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This photo captures a moment that will never come again: the first three women to climb Mount Everest. Together, smiling. All are now gone.
Taken by Isabelle Agresti, a French woman climber, the image is from August, 1979, in Chamonix. Junko Tabei of Japan, Phanthog from Tibet, and Wanda Rutkiewicz of Poland were invited that summer by Henri Agresti, a guide at ENSA (L’École Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme) who was teaching a class to aspirants. Henri and Isabelle had in 1976 been part of a team to establish a new route up Mount Foraker, Denali National Park, and the two made the first ascent of the mountain Koh-e-Rank in the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan, in 1968.
The visiting women spoke consecutively over three evenings.
“This picture shows one of the best hours, de fragile bonheur,” says Henri Agresti.
Tabei, a piano teacher and later author and conservationist who climbed Everest, or Sagarmatha / Chomolungma (8850m), on May 17, 1975, was born in Japan into post World War poverty. Small and frail like many of her generation, she was never to grow taller than 4-foot-9. Still she resisted the label of “weak” and at 10 joined a school trip to hike up a volcano, a life-changing event.
She also had to brave the public opinions of her era: which was that mothers should stay at home and care for their families, and women were physically unable to climb at altitude.
Tabei was age 35 on Everest and mother to a 3-year-old, whom her husband cared for at home (they later had another child). While Everest is her signature, she went on to climb, according to her website, 13 peaks over 7,000 meters. She also reached the tallest mountain in what is variously given as some 60 or 70 countries—either way, a grand adventure and equally impressive logistically. She became an activist, cleaning up on Everest and in her home country helping victims of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Tabei, who inspired a generation of girls and women, was mourned the world over upon her death to cancer in 2016 at age 77. (See “Climbers We Lost in 2016.”)
Her memoir, Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei, was published in English in 2017. In a review in americanalpineclub.org, Shannon O’Donoghue Child wrote of Tabei’s “endearing … recurring acknowledgment and appreciation of those around her, including her husband, whose unwavering support was remarkable for that time, as well as other women climbers.”
Almost unknown—though it might easily have been otherwise—to today’s climbers is Phanthog, of Tibet (also known as Phantog and, in Chinese, Pan Duo), who climbed the mountain only 11 days later, the first woman from its Tibetan side. Born into a poor rural family, she went into manual labor at age 8, upon the death of her father, to help her mother support the family.
“I had to carry 30 to 35 kg [66 to 77 pounds] of goods over winding Himalayan roads for more than 10 hours every day when I was 13,” she told cctv.com.
At 20, working in a factory, she was chosen for the Chinese Mountaineering Team on the basis of her physical condition and strength. She climbed Muztagh Ata (24636 ft / 7509 m) in the Pamirs in 1959.
On Everest, she was 37 and had three children. According to cctv.com, she said of the final push, “At that time, I made up my mind to reach the top. I did it on behalf of my 400 million Chinese sisters to prove that we women could do the same as our male companions.”
At the summit she took a seven-minute ECG, with no unusual results.
She was quoted, in Outside Online, as saying, “Chinese women have a strong will; difficulties can’t stop us. We climbed the highest peak in the world; we really hold up half the sky.”
After the climb she lost three toes to frostbite.
In the years after the climb, she was elected five times as delegate to the National People‘s Congress. She moved with her husband to his hometown city of Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China, and worked as deputy director of its Sports and Physical Culture Commission. The Beijing Review in 1986 quoted her as saying, “I still miss the mountains that tower above my native Tibet.” She carried the Olympic flag into the stadium at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The following year, at age 70, she was honored at the “60 Years, 60 Legends” ceremony in the National Olympic Sports Center in Beijing. She died in 2014 at 75 of causes related to diabetes.
The great Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz at 35 became the third woman and first Pole to climb Everest, on October 16, 1978—and, 10 years later, the first woman to climb K2. She summitted eight 14 8000-meter peaks before her death on Kangchenjunga in 1992. Had she climbed it, she would have been the first woman up the three highest mountains in the world. She was 49.
