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Why Can’t I Be You: Majka Burhardt

How do you become a professional rock climber?

Collage by Ruby A.

Collage by Ruby A.

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:

Image via Patagonia.com.au.

Image via Patagonia.com.au.

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.

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15 Comments

  • christinachristina September 5th, 2013 4:30 PM

    This is such a wonderful article. As a fellow female climber (bouldering, specifically), it’s SO WONDERFUL to see and hear from other females who climb. (It’s such a cool feeling to be at the gym or climbing outdoors, and to send a problem that the guys next to you can’t even get!)

    Props to Majka for combining her passions in such a positive way. It’s inspiring to read about her and think of how I can keep climbing and getting better, while mixing this passion with my others.

    To anyone who is at all interested in climbing, google rock/bouldering gyms in your area and get started! And if you’re ever climbing in or around Portland, maybe I’ll see you! (SERIOUSLY, if you live in Portland and want to get into climbing, contact me below.)

    http://www.christinalynndavis.com
    http://www.primitivegoods.co

    • kelsey September 5th, 2013 11:00 PM

      Amen! I’ve never been a fan of physical activity AT ALL and I love climbing. CHECK IT OUT, LADIES.

  • GlitterKitty September 5th, 2013 4:39 PM

    Majka seems so cool! (And Majka is a pretty awesome name) Climbing seems so intense and the pictures look insanely terrifying. She really demonstrates that you can turn any passion into a real job AND help people with it.

  • elliecp September 5th, 2013 4:51 PM

    She seems awesome! It’s so good to hear about inspirational people that are actually normal and human too <3

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • Sophie ❤ September 5th, 2013 4:58 PM

    This is SO COOL.

    http://theneonpapaya.com

  • speakthroughvision September 5th, 2013 5:52 PM

    What a positive role model! It must have been so amazing to find someone you knew become so successful. The fact that you used to know each other really drew me into the story… What if someone I know becomes as a successful as Majka? What if I could take up climbing? I would love to help break the “oh she must be with her boyfriend” stereotype. Things like that really drive me. Great article and inspirational story!

  • Badlands September 5th, 2013 6:16 PM

    So Interesting. I like that y’all covered how Majka financed her climbing, she’s amazing! Really great work!

  • ColoredSoft September 5th, 2013 7:59 PM

    It’s really cool how Jessica knew Majka beforehand, and now interviewed her for Rookie to inspire so many people. Including me. I want to try rock climbing now. Thanks!

  • Cactus Woman September 5th, 2013 9:05 PM

    I love rock climbing! It is the only strenuous physical activity i look forward to doing. :)

    This interview was inspiring. I hope Rookie will do more of these career insider pieces!

  • julietpetal September 5th, 2013 10:17 PM

    The ice-climbing and then the part about having kids reminded me of one of my favourite books as a kid – Oscar and the Ice-Pick – about a kid called Oscar whose mum was an ice explorer and forgot her ice pick so he took it to her in Antartica but it turned out she was actually kidnapped by an evil woman who kept her in a prison made from poisonous ice-cream. The plot sounds totally ridiculous now but it was a great book.

    This was a great article too, I am fairly certain that I will never be a professional climber but I was so interested to read about it.

  • jenaimarley September 5th, 2013 10:57 PM

    OMG this is so great!
    I’ve been on a competitive/travel rock climbing team for the last four years (all of high school)! It is one of the most fulfilling sports in the world (at least for me).
    Also I happen to be reading climbing legend Lynn Hill’s book “Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World” right now and it is so so fantastic; I highly recommend it. She delves into so many of the gendered struggles she went through being at the frontier of the sport in the 70s.

  • kelsey September 5th, 2013 11:06 PM

    YES! This was fabulous! I’ve been climbing for a year, and I don’t plan to ever stop.

    And to second another gal’s comment – if you live in Arkansas by chance, some of the best climbing in the nation is right in your backyard, and there are gyms here and there. If you’d like some info, feel free to say hey!

    http://amateuridler.blogspot.com/

  • loonylizzy September 5th, 2013 11:12 PM

    So cool!! I’m just an amateur climber – there’s a cool wall climbing gym in town that I frequent and some fun climbing spots in the mountains near my grandparents house that I love to climb – but hearing about Majka is super inspiring! This makes me wanna scale the next boulder I see and declare myself queen of the rock!

    http://www.theflightoftheflamingo.blogspot.com

  • kelsey September 5th, 2013 11:56 PM

    You know, I am one of those girls who got into climbing because of their boyfriend and I don’t care if I am a stereotype – I’m totally grateful and glad he introduced me to it! I’m sorry if I perpetuate that image of lady climbers, but I’m not going to pretend that ain’t the way it is. And honestly? Though I am in that category, I don’t make that assumption about other girls. I know lots of gal climbers who I assumed (rightly) got into it solo hen I first met ‘em. When I see a gal obviously climbing with her boyfriend and he’s better than her, I make the “he probably introduced her” assumption – but I make the opposite assumption when it’s the other way around.

    So have hope! We’re not stereotyping too much from what I can see at the gym in Little Rock :)

  • joenjwang September 7th, 2013 2:32 AM

    “you could help save Ethiopia”…
    I dislike that. I’m uncomfortable with that. Despite this, a cool woman. I want to climb.