Last year, I was scooping up a pile of mail off my porch, and my neighbor’s Patagonia catalog slipped open to a picture of a strong-looking woman scaling a giant rock face, free-climbing. In the caption, the climber was identified as Majka Burhardt. I squinted at the photo and felt the thrill of recognition: Majka had been one of my dearest friends in middle school! Even back then she stood out: She was energetic and outspoken and friends with everyone in our small Minneapolis school, and we all looked up to her.
Majka and I fell out of touch when we went to different high schools, but I always wondered what she cool things was up to. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that they included this:
Since reconnecting with Majka last year, I have been reading up on her life and how she’s chosen to live it. It turns out she has forged a unique career that combines her passions as a climber, a filmmaker, and an author. In 2007 she led an all-woman team who were the first to climb the Gheralta, a chain of sandstone towers in the Horn of Africa. That adventure inspired two books, Vertical Ethiopia and Coffee Story: Ethiopia. Along the way she has found creative ways to use the products of her adventures to benefit areas where she’s climbed.
But there were a million things wanted to know more about. So I called her up last month, right before she left for Mozambique to start work on the Lost Mountain project, an expedition and a film that will promote conservation and help preserve biodiversity in Mozambique.
JESSICA: When was the first time you climbed?
MAJKA BURHARDT: I was five and was at camp in northern Minnesota for two weeks. We had adventure day, when you could hike, swim, or go rock climbing. Rock climbing was kind of notorious for the fact that when you got done you got to have all this candy, so I thought I would just get it over with super fast and get to the sugar. But I really enjoyed the climbing. I picked it again every year. That was how it started for me.
When did you realize that climbing was your “thing”?
When I was 12, I started going on paddling trips, and really it was being outdoors that became my thing—my summer goal was to be outside all day, every day. It started with canoeing and mountaineering, and then that switched back to climbing. I realized I felt most like myself in an extreme outdoor environment. I liked the intensity of it and the difficulty of it. I liked that it was OK to be intense—I was an intense kid. I knew I wanted this to be my identity, my life, so I kept putting myself in positions to be outdoors. I did an Outward Bound course and a NOLS course while in high school.
As a young girl, I remember feeling like I was always urged toward activities that taught me to behave—my Girl Scouting experience was about selling cookies, not about wilderness adventure. Were things different for you?
For me, the outdoors was the one place I could be myself and not feel like I was supposed to win people over. [Outdoor adventure sports were] so difficult and so rewarding, so it was OK to have a full array of emotions. It seems like in your teenage years you are not often allowed to have that full array.
After high school, you went to Princeton. When you started there, what did you think you were going to do with your life?
I thought I was going to pursue international relations, be a diplomat, go work for the UN. Princeton had a great international school, the Woodrow Wilson School. You go for your last year. I applied and I didn’t get in. When things have been going well for you, and you have become a little more used to yeses than no’s…well, it was difficult for me. I was taking a bunch of anthropology courses at the time, so I just went full-on into cultural anthropology. I work mostly internationally now, so I really use my degree.
How did you start climbing for a living, and not just for fun?
I started my career in the outdoors during college. My freshman year I worked for Outward Bound in northern Minnesota—I was the youngest person they had ever hired to be an instructor. Then I worked for Pacific Crest Outward Bound School in Portland, Oregon, and then I took a year off of school to climb full-time, and I just busted out and climbed all over the world. Then I went back to school and did independent study in Nepal and wrote about temporary cultures created on climbing expeditions. By the time I was done with college I was a full-time mountain guide and had been hired by a company called American Alpine Institute. I started weaving it all in while I was in college.
Nowadays your expeditions are sponsored by companies like Patagonia, but how were you paying for your climbs back then, when you were right out of college? What was your life like?
I was working full-time as a guide, taking people on advanced climbs, on expeditions, teaching. I started managing an expedition program for the Colorado Mountain School. That was great job, because I could climb [during the day] and then at night I would do my emails and calls. I became a professional climber in my early 20s. Pro climbers are not like pro basketball players—you don’t make serious bank—but I was fortunate enough to be a successful climber and to work with some of the companies that I still work with and earn a living, like Patagonia and Osprey and others. After that, I transitioned out of guiding and into writing. I would get assignments [from magazines] to go on trips and write about them.
Was your family supportive of your career? Are they now?
When I was young, my parents were fine with my passion for the outdoors because it was so strong for me. They didn’t ever anticipate me making it my life and career. Today, I would say they are supportive of it, but they would also rather I did something with less inherent risk. It’s a complicated thing for them to be behind.
Can you talk about your evolution as a climber?
I started mountaineering—negotiating mountainous terrain—in my late teen years, then [I moved on to] technical rock climbing, and then the ice climbing. When I was 19 or 20, I started ice climbing, and I loved it. It felt like one of the most normal things I had ever done. I know that sounds absurd! The great thing about ice climbing is that you have these beautifully sharp tools on your hands and your feet, and you can kind of just go where ever you want. If you want to go in a certain direction, you just throw your tools into [the ice] and there you are, holding on. But I was a strong young woman, and I took to it really easily, which felt great and empowering. Now I specialize in technical rock and ice climbing.
How did you go pro?
I went pro because I had more to offer than just my climbing abilities. I was a really strong climber, but I had built up enough of a career as a writer that I was a known entity in the climbing community, a voice for the climbing community. The reason I think companies stepped up was because I wasn’t just someone who was climbing hard for photos; I was also able to tell stories and communicate with people. I went to a trade show for the outdoors and met people who worked for brands I wanted to work with. I talked to them, and after that I was able to start working with companies it happened relatively quickly.