“In the Name of First Ascents and Cultural Connection”

Meet Majka Burhardt. She is a professional climber and writer who is especially committed to seeking out "first ascents and cultural connection." A guide for nearly a decade, Burhardt has led a range of climbing disciplines, from high-altitude mountaineering expeditions to multi-pitch alpine rock climbs. She lives (most of the time) in Boulder, Colorado.

And boy, does she have some stories to tell.

Her varied talents comes together in her books, including Vertical Ethiopia: Climbing Toward Possibility in the Horn of Africa, which follows four female climbers who traveled to the sandstone peaks in northern Ethiopia. Nobody had climbed these towers before these women determined to literally chart new territory. In narrative vignettes and brilliant photography, Vertical Ethiopia reflects on what it means to interact intimately and physically with the landscape of another country. In a unique international collaboration, Vertical Ethiopia is printed by Shama Publishing, an Ethiopian press committed to creating a new narrative of the country. Half of the book's print run was designated for sale in Addis Adaba.

Awhile back, I interviewed Burhardt about her life's work of exploration and adventure, both on and off the page. (In full disclosure, she and I attended grad school together.) Among other things, I asked Burhardt why more women aren't climbing and what it is like to become an expert voice in a field that is dominated by men. (She writes about climbing for leading publications.)

Says Burhardt:

I enjoy being able to talk about climbing and life. The two go together for me. I'm always interested in how this works in my life and in the lives of others. In some ways I think this makes me different. Maybe this is because I am a woman, maybe it's because I am a writer. I think people identify with my work because it shows the human side of climbing— what is fallible, what is emotional, what is humorous. I write a great deal about how climbing interacts with the every day part of life. I'm lucky that I've found an audience for this.

Burhardt's latest project? It's called "Waypoint Namibia," and it is film that Burhardt made with Chris Alstrin. Again, it is a story of climbers looking to find their way up an unexplored face and to connect with the people who live among it. As the press materials put it, "At the heart of their trip lies the question, can adventure and culture combine to create understanding?"

See the trailer for "Waypoint Namibia" here.

Again, here's Burhardt on a life of not only as a professional athlete, but a life of seeking:

I am not interested in going climbing in a new place and touching some rock, getting up it, and coming home. I want to sit in the entire experience for a longer period of time. When I was a kid I loved having loose teeth. I would rock my cuspids back and forth against my gums and cherish and dread the pain that followed. I think I'm like this as a writer. I want to wiggle the teeth in my life. I want to see what that feels like. I want to see what it feels like to write about each moment and each feeling from all of the perspective I can inject.

Another of Burhardt's projects is an upcoming book that might offer a clue for how she manages to accomplish all this. It's called Coffee: Authentic Ethiopia and it comes out in 2010.

If a love of coffee is part of the equation for being a professional climber, perhaps that means I'm halfway to the peak myself?


by Anna Clark
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