TOKYO -- The housewife from the suburbs of Tokyo was camped 22,000 feet up the slope of Mount Everest when the avalanche struck, burying her in her sleeping bag under a jagged block of ice. "I couldn't move at all in the snow," she remembers. "Suddenly, the image of my 3-year-old daughter appeared before my eyes. For a short time I thought, 'If I die, what will happen to her?' But then I thought, 'I have to stay alive -- for my daughter, for myself, for everybody.' "

She says she lost consciousness for six minutes, but was saved by the Sherpas who dug her out. Some two months later, on May 16, 1975, at 12:35 p.m., Junko Tabei made history as the first woman in the world to reach the top of Mount Everest. She was 35 years old, 4 feet 11 inches tall, and had helped raise the $300,000 her women's expedition needed by giving piano lessons in her home after school. When she reached the summit, she remembers, "there was no enjoyment -- just relief. I was very, very happy that I didn't have to climb any more." The first American woman to reach the top of Everest, Stacy Allison, would not get there until 13 years later.

Since her triumph, Junko Tabei has climbed Mount Blanc in Europe, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina and Mount McKinley in Alaska. She also briefly interrupted her climbing schedule to have another child. This winter, after scaling Vinson Massif in Antarctica, she set a new world record as the first woman to climb the highest mountains on six of the Earth's seven continents. To make it an even seven, a feat accomplished by perhaps a half-dozen men, she will have to conquer Australasia's Mount Jaya in Indonesia, a mountain surrounded by jungle that is inhabited by what H. Adams Carter, the editor of the American Alpine Journal, calls "very primitive and sometimes very hostile people. It's not something you'd do on the weekend."

But Junko Tabei would like to try, and is just waiting for Indonesia to give her permission. Meanwhile, her biggest conquest may not have been Everest as much as it was prevailing over one of the more sexist of the industrialized nations. Once, when Tabei went to a Japanese corporate executive to ask for funding, she was politely told it was impossible for a woman to climb Mount Everest. "He told me to stay home and take care of my baby," she says. Some of the neighbors have clucked that she is neglecting her children; Tabei's husband, a supervisor at the Honda Motor Co. and an apparently saintlike person who fully supports his wife's mountaineering, is at the end of the day still a Japanese man who leaves his dishes in the sink.

Tabei's lifetime goal is to climb the highest mountain in each of the 169 countries in the world. Even in the Netherlands, where much of the country is under water? "Even if it's small and even if it's flat, I don't care," she says. So far, her score is 21 countries down, 148 to go. She estimates she'll be finished in 2020, when she's 80. If this seems a somewhat extreme manifestation of the Japanese love of statistical achievement, Tabei is undaunted.

"Life is not forever," she says. "I don't think people should leave behind a fortune, or things. When I die, I want to look back and know that my life was interesting. I want to leave behind a personal history."

Moved by a Mountain Monday morning, 10 a.m. Junko Tabei is at home in Kawagoe, a bedroom town an hour and a half from Tokyo, and by all appearances she should be losing her mind. Ever since her ascent of Everest she has been a celebrity in Japan, and now, just back from Antarctica, there is a new rush of Japanese press clamoring for attention. The phone rings every three minutes and the fax machine hums. Tabei has no secretary, press agent or handler. Incredibly, she answers every call herself, imploring each supplicant to phone back in 15 minutes. This goes on from morning until night. At the end of the day, 60 faxes will have piled up. "Receiving faxes makes me more tired than climbing mountains," she says.

Tabei looks like a librarian who took a wrong turn in Katmandu. She has big glasses and bangs, and is dressed in a sweater made from a bright blue and orange swatch of fabric she bought in Bhutan. Her house, a modest split-level, is filled with the booty of her adventures: Tibetan rugs, a Bhutanese wood carving on the front door, an Indian hanging from Kashmir, pictures of her atop Annapurna and Everest, big bouquets of flowers from friends congratulating her on her ascent of Vinson Massif. The ringing phone gives the morning a certain frantic quality, but Tabei seems only moderately distracted. She manages to steer some Darjeeling tea to the table and sit still long enough to say that she grew up in rural Japan as the daughter of a small-time printer, and was never interested in sports until she climbed a small mountain one day. She was 10 years old, on a school class trip, and it changed her life.

