Honouring High Places
Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe Rocky Mountain Books
Early morning on May 16, 1975, Junko Tabei and her Sherpa guide, Ang Tsering, set off for the summit of Everest from a high camp above the South Col. Neither wind nor a wisp of cloud was evident. Having warmed themselves on milk tea they move with deliberation towards the Hillary Step, dizzying heights below them. The combined efforts of large, well-organized team has gotten them there along with a country that enthusiastically supports them. This being but 20 years since the f irst ascent, they f ind themselves quite alone on the ridge that leads to the summit, as they’re the sole expedition on the mountain. All goes well, as their mountaineering skill and no small amount of bravery get them to summit just afternoon. Junko pulls out a radiophone from the pocket of her down suit and calls down to confirm her ascent. She’s the f irst woman to summit the world’s highest peak, and will become a national hero in her native Japan.
is her autobiography, co-written by Canmore-based Helen Rolfe and translated from the Japanese. Tabei describes her middle-class upbringing in post-war Japan, being sent to boarding school and having her father die of cancer before graduating. It’s a world that will feel unfamiliar to Canadian readers – one where the values of life in the mountains is carefully taught by mentors at schools and clubs. Climbing in Japan in the late 1960s is as far removed from the counterculture as one can imagine. It’s in this strongly aff irmative environment that Tabei gains conf idence in the alpine and it’s the club structure that takes her to the summit of Annapurna iii. She becomes both the f irst woman and the f irst Japanese to climb the peak. This sets her up to climb Everest f ive years later, three years after she gives birth to her f irst child.
Following the fame of her ascent, she goes on to become the first woman to climb the Seven Summits. These climbs are described in the book alongside her strong commitment to maintain the cultural and environmental integrity of the world’s high mountains – hence the title of her book. Its charm lies in Tabei’s unassuming but obviously driven nature. The book’s insights into how another society – Japan – approaches mountaineering provides the reader with a personal view of the climbing world beyond the Anglosphere.—