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There’s a reason only a few dozen people have ever walked through the entire Grand Canyon, says National Geographic photographer Pete McBride. “Less than a dozen have done it without stopping, in the history of the world—that we know of. There’s a reason way beyond that there’s no trail for 90 percent of it.”
But in 2015-16 McBride did it anyways, all 277 miles of it, along with National Geographic writer and author Kevin Fedarko. The pair endured 71 days of leg-busting hiking through merciless weather, the uncertainty of finding water (or even finding the route), flesh-ripping blisters, and one close call with hyponatremia in order to document the splendor of the middle of the canyon not visible from the rim above or water below. They also did it to raise awareness about threats to the grandiose national wonder in Arizona posed by energy and tourism development.
The pair is now working on a documentary and book about their adventure, respectively, but are embarking on a nine-city lecture tour that kicks off this Friday in Lone Tree, Colorado. In advance of the first of the National Geographic Live series, we caught up with the pair to ask them about the punishing journey they took through the canyon and their next steps to work toward protecting the landscape.
(Bonus: Read Pete McBride’s 2011 report for 5280 on the Colorado River)
5280: Back in 2015, why did you decide to do this?
Pete McBride (PM): I lost my mind [laughs]. Kidding aside…I did a book about the Colorado River called Flowing Through Conflict. It’s a coffee table book and I did a presentation about it. A lot of people at that time were talking about all the activity happening around Grand Canyon. I figured the Grand Canyon, a 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River, was the most protected piece of landscape in the Southwest—if not the country or beyond. But [people in the area] started telling me about a lot of challenges.
Kevin Fedarko (KF): Our primary goal was to use the hike as a way of showcasing questions about the tension that lies at the heart of this national park and many other national parks and public lands. The tension is between a desire to protect and preserve these landscapes for future generations of Americans, and the desire to exploit these spaces as a way of making money.
PM: I think initially, I was enchanted by the idea of exploring Grand Canyon and the secret wilderness that we often don’t see. You either see it from the rim or you see it from the river. That was the birth of the idea of walking, which at the time I had no concept of what that actually meant.
What do you see as threatening the Grand Canyon today?
KF: There’s a whole list of things, starting with a series of uranium mines, some of which are not operable at the moment but at least one of which is. The Forest Service recently announced that it was lifting the moratorium on uranium mining which had previously been agreed to, and this was at the encouragement of the Trump administration.
[Editor’s note: The U.S.D.A. and U.S. Forest Service released this report on Nov. 1 in response to a March executive order by President Trump calling on federal agencies to review any policies inhibiting energy development. The report suggests lifting of a 20-year moratorium on Uranium Mining in the Grand Canyon area.]
There’s a massive real estate development being pushed at the south rim of the Grand Canyon at the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, which—among many other concerns—threatens the aquifer beneath the south rim plateau. The aquifer is responsible for driving many of the springs and seeps inside of the Grand Canyon, which act as biological hot spots and serve as the lynchpin to the canyon’s ecosystem.
In the far west of the Grand Canyon, there is a massive incursion of air tourism in the form of helicopters. … Flights come into the canyon, flying below the rim along the river and in many cases directly over Grand Canyon National Park … those flights originate in Las Vegas, they’re part of a [tourism] development that has been put in place by the Hualapai Nation, which is a Native American tribe whose reservation abuts the western edge of the Grand Canyon.
In the east, there’s a proposal to build a massive tramway that would be capable of delivering about 10,000 people per day to an amphitheater and restaurant at the bottom of the canyon. That proposal was just voted down by the Navajo Nation, and it may or may not come back. But that’s an expected victory, at least a temporary victory, and has given encouragement to many people who are attempting to fight and stave off some of these other development threats.
Can you describe this trek in a nutshell?
PM: We ended up walking roughly 800 miles. It’s hard to be exact because our GPS systems weren’t always working in the slot canyons. We basically ended up walking the length of California, but because Grand Canyon is so deep [it’s over 5,000 vertical feet], and we did so much elevation gain and descent throughout to find water and to find routes, we calculated we did over 400,000 vertical feet, which is like climbing Everest multiple times—from sea level.
What was the time-frame?
PM: Seventy-one days of hiking. But we stretched it out over a year intentionally to span the seasons.
What was the most difficult aspect?
PM: I think the most difficult was actually finding water. It was the psychological stress of being uncertain of finding water. It really can weigh on you if you haven’t seen water and you’ve hiked for 14 miles that day and you keep coming up dry—you start to get a little a nervous. You can only carry a day- or a day-and-a-half’s-worth of water. It’s just too heavy.
Can you help us get a better picture of what it’s like to experience the Grand Canyon this way—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
PM: It was physically very challenging. Psychologically, it’s very challenging to become so utterly dependent on your own ability to read the environment around you and become completely self-reliant. But once you get a little used to it you start to move better and we had a huge, vast community that helped us out drastically. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.
Once [we learned how to] move through that place, spiritually it becomes very profound. There’s a huge presence of history there that dates back thousands of years. We found artwork that’s 4,000 years old, so you know you’re in the presence of an old world—not just geologically, but of human civilization in North America. Beyond that, there is this richness of silence that I just can’t really describe. You realize that the world we live in is noisy when you leave the Grand Canyon.
It’s beyond explanation, really. It’s so silent that my microphones kept buzzing because they weren’t calibrated to that level of silence.
Apart from this lecture tour, what are your next steps?
KF: My collaborator Pete McBride is involved in making a full-length feature documentary film on this hike, which will showcase the development threats. I’m writing a book, which I suppose in some ways is a sort of a follow-up to and flows out of another book that I wrote which came out in 2013 and was also set in the Grand Canyon.
Fedarko’s forthcoming book, an account of his trek with McBride in the Grand Canyon, is expected to be published in 2020. McBride expects his documentary, tentatively titled Dust in the Blood, to be released in January 2018. McBride is also working on a book of photography from his adventure to be released sometime in 2018.
Find an interactive map of the men’s trek here.
The first of Between River and Rim: Hiking the Grand Canyon, the pair’s lecture, will take place Nov. 17, 8 p.m. at the Lone Tree Arts Center, $15-$35.