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Why Can’t I Be You: Majka Burhardt

How do you become a professional rock climber?

What was driving you?

Once I had climbed enough, I began to see the world through the eyes of a climber. I wound up going to Mozambique because someone showed me a picture of this mountain face and I remember thinking, That’s cool–but what’s on the other side of that picture? There is a peace for me when I am climbing. When you are climbing you are not thinking about anything else. You aren’t thinking about what you need to do with your house or your family or your dog or to make the world a better place. Combining that [feeling] with some of the projects I do to make a difference was something that I couldn’t pass up.

How did you figure that out—that these activist efforts of yours could mesh with climbing?

Before I went to Ethiopia with an all-female team of climbers in 2007 to work on my first book, I was approached by a Ethiopian publisher that wanted to put it out. They said, “You could help save Ethiopia by writing this book.” And I thought, But I am just going to write about climbing, I don’t know how that’ll save anything. Climbers don’t actually spend a lot of money—certainly not enough to change one of the 10 poorest countries in the world! Before that I done a lot of climbing where you’re facing the rock face, and your back is to everything else. You’re not around a other people. Well, in Ethiopia, you are entrenched in culture in every phase of it–there are people around you, and if you look over your shoulder you see a town that was founded during the famine in the ’80s. I realized that putting these things together was going to be a much more interesting conversation than just talking about “the rock.” I realized I could tell a story about what adventure and climbing can do in for a country that has primarily been known for drought, famine, and poverty. I saw that I could take the things I cared most about and mesh them together.

Does every climbing trip need to be like that for you now? Do you always have this sense of mission?

That revelation pushed me hard, but it was in a way that I wanted to be pushed. I grew up with that [sense of mission]. I think about this all the time—I still have that piece of paper where we wrote slogans for pro-choice T-shirts: “Use a Condom, Stupid” and “My Body, My Choice.” [Laughs]

You mean our little junior high fundraiser where we sold tie-dyed pro-choice shirts for $2 apiece? Dude, we raised like $60 for NARAL! [Laughs] Shirts with extra detailing were more.

I remember there was an order form, and people had to circle the shirt they wanted. We made them in your attic, right?

Meticulously hand-crafted them with PUFFY PAINT.

[Laughs] Exactly! The thing for me was that activism has always just been part of my personality, so when I had that realization in Ethiopia, it felt like coming home. I decided my life goal was to do big projects that have a big impact–and have the time and space to do them. It’s not every climb—I was just climbing in Norway for my honeymoon—but I like having an activist project every two or three years.

I would imagine that mountaineering and climbing are jobs with an equal playing field, gender-wise, because it’s like, either you can climb the mountain or you can’t. Is that true?

I wish it were! There are still many more men climbing than women. I have seen that change a lot in the 15 years I have been climbing, but there’s this stereotype that if you see a woman climbing, you look around for her boyfriend. I have spent my life climbing with women, so I try to make fun of that stereotype and call people and myself out on those biases. Because sometimes I catch myself doing that, too—I’ll see a woman and a guy climbing together and I’ll automatically assume he’s the one who got her into climbing. When I saw that [bias] even in myself, I realized how entrenched it was. But it’s that classic situation, where right when you reach the age when you have the skills to really crank on the really gnarly, really high peaks and really scary consequences–you’re in your early 30s and you have to think, OK, am I going to have kids? If you are, you wonder, How does it work when I am on a two-month expedition to Pakistan? It’s the same thing we run into in any career. Right about the time you really get going you are confronted with the motherhood question.

What’s the most intense experience you have had climbing?

I was in Armenia this past October, just for a casual climbing trip, to put up new routes in Armenia. We got there and found that the rock quality was not awesome. I was getting over an injury and I climbed up on a viper in the rock.

Did you say “a viper”?

Yes, a viper, as in a deadly poisonous Armenian snake. Here I am on what is supposed to be this nice little trip, and I put my hand into a crack that this viper happens to live in. It made me think, Maybe this trip is supposed to be about something else for me right now. Three days later I got hit by rock fall that almost broke my arm and created a bunch of bone and nerve damage on my arm–it was one of those trips where there were a few moments that made it very, very real.

Looking at pictures of some of your climbs, it seems that you’d have to be fearless–is that the case?

Fear is something real and every-day for me. I don’t think you need to be fearless, but you do need to understand that fear is not finite, it’s a moving emotion. You have to assess it [relative to] your ability, the degree of risk, and your drive, and see where you get to in that moment, on that climb, for that day.

What resources are available for young women who’d like to pursue a career like yours?

I sometimes wish I could be a young woman learning to climb today. There are great climbing gyms in most major cities and many minor cities that offer classes and clinics. I’d start with a local gym, and ask them if they have a way to get outside. Then, if you can, go take a course with a guide certified by the American Mountain Guides Association. Getting the right instruction early with the best teachers will help you make your best choices. Also, if possible, take an Outward Bound or NOLS course. If you are going to college, you could be in great luck, as outdoor programs are becoming standard at universities everywhere. You can also go to a climbing festival—there are tons of rock and ice climbing festivals around the world that are a great and economic way to get a taste of climbing and use the gear, meet the pros, see if you like it, or, if you’re already climbing, to take it to the next level. ♦

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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.