Princeton Weekly Bulletin October 12, 1998
Senior lives in two worlds
By Caroline Moselely
Majka Burhardt '99 lives in two worlds: one at sea level, as a Princeton University senior, the other at altitudes up to and above 20,000 feet, as a climber and, as of last May, a professional mountain guide for the American Alpine Institute (AAI) in Bellingham, Wash.
"I've been interested in the outdoors since I went to Girl Scout camp at the age of five," says Burhardt, who grew up in Minneapolis. A daughter of "very active" parents, she went on "many extended canoe trips" in the boundary waters of Minnesota and also did "a lot of skiing" as a nationally ranked downhill racer when she was 12 and 13 years old.
She took a National Outdoor Leadership School course at 16, backpacking and climbing in the Wyoming's Wind River Range; after graduating from high school, she embarked on "a 45-day canoe expedition in the Canadian Arctic."
Burhardt began instructing in June 1995 as intern and support instructor in rock climbing and canoeing at the Voyageur Outward Bound School in northern Minnesota. In the summer of 1997 she led 14 and 22-day mountaineering courses for Pacific Crest Outward Bound School in the North Cascades of Washington State.
During her time at Princeton she has been an Outdoor Action backpacking and climbing instructor and trained new teachers; she has also been a climbing instructor, teaching basic rock craft, on the climbing wall in the Armory. She has had special training in avalanche forecasting and high angle rescue ("That's working in extreme climbing situations, getting people out and down").
Climb Against the Odds
A member of this past June's Climb Against the Odds sponsored by the Breast Cancer Fund of San Francisco, Burhardt participated in an assault on Alaska's 20,320 ft. Mt. McKinley -- known to indigenous peoples as Denali, "the Great One." She climbed with four other Princeton women, now alumnae, as well as a number of breast cancer survivors. They made it to the final staging area at 16,500 feet, only to be turned back by bad weather.
Nonclimbers ask if she was disappointed by the "failure" to reach the summit. "If you're a mountaineer, it happens," Burhardt observes. "You don't always get what you want. I'm proud to have been part of the expedition. It doesn't matter to the mountain that it was a fundraising climb. Denali doesn't care."
Burhardt took a leave of absence from Princeton during 1996-97. "I don't call it a year off," she says. "I call it my year 'on.'" The year included rock climbing in the Yosemite Valley, high-altitude climbing in Ecuador, ice climbing in Colorado and ski mountaineering in the Sierras. Burhardt has also climbed Island Peak and Lobache in Nepal, and in Alaska she "climbed a few pitches" on Mt. Hunter.
"I've climbed to over 20,000 feet 13 times," she says. "I don't seem to have trouble with altitude." As a rock climber, she "comfortably leads" 5.10 pitches. The number represents the Yosemite Mountaineering School's decimal system for calibrating the difficulty of climbing routes. "Class 1 terrain is walking," Burhardt explains. "Class 2 is a slight angle; on 3 you're scrambling a bit; by 4 you're using your hands as well as your feet; and at 5 you'd probably rope up. 5.14 is about the most difficult pitch people are climbing now -- so far."
Alpine, not sport climber
Burhardt has been featured in Climbing and in Rock and Ice magazines, "as an alpine climber," she says, "not a sport climber." Sport climbers, she says, "clip carabiners to hangers attached to bolts in the rock face, and many sport climbers gear themselves to competitions." Alpine climbing, on the other hand, "is going on an expedition, long or short, into the mountains, where you interact with the mountains, the weather and the environment, where there are consequences for every action."
Isn't it dangerous? Well, Burhardt says, "If you're careful and put in all your protection right" -- that is, place spring-loaded camming devices in cracks in the rock -- "you're okay." Her most serious injury to date is a strained wrist, which she incurred throwing pots in a ceramics class.
An anthropology major, Burhardt spent the spring of 1998 in Nepal doing field study for her thesis. The field study program, she says, allowed her to "integrate my academic life with my life as a climber." Her thesis will examine "temporary cultures," such as those that develop in trekking and mountaineering groups.
"You get a group of people," she explains, "who live together intimately for three, four, five weeks -- until they get on the plane to go home and never see each other again. In the time they are together, however, they develop a whole set of jokes unique to the group, and often a system of organization and mythology."
Burhardt spent three weeks trekking in the Everest region with a 12-person group and six weeks trekking and interviewing other groups and individual trekkers and climbers. "A guy comes from Germany, hooks up with someone from England; they meet someone from yet another country; and they all trek the Annapurna Circuit together. They become a distinct group on Day 1, exist as such for 22 days, and that's it."
As an example of temporary cultural ritual, she points to "a birthday celebration we had on our trek. Everyone brought to it their own cultural information. An Australian guy started the celebration a day ahead, because, he said, Australians celebrate the year just ended. We had an American birthday cake, except it was prepared on the trail by a Nepali cook. So that birthday party was something unique to our group."
Burhardt feels "trekking and mountaineering groups are a great place to start in the study of temporary culture," though she expects eventually to extend her observations to include corporate culture.
Living life now
After being away from the campus for a year and a half of the past two years, Burhardt finds Princeton "a slightly unfamiliar place." Unlike many students, she says, "I don't identify myself primarily as a student, a person in transition to something else. I'm not thinking, 'When I'm done with Princeton, I'll...' I'm living my life now."
On August 29 she married Eli Helmuth, another AAI guide, whom she met in the summer of 1996 when she was in Washington climbing and taking part in "a special AAI course designed for the Princeton women who were going to participate in the Climb Against the Odds." Helmuth was not one of the group's instructors, though he subsequently served as head guide to the Climb Against the Odds.
Over Christmas, Burhardt and Helmuth hope to guide climbs of Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and Cayambe, well-known peaks in Ecuador. And after her graduation, they would like to continue to guide, perhaps eventually operating their own guide service based on the West Coast.
"If you're truly a climber," says Burhardt, "you're moving all the time. You can live out of the back of a pickup truck or out of a backpack. It's a lifestyle that isn't particularly compatible with being a full time student or holding any job other than that of a guide."