Too little is known about the incredible story of the first woman to scale Mt Everest and the seven summits, the late Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei. So we’re thrilled to share Junko’s story through the eyes of someone following in her footsteps – expedition leader and mountaineer Jo Bradshaw. Jo will share Junko’s story at our sociable talk and buffet in Bath in May and our Heritage of Women in Exploration conference in London in June. Here Jo gives us a taste of why we need to know more about “Adventure Champion” and unsung hero Junko Tabei, and how she’s inspired her own amazing journey to summit the world’s highest peaks.
Who was Junko Tabei and what makes her story so special?
Junko was a Japanese climber who was the first woman to summit Everest in 1975. Her drive and tenacity are quite outstanding given the era of her climbing and the barriers which she smashed down, all with good grace and humility.
Can you tell us about Junko’s character and what drove her to climb mountains?
Japanese culture seems to be one of huge respect to others (which we could all learn from!) and Junko’s respect and encouragement for others comes through in everything you read about her. She found climbing after she moved to Tokyo to go to university. She seemed to find solace in the mountains from the stresses of her studies, expectations of others and hectic city living. There is so much to tell about her drive, I will wait until the talk to tell you more!
And what about her background and family?
Junko was the youngest of seven children, five of who were girls. As the last to arrive, she later learned her father said “a girl again” as he was expecting a boy. Her family ran a printing company in a small town so life back then was very different to the one she chose to lead.
How hard was it for Junko to achieve the things she did as a woman?
It was very interesting when doing research about Junko that she had many of the same struggles that we often face today as women in this mode of adventure. Life really hasn’t moved on that much! She admits to being very fortunate to find a few great mentors, or champions as I like to call them. They pushed her skills and perceived limits and gave her the confidence and drive to go on to achieve the incredible things she did.
Jo, you’ve also climbed Everest and are on an incredible journey to scale the 7 summits too. Tell us more about your own journey.
I, like Junko, never thought I would climb any mountain but, unlike Junko, didn’t get into climbing and mountaineering until my 40th year so it’s been a steep learning-curve since then! I gradually changed my life from being a “no” saying, risk-averse sofa surfer to scaling the highest mountain on this planet! This happened over several years after giving up a life in the corporate world to work at an expedition company as well as learning to become an Expedition Leader. I went freelance in 2010 and really haven’t looked back from there. Still, Everest was never on my radar until 2014 when, after climbing Manaslu (Nepal, 8,156m) in September 2013, I truly believed I was capable of such an expedition.
How has learning about Junko and other mountaineers helped you along your way?
You sometimes feel that you are the only one going through certain situations but reading about the greats of our times and how they came to be on these mighty mountains, the struggles they had to find funding and to be taken seriously, it’s all really the same.
Like Junko, you’ve experienced a close encounter in the mountains in the form of an earthquake and avalanche. How hard has it been to carry on?
I never had any doubt that I wouldn’t continue to climb after being at Camp 1 on Everest when the earthquake stuck in Nepal three years ago, but at the time I thought our chances of going back to Everest were non-existent. Finding my mobile phone in the carnage that was our base camp was the turning point. My sponsor offered to fund another expedition and the rest is history! Emotionally 2015 was a very difficult year in the aftermath of the earthquake but in essence it has made me a stronger person with a more philosophical view of life.
What more can be done to encourage women into the mountains?
It needs to be more accessible to those who think they are not capable. I started from zero in my mid-30s in this life of adventure and never thought I was capable of doing any of it. Having Adventure Champions, which there are so many of, encourages others to give things a go. There is a great tide of positivity sweeping over us at the moment, we just need to harness it correctly!
Knowing what you do about Junko, what should be her legacy?
Even when people say no or doubt you, if you feel that you can and are capable, then do.
Join us to hear Jo tell Junko’s story at a small sociable event at Bonghy-Bo Cafe-Bar in Bath on May 11. Jo will also be speaking on Junko at our Heritage Of Women in Exploration conference at RGS in London on 21 June.