Majka Burhardt on Climbing in Ethiopia
I first knew Majka Burhardt as a fiction writer when we were both grad students. Others knew her first as the climber on the other end of the belay, or the columnist voice dispensing stories in a favorite outdoors magazine, or as the guide that led them on a mountaineering expedition.
Now that Majka’s published her first book, those many identities are coming together.
The books called Vertical Ethiopia: Climbing Toward Possibility in the Horn of Africa It 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 a field dominated by men. 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 is designated for sale in Addis Adaba.
Majka has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and an anthropology BA from Princeton University. A guide for nearly a decade, Majka 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, CO.
How did you come to make climbing such a large part of your life?
I grew up in the outdoors— canoeing, skiing, hiking—climbing was a natural extension. I started to climb seriously at age 16 and by the time I was 21 it was what I wanted to do most in my life.
Even so, I had another, academic side of myself, that I was constantly trying to merge with climbing. I’ve been lucky and able to do that, and in part that had to do with my climbing teachers and mentors. I did not learn to climb because it was cool. I learned to climb because it answered a passion. I learned to teach climbing and started guiding at 21. By merging the teaching and the doing, I made climbing my career early on, and soon added writing to it to round out my experience.
This is your first book: what did it take to make this happen?
I was living in Ethiopia working on other writing projects and completing my MFA. When I first arrived in Addis Ababa, I realized that Ethiopia was a very different place than what I’d imagined. I became intrigued by these preconceptions and their interface with reality.
When I decided to do a climbing expedition in northern Ethiopia, I knew I would have an article in conjunction with the trip. Shama Publishing heard of my plans and approached me to do the book. Shama is committed to presenting an alternative view of Ethiopia. Their goals merged with my interests, and Vertical Ethiopia was born. I’m lucky in that I was asked to write this book, and that I was given a great deal of creative control over the process.
The visual element is a huge piece of Vertical Ethiopia. What was it like collaborating with a photographer? How did it shape your writing?
Telling a story is always a collaborative experience between forces in yourself—the difference this time was that I also got to work with others. Gabe Rogel, the photographer, is an amazing friend of mine and sitting with him in his office in Driggs, Idaho, and doing the initial layout of the book was very powerful.
Gabe and I had the shared experience of the trip up north to climb and I had the larger experience of my other time in Ethiopia. I wrote an initial draft of the book and then we worked together to lay it out. We spun out the tale together and learned how to alternate between image and words. I then went back into my writing and made sure it communicated with the images. I think of this as working in layers, like a painter might. Each iteration of the book was a layer on the previous one, and all of them together create the finished product. The same goes for all of my back and forth with my editor. In the end, the stories in the book are the same ones I told in my first draft, but they were more expansive and the cohesion of the project grew tighter with each round of collaboration.
Because I write fiction, and I also write non-fiction about landscape, I’ve always thought three-dimensionally about my stories. I think I have even greater tools to do this now. Being able to use photos to “write” was hugely instructive and inspirational for me.
Why drew you to Ethiopia in the first place?
I initially went to Ethiopia to write about a rare coffee bean. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and the only place in the world where it grows wild. I went on an expedition to search for what is currently the most expensive coffee in the world. We didn’t find it on our trip, but I found a passion for Ethiopia. I spent one month in Ethiopia for this trip and returned less than two months later to live there through the spring, to work and climb.
What sort of tension did, or do, you feel as a U.S. citizen visiting the country, interacting intimately with the landscape, and then writing about it?
Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never colonized. This is not just a fun fact—it informs every interaction you have as a foreigner in Ethiopia. People are generous and want to share their country with you and don’t have a history of suspicion and apprehension of foreigners. Ethiopians also are acutely aware of the negative portrayals of their country and go out of their way to show foreigners what is beautiful and unique about their homeland.
I never felt tension as an American when in Ethiopia. I did feel tension from Americans about being in Ethiopia. Reading the headlines about problems and strife in the country while I was there was at times surreal compared to my day to day interactions. Because I am a writer, and not a reporter, I think I was allowed to see an even deeper side of Ethiopia. It kept me safe in some ways, though since I’ve been back, and writing about my experience, I’ve felt aware of the restrictions I’ve had to follow to create my book in country that has very restrictive press rules. It’s indisputable the Ethiopia is at the center of maelstrom of international brinksmanship and the current “war on terror.” I’m aware that I’ve stepped into this, in part, by giving voice to my experience with the first the book and now my sharing of my experience with everything surrounding the book.
The book follows four women, literally charting new territory in northern Ethiopia. What does that mean for you?
I’m drawn to the challenge of making adventure additive. We were four women charting new territory in Ethiopia— and charting new territory in ourselves. For me this means the merging of self, environment, and culture. 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.
As a climbing guide, a writer for leading magazines in the sport, and now with this new book, you’re becoming something of an expert voice in a field dominated by men. What’s that like?
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.
Why aren’t more women climbing?
Why aren’t more women doing everything?
I think climbing is tough to pursue after a certain point. It takes an ungodly amount of time to be good at it. It’s not like running where you can wake up, lace up you shoes, and go crank through 3-15 miles and be home for breakfast. It takes all day, and then another, and then another. If you have other things going on in your life, then at some point you have to choose between climbing and those things. For women, you add in having a family, or the decision not to, at right about the time when, as a climber, your career can really start to take off. I’m not saying you cannot climb and have a family, to the contrary I know many who do this well. But it’s hard to climb, have a career, have a relationship, have a dog, learn Arabic and make incredible cupcakes. This is changing and there are easily accessible ways to get out and climb these days with climbing gyms. I think we will see more women climbing as a result—it just might take time.
Vertical Ethiopia is published by an Ethiopian press: Shama Publishing. How does the publishing collaboration work, and why did you choose this (excuse the pun) route?
I chose to work with Shama because they afforded me an opportunity to work to create an collaborative African product. Many time writers go into another country, have their experience, come home and write about it, and move on with their lives and never have their finished product in an immediate dialog with its country of origin, inspiration, or subject. Half of my first print run was sent to Ethiopia. While writing the book and working on the edits, I woke up almost every morning and an ungodly hour to roll over and call my editor at the end of his day on the other side of the world. It can sound romantic, and in some ways it was.
In other ways it was exceedingly challenging. I could not talk about recent kidnappings, religious violence, and troop mobilization. But by suspending all of this in the book I had to more fully engage with another part of my perspective. To look at art we say it’s best to first become neutral. I had to do this to write Vertical Ethiopia . I had to set aside any political agenda and say first, what is intrinsic to this process? How do I start there? How do I stay there? This made me a more visceral writer.
In addition to it changing my writing, working with Shama gave me a richer perspective on Ethiopia. I’ve now followed her press rules, learned her commerce laws, and have the price of my book listed in Ethiopian Birr on the back cover. Having done this project this way I can’t imagine an alternative.
You’re also a writer of fiction and journalism. How do you balance that with your climbing?
I type until my forearms ache and then I go and climb until they ache in the opposite direction. Seriously, this is pretty much my strategy. I need to engage my head and my body and I am constantly trying to balance the two.
Where do you hope to go with your work?
I’m hoping to keep writing books and stories that are expansive for me and for my readers. I have some projects coming up in African and the Middle East that I hope will do just that.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my book tour. I’m traveling around the US, Canada, and Europe speaking about Vertical Ethiopia — the process and the book. It has been amazing to see the tide of interest from the outdoor community, the international community, the travel community, and educational institutions. In the midst of that I am doing research for my next project in the Middle East.