It’s 1975. No Woman Had Scaled Mt Everest Yet

Then, 35-year-old Junko Tabei became the first to reach the summit.

On the morning of 16 May 1975, Junko Tabei, a 35-year-old mountaineer from Fukushima in Japan, and her Sherpa, Ang Tshering, made their final ascent from the South Summit of Mount Everest. They followed the same route upon which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay—the first people to crest the peak—had embarked almost 20 years earlier.

Towards the end of their climb, they were forced to cross a narrow, icy ridge, close to 49ft long; one wrong step would have sent them plunging nearly 21,000ft down, all the way to the base camp. Unlike climbers today, they didn’t have access to any ultra-light gear, polarised snow goggles or even a stainless-steel ice axe. Tabei later recounted for The Japan Times, how she crawled along sideways, while trying to maintain a strong grip by kicking her crampons into the ice.

She made history that day as the first woman to climb to the summit of Everest, 29,028ft above sea level. Her achievement soon came to be regarded as a symbol of progress made by Japanese women in their pursuit of independence and equality. In the 1970s, more women became keen on joining the Japanese workforce than ever before.

Nearly four decades have passed since Tabei’s journey to the top of the world. Now, 3,000-plus climbers have reached the summit—a feat made significantly easier by increased technological support. According to Tabei, since the Nepalese government has eased restrictions on issuing permits, even amateurs—aided by a team of professional guides and local porters—are able to climb Everest. “It has become a leisure activity,” she says. As a result, the mountain has become a crowded and polluted place. Tabei now devotes her time to environmental initiatives, especially sustainable mountaineering. She heads the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, an organisation that was set up to preserve the Everest habitat. Her initiative echoes a sentiment once expressed by her idol Edmund Hillary, who had memorably said, “Give the mountain a rest.”

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Sunayana Kumari