October 12, 2021
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Majka Burhardt

Professional Climber

2009 Polartec Challenge Grant Recipient

This is the third post in a blog series dedicated to catching up with past recipients of the Polartec Challenge Grants. Read the series introduction post.

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Climber-Conservationist

For the last two and a half decades, Majka Burhardt has been leading expeditions around the globe. A social entrepreneur and conservationist, her goals as a climber are set in conjunction with her focus on solving cultural and environmental issues.

Burhardt grew up ski racing in Minnesota, where she fell in love with the outdoors, and which eventually led her to climbing. “There were no climbing gyms,” she says. “So the way you got into climbing is being outside. And I loved it.” By the time she left to attend college at Princeton University, she was all-in, becoming involved in the university’s outdoor program and beginning to work for Outward Bound. She took a year off from her undergraduate studies to climb in South America, the western United States and Alaska. “I put everything towards a career of being a guide and a pro-climber while also pursuing an anthropology degree and then later a master's in creative writing,” she says. Those simultaneous pursuits eventually led to pioneering climbing and conservation research expeditions, like the one she took to Namibia in 2009.

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The Namibia Expedition

The Polartec Challenge Grant funding Burhardt received was for a 30-day expedition to Namibia with climbers Kate Rutherford and Peter Doucette, as well as videographer Chris Alstrin, and photographer Gabe Rogel. “We were poised to have a larger slew of funding, but then the financial crisis happened,” she explains. “The Polartec Grant became really pivotal for us because it was what allowed us to still pull the trip off.”

“Our goal was to head up north to the Marienfluss Valley to put a first ascent up on the 2000’ big wall, Van Zyl, which I'd seen a bunch of photos of.” However, because the expedition was operating on such a tight budget, the team had decided against bringing a translator and were unable to explain what they were doing to the local Himba people. “It didn't feel right to climb the mountain in their backyard without being able to have a conversation about what it meant and how to make sure that they were comfortable with it.” Between that and the 113-degree heat they encountered—which made climbing impossible from a practicality and a safety standpoint—Burhardt and the rest of the team headed to Brandberg Mountain, the highest mountain in Namibia at 8549’.

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“We put up a first ascent on that instead,” she says. “In some ways that's kind of typical for my career, in that plan A was to climb the most remote and weirdest thing in Namibia. And so my reaction to putting up a first ascent on the highest peak in Namibia was, ‘oh, well, I guess we'll do that.’ But the climbing that we did was phenomenal. It's probably one of the best first ascents I've ever put up in my life.” The team ultimately established two new trad routes on the Orabeskopf cliff: Painted Giraffe (5.9, Grade V), which they did in a single day and Southern Crossing (5.11+, Grade V), climbed after five days of preparation.

While they were cleaning and climbing the route, Burhardt began to wonder what was happening when they were pulling dirt and vegetation out of the cracks. “Am I disturbing the habitat? Would there be a better objective that was less infringing on the biodiversity here?” These questions planted the seeds for what would ultimately become her life’s work: Legado.

Majka Burhardt Quote 2

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Legado and Beyond

For Burhardt, a professional climber, conservation entrepreneur, author, mother of twins, and filmmaker, the work of Legado is all about legacy and not just her own.

“Legado works to support thriving futures so that people and the wild places that they live in can thrive together,” she says. “That Namibia trip...created the trajectory to now a global organization that works to support thriving futures with indigenous people in local communities around the world.”

“We work with people to think about their individual legacy, which for a lot of people, sounds like something that only special people get to have but the reality is that everybody creates their legacy every day,” she says. Legado works with local people to secure the biodiversity, healthcare, education, and infrastructure they need, with the goal of giving everyone, “the life that any of us would want to have anywhere.”

Learn more about Burhardt’s work at www.majkaburhardt.com.

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