Go slow they did, eventually reaching the summit on May 19, 1970. The ascent profoundly changed Tabei. For her, there would be no more slaving into the late hours to prove she was her company's most loyal worker. No more fears about speaking her mind. No more concerns about what people said behind her back. "If people want to call me 'that crazy mountain woman,' that's O.K.," she says.
It wasn't until she climbed Annapurna III that Tabei thought of trying to take on Everest. Her group applied to the government of Nepal for permission to climb the mountain in 1971. The climbing schedule was full until 1975. It would be a long wait, but Tabei used the time to line up sponsorship. "Most companies' reaction was that for women, it's impossible to climb Mount Everest," Tabei says. But she eventually got help from the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun and from Nihon Television.
After the Everest climb came the publicity. The king of Nepal sent congratulations. Tabei's name appeared in newspapers and textbooks; she was honored by the Japanese government; there was a television miniseries about the expedition; and she toured Japan making personal appearances. Tabei, however, was never comfortable with fame. "I was the 36th person to climb Everest," says the first woman to have climbed it. But the attention she received and the responsibility she felt were overwhelming, and she never sought corporate funding again. "If I accept sponsorship, then climbing the mountain is not my own experience," she says. "It's like working for the company."
She continued her pursuits but with less fanfare, climbing, among other mountains, Tanzania's Kilimanjaro in 1980, Argentina's Aconcagua in 1987, the U.S.'s McKinley in 1988, Russia's El'brus in 1989, Antarctica's Vinson Massif in 1991 and Indonesia's Carstensz Pyramid in 1992.
Everest, though, has a special place in Tabei's life. She is a representative of the Japanese chapter, of the Himalayan Adventure Trust, a group dedicated to preserving Everest's environment. The group was instrumental in building an incinerator on the mountain for climbers' debris. Tabei also participates regularly in "cleanup climbs" in Japan and the Himalayas.
At age 56 Tabei says she is starting to slow down, but her climbing activity belies this. Her current goal is to climb the highest mountain in every country in the world. Last year she climbed the highest peaks in Panama, Costa Rica, South Korea, Venezuela and Sri Lanka. She would like to climb more often with her family—Masanobu, who works for Honda, and their daughter, Noriko, and son, Shinya—but it's hard for them to get vacation time together.
Tabei is admired now in Japan as a role model, not just for women, but for all people who want to strike out on their own and pursue their dreams. She frequently lectures on her experiences and encourages people to be "the nail that sticks out." And while her climbs attract attention because of her reputation, she has never been a headline seeker. "Climbing the mountain," she says, "is its own reward."