Junko Tabei, the first woman to scale the summit of Mount Everest, has died of cancer. Her passing marks the end of the first generation of Everest climbers. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, who scaled Everest in 1953, are long gone. Before them, George Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine had vanished into the clouds during their attempt in 1924. The discovery of Mallory’s corpse in 1999 did not bring closure, since it is not known whether the two died on the way up to the summit, or on the way down. It is entirely possible that they suffered a mishap after conquering the mountain. And therefore, who reached the summit first remains a mystery, even after the prime contenders are all dead.
Everest has exerted a magnetic attraction on the imagination ever since it was measured in the course of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India in 1856, and people have been scrambling up its slopes since 1922, when a British expedition tried its luck from the Tibetan side. But hordes of climbers have left behind their trash, and over 200 of them left behind their graves on the mountain fastness. Today, Everest is a mixed metaphor, evoking pollution issues and the business of mountaineering as readily as the old dream that drove men to climb mountains simply because they were there.
Tabei stood out among the women who resolved to break through the ice ceiling of mountaineering. Apart from Everest, she was the first woman to scale all Seven Summits — the tallest point in each continent, including Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro and Mont Blanc. And she was committed to cleaning up the Himalayas. Her passing signals the end of an era when the ascent of Everest was a compelling dream. It is as if the challenge of the mountain is no longer there.