Ascending marginalized stories to new heights

Professor Julie Rak's new book addresses sexism and racism in mountaineering, and expands on narrow historical narratives.

Images of climbers Junko Tabei (Jaan Künnap, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons) and Pan Duo and Mount Everest (Gozitano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

From left to right: Junko Tabei (Jaan Künnap, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons), Pan Duo and Mount Everest (Gozitano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Julie Rak, a professor and HM Tory Chair in the Department of English & Film Studies in the Faculty of Arts, moved to Alberta, she was determined to learn a new outdoor skill and immersed herself in the sport of climbing. However, her initiation into this community was wrought with double standards, and her observations of dismissive attitudes towards a female climbing instructor influenced the trajectory of her research. Though there are many books on the historical tales of awe-inspiring mountaineering expeditions, they often fail to include accounts of marginalized climbers. Julie's new book, False Summit: Gender in Mountaineering Nonfiction, helps shift this narrow narrative by delving into broader histories of mountaineering, including that of Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei and Chinese climber Pan Duo.

Honouring Junko Tabei

Julie believes stories about climbing often take liberties beyond the historical account of an expedition. "[These stories] have ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman or another gender in them, even if they're not saying anything out [loud].” For instance, despite Junko’s slew of accomplishments – including many firsts – she is not revered the same way as her male climbing peers of that era and is instead, as Julie found, referred to “as a ‘Japanese housewife’ — constantly and unfairly.” This is a challenge many other marginalized climbers have faced and still do today. Gripped by the degree of indifference toward female climbers, Junko founded the Joshi-Tohan Club in 1969 – a female climbing club – in response to the criticism she received as a female climber. In 1975, she became the first woman to ascend Mount Everest who later went on to ascend the Seven Summits. On top of her climbing career, she was committed to preserving the environmental integrity of the mountains. These are no small feats.

Anchoring Pan Duo in history

Julie's approach to researching Pan proved more challenging. Though Pan summited just less than two weeks after Junko, and is recorded as the second woman to climb Mount Everest, less is known about her successes.

“There's no history about [Pan and other female Asian climbers] because of linguistic barriers, national barriers and because of cultural barriers, including racism about Asian origin climbers and how important they're supposed to be [in the historical accounts of mountaineering],” Julie says.

Instead, Julie discovered that Pan is often described historically as “just ‘Mrs. Phanthog,’ without anyone knowing her real name,” diminishing her achievements and shaping her identity to nothing more than someone’s plus one.

“It was assumed in the press at the time, and in the historical narratives afterwards that if a woman [ascends], it's not a real achievement – especially a woman of Asian origin. [It supposes these women] could only be tourists. Chris Bonington, a revered climber and climbing historian, described meeting Pan Duo and her team at the base of Annapurna, Nepal as 'little school girls giggling and taking pictures,'” Julie shares. Though a different time, a collective eye roll today is presumed.

Most mountaineer researchers offer us little in terms of who Pan is, mainly because she was Chinese and a female climber. As Julie discovers, Pan’s story did not reflect the European-dominant narrative of that time, casting her achievements as irrelevant to popular mountaineering historians who played a role in perpetuating false narratives.

Exasperated, Julie reveals that “Duo was almost the first person to climb Everest without oxygen, which should be something that everyone talks about. This woman is amazing! Why do we know nothing about her? Pan Duo is [only] the 39th person in the world to climb Everest. It’s a big deal. She also carried the flag in the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, but nobody [including broadcasters] knew who she was.”

Though both climbers have since passed, Julie believes both Pan’s and Junko’s grit and determination helped shape the perception of female climbers, dispelling attitudes of the likes of Bonington who believed that women engaged in climbing as a leisure activity.

Supporting marginalized stories

Fortunately, research like Julie's, is helping to legitimize shelved stories, giving voice to Junko, Pan and other underrepresented climbers.

Better still, Julie shares how we can support the experiences of those marginalized to ensure narratives are shared more broadly and accurately.

“You have to be suspicious of the story a little […] There are so many people who can't speak for themselves [in the climbing community]," Julie warns. "One of the things [you can do] is to know as much as you can, what are all the stories about an event, and to [piece] them together as much as you can. It's also important to receive narratives as much as you can in the way they're intended [and to recognize the limits of a narrative]. Read critically the way you would anything else and understand that these are not complete stories. When people tell their story, listen. Pay attention. And, if there are gaps in the record ask yourself 'why?'”

Changing the climbing culture

Though Julie admits climbing culture is slow to change, she’s optimistic and believes welcoming broader narratives into the community – including those of Junko and Pan – can shift perspectives and assumptions around who climbing is for

“I can see some changes and I’m excited about them. I hope they're lasting. There’s interest [in the more marginalized] stories; they are becoming important. And there is a move to diversity, especially for Black climbers. I also think that gender diverse people and non-binary people are beginning to be part of climbing and that was not always true. There's still a long way to go but I have seen enough encouraging signs to think maybe we can have other kinds of stories and other kinds of bodies [represented and climbing] the highest places in the world, doing it the way they want to do it. I've seen a lot of encouraging signs of that and I can only hope for more.”

About Julie

Julie Rak is a Henry Marshall Tory Chair in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Her latest book is False Summit: Gender in Mountaineering Nonfiction (MQUP 2021). She has written extensively on nonfiction, including the books Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (2013) and Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse (2004). Her latest edited collection is the Identities volume of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Literary Theory (2020). With Sonia Boon, Candida Rifkind, Laurie McNeill and other clever colleagues, she is writing The Routledge Introduction to Auto/biography in Canada.