When they reached a ridge with a sheer drop on both sides, Junko Tabei and Ang Tshering clipped their belts to a rope and climbed. They made it to the top of the ridge, then scaled a rock face they gripped with their fingertips and toes. They trudged through snow to what Junko thought was Everest's peak, but turned out to be another ridge. They climbed over it. Breathing bottled oxygen, Junko crawled on hands and knees.
At last, Junko Tabei stood higher than anyone else in the world. The first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest looked down at parts of the mountain where her friends worried and wondered exactly where she was. Farther down, monks in red robes must be chanting. Women would be carrying kindling on their strong backs, and children raced around trees that might be turning green. All Junko could see were rocks and snow and sky.
"Let's go," she said. It was too cold and windy to say much more. Besides, she liked moving more than standing still, even on top of the world. Junko set her mouth in concentration as she and Ang took small, careful steps. She knew that more people had died going down this mountain than climbing up.
Their strength, concentration, luck and determination held. The sky remained blue and clear. Junko and Ang returned to the tents high on the mountain. Junko triumphantly raised her ice axe and grinned.
After a few days of rest and celebration, they left to meet the women who'd stayed in camps further down. Everyone hiked back to the fir forests, then to the valleys they'd left weeks before. Spring had turned to summer while they were gone. Wheat, rice, and barley fields were green with ripening grain. The delicate blossoms of apple and almond trees had fallen. Boughs now brimmed with green leaves, ripening fruit, and nuts.
As they entered a village, the women and Sherpas called, "Junko Tabei reached the top!"
Small girls, kicking up dust as they ran in bare feet, stopped to stare. Goats nibbled the hems of their red and purple skirts. Men dropped hoes in potato fields to look. Women who'd peeked from doorways on the climbers' way up, now left their houses.
They crowded around Junko, and pushed forward with baskets of apples, too many to eat. Junko didn't speak their language, but as they thrust baskets toward her, she knew they said, "Take more. Please, take more."
Junko took an apple. Its smooth skin felt good on her dry, rough hands. She bit into the red and yellow fruit and let the sweet juice fill her mouth. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious.
"Take more. Please," Junko repeated their words.
The women laughed at hearing their own language. Everyone looked at the mountaintop where fierce winds blew plumes of snow. They could go anywhere. The world felt bigger to them all.
In the years following her ascent of Mount Everest, Junko Tabei (1939-) traveled around the world. In 1992, she became the first woman to reach the summits of the highest mountains of North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica, as well as Asia. Once she reached the highest peaks on all seven continents, her next goal became to climb the highest mountain of every country in the world.