"I began to understand there were so many places I knew nothing about," she says.

She went to college in Tokyo, worked as an editor for a medical journal, then married -- all the while climbing Japanese mountains every time she got the chance. In 1969 she organized a group of friends into the Ladies Climbing Club, and the next year climbed Annapurna in Nepal. Buoyed by the trip, Tabei set her sights on Everest.

"She can be a very hesitant and cautious person," says one of Tabei's longtime climbing friends, Setsuko Kitamura. "But she knows how to set her priorities. If she decides to do something, she'll do it."

Long Climb to the Top Mount Everest looms 29,002 feet over the border of Nepal and Tibet, a lethal slab of ice and rock that has tantalized climbers since it was first opened to mountaineering in 1920. In 1924, the British climbers George Leigh-Mallory and Andrew Irvine were last seen at about 28,000 feet; no one knows how far beyond that they got. In all, seven major expeditions tried and failed to conquer Everest until May 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay of the British Everest Expedition at last reached the summit. (Hillary looked, but found no trace of Mallory and Irvine at the top.) "Nothing above us, a world below," Hillary later told the National Geographic in a play-by-play of the final ascent. "I feel no great elation at first, just relief and a sense of wonder. {Tenzing} throws his arms around my shoulders, and we thump each other, and there is very little we can say or need to say." Their feat caught the imagination of the world. Dwight Eisenhower honored the expedition members at the White House, and the next day, more than 7,000 people jammed two sessions of the "Everest lecture" that Hillary and his colleagues delivered at Constitution Hall.

Since then, there have been 349 successful ascents of Everest by 313 climbers. About 60 have been Sherpas, the local mountain guides. About 40 have been Americans and 14 have been women. Of those, Stacy Allison, the first American, was the seventh woman to reach the top; U.S. climbers say the relative slowness of American women in scaling Everest is more the result of bad weather and bad luck than of inability. At least 96 people have died climbing Everest. Today, there are about 12 Everest expeditions a year, and a years-long waiting list. The government of Nepal charges a "peak fee" of $4,000, which is among the least of an expedition's expenses.

Among elite Himalayan climbers, Everest does not have the cachet of K2 in Pakistan or of Makalu in Nepal, the second and fourth highest mountains in the world, both of them far more technically difficult. But Everest's altitude is unforgiving.

"Above 26,000 feet, it's 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical," says Barry Bishop, who was one of the first Americans to climb Everest, and whose 10 toes had to be amputated afterward because of frostbite. "Who gets to the summit and who doesn't is a question of whose mind-set is ready for it. It's a never-never land up there. You're down to a third of the oxygen you receive at sea level. The human body can't stay alive up there indefinitely. Everything seems to be going in slow motion."

"Tenacity is the most important skill," agrees Glenn Porzak, the president of the American Alpine Club, who has also climbed Everest. "At 28,000 feet, you're going on autopilot. Your senses are dulled, and you're feeling like hell. You haven't eaten well, and you haven't slept well. After a month, a lot of people can't stand it."

If Junko Tabei is anything, it's tenacious -- a quality that would serve her well in the long, frustrating years of planning leading up to Everest. After Annapurna, many of the women in the original Ladies Climbing Club got married, had children or lost interest, shrinking the Everest expedition to five. But Tabei knew she needed at least 15 members, given the expenses that had to be shared and the virtual certainty that half would drop out during the climb from sickness, altitude problems or exhaustion. So Tabei went recruiting, heading for the big Ueno and Shinjuku train stations in Tokyo where she knew Japanese climbers gathered before their weekend expeditions.