In 1974 Rutkiewicz had been in the Pamirs of Russia to climb Peak Communism when she took a helicopter over to the base camp for an international gathering of climbers, and met Arlene Blum of Berkeley, California, to talk about organizing a women’s expedition together. Frustrated by unequal treatment on an early male-dominated expedition, she was to lead several all-women’s trips (Blum would lead a women’s ascent of Annapurna in 1978). Rutkiewicz, Krystyna Palmowska and Anna Czerwinska climbed Nanga Parbat in 1985, the first women’s team to do so; Liliane Barrard of France had been the first woman to climb it, with her husband, Maurice, the year before. Rutkiewicz was with the Barrards on K2; they were killed on the descent.
On Kangchenjunga, Rutkiewicz climbed with the Mexican mountaineer Carlos Carsolio. On his summit bid, starting from camp at 7950 meters, Carsolio reached the top after 12 hours in deep snow. Descending, he entered the cave where Rutkiewicz was, at about 8200 or 8300 meters, and spoke with her. She intended to bivouac and try for the top the next day.
He told Climbing here: “Wanda Rutkiewiez was a very close friend. She was a very nice woman with a sharp sense of humor. She was very clever.
“Kanchenjunga was one of the hard times in my life. [After summitting] I came inside a small cave where Wanda was … and both of us were in a very, very difficult situation, an extremely cold night, one of the coldest nights in my life. Wanda was very stubborn. She wanted to go up, even though she was so slow.
“I could not tell her not to go up. Not directly. I told her, Wanda, it’s too cold, it takes time, bad weather is coming, but I did not tell her, Wanda, stop, come down with me. I did not have the courage to stop her dream. I knew that even if she was risking her life, it was her decision.
“I respected her very much. … She told me, don’t worry, that she was going to be OK, but I knew that she was risking too much. I thought, Maybe this is the last time I will see her, but she had survived so many crazy things that there was a chance that she was going to make it.
“I cry many times when I remember the next things that happened. I came down to a cave in the base of the headwall, and I made a thermos for Wanda for when she came. I stayed there waiting … for two days and she never came.”
Wanda Rutkiewicz never returned nor was ever found.
In Savage Summit: the True Stories of the First Five Women to Climb K2, the author Jennifer Jordan quotes Rutkiewicz saying after K2: “It was sheer ecstasy being on the summit.”
She was a driven person, blunt and demanding of herself and others, yet warm and humorous. In an interview with Jon Waterman for Climbing magazine in 1989, Rutkiewicz, a computer engineer and filmmaker who lived in Warsaw, joked that she had been married “two and a half times,” saying about the half, “He didn’t really count.” It was in that interview that she said, again with humor, this widely quoted line about the risk of frostbite:
“Why not [risk it]? Each climber loses one finger or toe once in a while.
“At Kukuczka’s house there was a meeting of many climbers and they said [pointing to missing fingers and toes], ‘Oh, you have not this, you have not this, you have not this?’ This is a small but important reason for Polish climbers’ success. Western climbers haven’t lost [as many] fingers or toes.”
The Himalayan historian Elizabeth Hawley wrote in the American Alpine Journal, “Wanda Rutkiewicz will go down in history as one of the greats of mountaineering.”
They include Marty Hoey, a climber and Snowbird, Utah, ski patroller who would probably have been the first American woman on the summit if not for a disaster up high, and Stacy Allison, a Portland, Oregon, climber who in September 1988 ended what had become an overlong, overdone race to put an American woman on top. Three days later, Peggy Luce, a bicycle messenger from Seattle, climbed the mountain.
In 1986, however, Canada’s Sharon Wood had climbed Everest (with Dwayne Congdon from the Tibet side), the first North American woman to do so, rocketing to celebrity status across her nation.
In her long-awaited memoir, Rising, of 2019, Wood wrote of the aftermath to the milestone: “I never expected this one climb to permeate my life to the extent it has. Not a day has gone by without some reference to Everest, whether from a friend or a stranger; from a journalist, a student or a speakers’ bureau; or from an aspiring mountaineer or an autograph hound. … Everest has opened doors for me and expanded my world. But at times, Everest has felt like an overbearing friend. It has often preceded me, elbowed its way into rooms, sashayed across floors, cut swaths through conversations and embarrassed me.”
Everest changed and remained in all of their lives.
Alison Osius is senior editor at Climbing, is a former climbing guide in the US and UK, and formerly competed at national and international events.