Junko Tabei, Japan’s Leading Woman Climber

On May 16, 1975, Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 8,848 m. Tabei is also the first woman to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

GlacierHub spoke with Helen Rolfe, co-author of “Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei,” a 2017 memoir published by Rocky Mountain Books that honors Tabei’s life experiences— inspiring readers to “Ganbatte,” a Japanese word used to encourage someone to “do your best.”

Tabei, Majima, and Kitamura (with guide, top right) climbing Vinson Massif in Antarctica, 1991 (Source:  Courtesy of Tabei Kikaku).


GlacierHub: While compiling ”Honouring High Places,” did you have any moments where you were particularly moved by Tabei’s words?

Helen Rolfe: Always. Tabei learned so many life lessons in the mountains that are easily shared in this book. The outstanding references for me are from when she was young and realized her deep passion for the mountains (Chapter 2: The Meaning of Mountains, climbing Nasu-dake), and on Everest, the shift in how she felt about equipment being left on the mountain— from a sense of comfort (Chapter 8: South Col) to action (end of Chapter 9: The Summit).


GH: What do you think was going through Tabei’s mind as she climbed to the top of Mount Everest?

HR: Tabei solely focused on the job at hand. Then, on the summit, a moment of gratitude and relief, then back to the necessity of climbing down safely.

“We’ve arrived!” Junko Tabei on the summit of Mount Everest makes her historic radio call to Advanced Base Camp, May 16, 1975 (Source: Courtesy of Tabei Kikaku/Ang Tsering).


GH: Through ”Honouring High Places,” readers learn the accounts of Junko Tabei, her physical and mental strength, and her passion for the environment. Please comment on her appreciation for mountain ecosystems.

HR: Chapter 9: The Summit. It’s all there. Another highlight of her passion for all mountains is that in addition to climbing Everest and the Seven Summits (first woman for both feats), she pursued climbing the highest point in every country in the world, no matter the elevation. While she did not succeed in stepping foot in every country, she climbed hundreds of peaks of all sizes.


GH: What sorts of additional information did you learn about Tabei through her husband’s and friends’ perspectives?

HR: That Tabei loved life, loved the outdoors, truly believed that nature and the outdoors is the key to healthy living, believes in national parks and preserved natural environments, that goal setting is crucial and that simply placing one foot in front of the other is the way to get started.

Team of all women on Mount Tomur, 1986 (Source: Courtesy of Tabei Kikaku/Ladies Climbing Club).


GH: To my understanding, you were never able to meet Junko Tabei. If you had the opportunity to speak with her now, what would you say?

HR: You are correct, I never met Junko, but I spent the month of April in Japan this past spring. I had the pleasure of retracing Junko’s early days in her childhood town of Miharu and at Nasu-dake. I enjoyed getting to know Junko’s husband, Masanobu, and family and close friends. It was the trip of a lifetime, and full circle for the writing of “Honouring High Places.”

If given the chance, I would share with Junko the same words I tell Masanobu and her family and friends: that it was a privilege to write her life story, and that I feel grateful to Junko and the Tabei family for trusting me to do so.

Writing this book was a beauty and a challenge, and I embraced every second that I put into it. There is only one first English telling of Junko’s story, and I had the honor of being the author involved. I am truly blessed. I am one of many that Junko has deeply inspired.

Tabei on the way up to Pico Bolivar, 4979m, the highest mountain in Venezuela, January 2008 (Source: Courtesy of Eiko Tabe).


GH: Do you have any additional comments or thoughts about Tabei that you’d like GlacierHub readers to know? 

HR: Junko’s story is an important part of mountaineering history. It allows the reader into the Japanese climbing culture that most North Americans know little about. Her achievements were certainly a step forward for women, and for humankind in general.

Her voice became one of environmental advocacy and mountain climbing for all… anything to get people active in the outdoors.

Junko was a shining star.