She found 15, and then the group set to work raising money. "Five of the expedition members washed windows after their regular jobs," she says. It soon became clear they needed major help. Pressed, Tabei allowed Nippon Television, one of the country's major networks, and the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, to serve as sponsors -- a deal that would later cause problems.

Tabei left Tokyo for Katmandu in mid-December 1974, leaving her daughter and husband in the care of her sister. She spent the next two months overseeing the transport of 15 tons of food and equipment from Katmandu to the trekking center of Lukla. From there, she hired 600 porters to carry it through forests of blue pine and rhododendron to the Everest Base Camp. By mid-March, all members of the expedition were in place, ready at the Base Camp at the foot of the Khumbu ice fall. For the next two months, the expedition slowly made its way to the top, from Camp I to Camp VI; Tabei's group, like all Everest expeditions, did not climb in a straight, steady line. Instead, it was a case of one step forward and two steps back -- climbing up to establish Camp III one day, for example, then descending to Camp II to spend the night and the next day at rest. The gradual pace is essential for acclimatization at altitudes that provide the body with so little oxygen.

Although Tabei's expedition was made up of only women, Nippon TV and the Yomiuri had insisted on sending eight male climbers as photographers and cameramen, giving them complete access to the story they had bought. "It would have been much easier without them," Tabei says. "If you climb with men, there are so many troubles. The other women tended to listen to the men, even though I was the expedition leader. After the avalanche, I thought we could continue to climb. But one of the journalists said we shouldn't go on. I had to say, 'I am the leader, and I determine that -- even if you are the sponsor.' I wanted to concentrate on climbing, and here I had to worry about these other issues. Since then, I haven't had sponsors. I'm much happier."

Tabei's final ascent of the summit took six hours; she was climbing with Ang Tsering, a Sherpa. "It was very steep and very sharp," she says. "The snow was very deep. I was carrying 20 kilos on my back -- oxygen, camera, water, food." Climbers like to say that Everest saves the best for last when they come face to face with the last "knife's edge" ridge, with a vertical drop of 10,000 feet to the right, 8,000 to the left. "It was very difficult for me," Tabei says. "Each step required such a difficult technique." Ang Tsering reached the summit just three steps ahead of her. The two spent 50 minutes on top, took pictures, then descended.

When Tabei got back to Base Camp, there was a telegram from the prime minister of Japan. The King of Nepal gave her a medal and a parade in Katmandu. In New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, herself the mother of two, asked Tabei how she managed to climb mountains with a small child at home. "I told her I got a lot of cooperation from my husband," Tabei says. Back in Tokyo, a crowd of thousands welcomed her at the airport. Tabei, reunited after six months with her daughter, refused to feel guilty.

"I didn't want to have to tell her someday that because of her I couldn't climb Mount Everest," she says. "My husband told me I'd never have such an opportunity again in my life, and not to worry about the family."

Today, Tabei is convinced she never could have climbed Everest if a man had been leading the group. "If you go with only women, the physical conditions are the same -- it's much more equal," she says. Or, as she told a reporter in 1984: "A woman is unsentimental about another woman's endurance. A man could never drive a woman to her limits. It was the other women members of the team who drove me on."

Typical Japanese Wife Monday, two weeks later. Junko Tabei has been up since 5:30 a.m. She gave her kids breakfast at 6:30, had two press interviews, then left home at 10 to catch a bullet train to the city of Sendai, north of Tokyo, for a lecture. These days, lecture fees -- and bank loans -- are her main method of paying for expeditions.

Back from Sendai, she stops for dinner in Tokyo, where, mercifully, there is no phone to ring off the hook. From there she'll move on to a television station for an appearance on a midnight interview show. She won't be home until 2 a.m. Nonetheless, this morning she fixed a salad, soup and a meat sauce -- with instructions to her husband to boil the pasta -- so her family would have a nice dinner while she's gone.

"Working women are much better at using their time than full-time housewives," she says. "My husband says I don't have to do this, but while I'm in Japan, I want to do my best."