October 24, 2016 6:00 pm JST

Junko Tabei, 1st woman to climb Everest, dies at 77

NORIO KUDO, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- Junko Tabei, the first woman to set foot atop Mount Everest, died of cancer at a hospital in Japan's Saitama Prefecture at 10 a.m. on Thursday. She was 77.

After graduating from Showa Women's University in Tokyo in 1962, Tabei joined an alpine club. In 1969, she founded a climbing club for women.

In 1975, she conquered Everest as deputy chief of the Japanese Women's Everest Expedition. It was Tabei who was chosen to make the final push for the summit of the world's highest peak. That was hardly her crowning achievement, however. In 1992, she became the first woman to climb the world's seven highest peaks.

In addition to a successful climbing career, Tabei was also actively involved in preserving mountain environments, participating in campaigns to remove garbage from them.

Despite her impressive accomplishments in the harshest of environments, Tabei, with her affable and down-to-earth demeanor, gave no outward hint of her formidable capabilities.

She made it to the top of Everest with only a Sherpa guide as her company. The route they took -- from the South Summit, which stands between China and Nepal -- involves traversing a knife-like ridge. And unlike today's climbers, swaddled in the most advanced cold-weather clothing available -- Tabei made do with climbing pants fashioned from cotton flannel underwear her mother had worn under her kimono, and a sweat shirt.

Recalled Tabei about those Everest days, "I was so nervous I almost went crazy."

Her lighthearted attitude and ability to evoke laughter when speaking before audiences belied an inner fortitude that made her such a force in the mountains. Her climbing style was neither aggressive nor flamboyant; Tabei always adhered to a "slow and steady" approach.

In 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five years later -- one year after northeastern Japan was rocked by a devastating earthquake and tsunami -- Tabei's doctor told her she had only three months to live due to peritoneal cancer. Her response is said to have been merely, "Oh, is that so?"

Between cancer treatments, Tabei continued climbing with her many friends, serving as an inspiration to all around her.

"The scenery never changes from my bed," Tabei said. "What excites me is thinking of where I'll go next."

Tabei was born in Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture, in Japan's northeast. As such, the Tohoku region had a special place in her heart. In her final years, Tabei took to leading groups of high school students from her home region up Mount Fuji. These treks attracted large numbers of fellow climbers, who wanted to join her campaign to encourage students from the stricken area.

This year, on Tabei's fifth and final such trip up the iconic mountain, some 100 people walked with her.

"I want to see 1,000 students climb (Mt. Fuji). When these 18-year-olds turn 28, they will become great contributors to the reconstruction work" in Tohoku, she said.

Her devotion to the campaign impressed me greatly; after each one, she sent me a postcard about it.

Tabei remained a climber to the end. Even with her time running out, she said, "I want to scale the highest mountain in each country, no matter how low the peak or how small the nation."

From her place in heaven, Tabei must be gazing out over the mountains of the world and looking forward her next climb.

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