Junko Tabei sat bolt upright when she heard the rumble. It was 12:30 on the morning of May 4, 1975, and Tabei and 14 other Japanese female climbers had been asleep at Camp II, 21,326 feet above sea level on a freezing, windswept peak between Mount Nuptse and Mount Lhotse. The thunderous sound filled Tabei with dread. She had never heard the sound before, but she knew what it was.
She was thrown. Tabei and her four tentmates tumbled chaotically, trapped under a white wave of snow and ice crashing down from Lhotse. Their tent tangled around them. Bodies banged together. Equipment slammed into them. Their terror slowed time to the torturous pace of an interminable nightmare.
When the rumbling ceased, Tabei was pinned under her four companions. She had a vision of her 2½-year-old daughter, Noriko, playing outside their home near Tokyo. Then she blacked out.
When Tabei opened her eyes, she felt a rush of pain. Then a flood of fear. Had they all survived? Miraculously, they had. Tabei owed her life to the team's six Sherpas who had dragged her out of the snow by her ankles. "As soon as I knew everyone was alive," Tabei says, "I was determined to continue."
Determination alone, however, couldn't make her walk. Her body was covered with welts and bruises, and she had wrenched her lower back and legs. It was two days before she could rise on shaky feet. Yet she refused to relinquish her role as the group's climbing leader. Tabei took her place at the front of the line as the women resumed their ascent. And she stayed at the front, even though she often had to crawl.
Twelve days later, at 12:30 p.m. on May 16, Tabei clambered on battered hands and knees to a spot she describes as "smaller than a tatami mat." She turned her back on the stormy edge of Nepal and peered down at a tranquil valley in Tibet. Junko Tabei had become the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
She felt no elation. The pain robbed her of that. "All I felt was relief," she says. And trepidation. She still had to get down.
Including that historic climb of Everest, Tabei has scaled 69 major mountains, and in 1992 she became the first woman to climb the tallest mountains in the world's seven major regions. Her achievements are even more remarkable considering the path she took to the top.
Junko Ishibashi was born in 1939, the fifth daughter in a family of seven children in the small town of Miharumachi, in northern Japan, in an area that was not damaged by bombing in World War II. Though she never wanted for food, like many Japanese children of her generation, she was frail. "I was stamped as a weak child," she says. At age 10, however, she tagged along when a teacher took some of her classmates to climb two peaks, Mount Asahi (6,233 feet) and Mount Chausu (6,365), in Nasu.