highest peaks in the world, over 8,000 metres.
The Nepali government chose one climbing party per mountain per season, and this time it was theirs. Junko flew ahead of her team members to square away the paperwork in Kathmandu and hire Sherpas.
The Sherpas were local people who were highly skilled and experienced climbers. They would be paid to prepare the route, fix ropes in place, and carry the necessary climbing equipment up the mountain.
After five days of planning in Kathmandu, the Ladies Climbing Club finally chartered two planes, flying west to their destination. When the planes took off, the Sherpas moved aside so Junko and her fellow climbers could see the spectacular scene below. In the far distance, three peaks came into view. Annapurna III was in sight.
Once they progressed up the mountain, snow changed everything. The color green was entirely gone, replaced by a solid sheet of white.
Between the snow and the fog blanketing everything in white, the summit felt out of reach regardless of how far they traveled.
The technique became even more precise as the ridge they climbed narrowed to a knife-edge. There was no room for error – a step slightly too far right or left would mean a fast track to death. As the crew climbed higher, Junko had to tell herself, “It’s OK,” to manage her fears.
Then, through a brief opening in the fog, Junko saw the summit.
They had done it.
“Next one is Everest,” Junko heard a teammate say. She had been considering the same objective since their return.
When she went home, she was delighted to hear Masanobu was in support of Everest. He suggested an additional step to the plan – for Junko to consider having a baby first. They had planned to start a family eventually, and Masanobu wanted a baby to keep him company while Junko was making history.
In March 1971, a few months after they had submitted their application to the Nepali government, Junko became pregnant. She only realized it when she was climbing one day and noticed that she felt heavier than usual. Their daughter, Noriko, was born in February of the following year.
Then, in August 1972, the Ladies Climbing Club received official authorization to climb Mount Everest. The news headline, “Permission Given for Japanese Women’s Everest,” spread attention before they even set foot on the mountain.
There was a narrow window of time when climbers could conquer Everest safely, and the Ladies Climbing Club was making good time. They were a month and a half into their climb, setting up Camp 5 on a broad knoll, away from trash left behind by other parties.
Junko learned there was a mix-up, and the group arrived short one sleeping bag, so as assistant leader, Junko volunteered to share. That night, Junko’s legs were stuffed in the bag with another climber’s for warmth, their upper bodies wrapped in down coats.
At half-past midnight, Junko felt a vibration, heard a deafening noise and – WHAM – impact. With no warning, several tons of snow and ice suddenly exploded downwards.
Within seconds after the avalanche hit, she could hardly breathe. An enormous pressure bore down on her. Confusion set in as she was tossed and turned upside down, the tent whipping around in somersaults.
Her mind filled with newspaper headlines: “Worst accident ever in the climbing history of Mount Everest – seven climbers, three journalists, 18 Sherpas – a total of 28 killed in an avalanche.”
As Junko slipped into unconsciousness, her body was pulled from the snow by a sherpa and shaken awake.
“Everybody alive?” she instinctively asked.
“Yes, all members safe,” the sherpa reported.
The doctor and fellow climbers wanted to radio a helicopter to airlift her out, but Junko wouldn’t hear of it.
Two nights later, Junko’s teammates helped her from the tent – the first time she had been outside since the avalanche – and she managed to walk with assistance. By the third day, she was able to walk on her own.
“Memsahib, memsahib! Tabei-san, I have to talk to you!”
Ang Tsering, the lead Sherpa led Junko to another tent. Three Sherpas lay flat out in their sleeping bags, looking grave.
“We have to get them down due to altitude sickness,” he said. The higher the team climbed, the less oxygen was available to breathe. The sherpas needed to climb down soon and quickly.
“That means we cannot shuttle enough loads for three people to make the summit assault,” he told Junko.
When Junko radioed down to Basecamp with the news, it was decided that she would finish the summit on behalf of the women’s climbing club. She had experience climbing safely at that altitude level, and she was their best hope of conquering Everest.
The next morning, Junko and Ang Tsering left camp, breaking trail in knee-deep snow, which, unbelievably, became waist-deep. Junko dragged her body up the mountain, and when she arrived, her first thought was, “I don’t have to climb anymore.”
The time was 12:30 p.m. on May 16, 1975. There was no higher place in the world than where they stood, and the sensation was tremendous. Junko Tabei was the first woman to summit Everest.
Six months after leaving Japan, she finally passed through customs and saw her daughter waiting on the other side.
“Noriko, it’s your mom,” Junko said. Grateful for their reunion, Junko took Noriko into her arms.
In 1994, Junko invited her favorite teacher to Nepal. Watanabe-sensei had turned seventy years old, and he had one remaining wish: to see the Mount Everest that his student had climbed. Junko wasted no time and chartered a helicopter.
The two wiped away tears as they stared down at the grand view of the majestic peak. Junko never would have climbed if Watanabe-sensei hadn’t taken her hiking as a girl. They had come full circle.
Today’s episode was hosted by Kit Deslauriers. Kit is the first person ever to ski the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent, and a proud mother of two rebel girls!
The podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Our Executive Producers are Elena Favilli and Joy Fowlkes. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. This episode was written by Joy Fowlkes and edited by Pam Gruber. Maithy Vu proofread. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli is the sound mixer.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!