Man hikes entire length of Grand Canyon to save it
Pete McBride is worried about the Grand Canyon, so he decided to hike it.
All of it.
A few years ago, the adventure filmmaker, photographer and writer filmed the path of the Colorado River and was amazed to see that the river doesn’t reach the ocean anymore.
The trip “made me shift my focus, so now I do a lot of photography around conservation, around fresh water and around public lands.”
Having hiked Mount Everest and documented nature in Antarctica, he didn’t think the Grand Canyon needed his images to survive.
“I figured the Grand Canyon was one of the most protected pieces of landscape on the planet, so it didn’t require another photographer to go photograph there.”
Learning about current threats to the canyon changed his mind.
One of the seven natural wonders
One of the seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Grand Canyon is one of the most photographed landscapes in the world.
The Grand Canyon is about five or six million years old, but rocks at the canyon bottom date back about 2 billion years. Human artifacts have been found dating back nearly 12,000 years to the Paleo-Indian period, and it’s been continuously occupied into the present day.
The land now known as Grand Canyon National Park, which celebrates its centennial anniversary in February, was first protected by the US government in 1893. When Congress resisted US President Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to make it a national park, which required Congressional approval, he protected it as a national monument in 1908, which he could do without their help. It became Grand Canyon National Park on February 26, 1919.
“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world,” said Roosevelt at the time. “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.”
Given that illustrious history, McBride was surprised to hear from people working inside and around Grand Canyon National Park that the canyon faces multiple threats.
They come from increased helicopter flights, a proposed tram to the canyon floor, proposed tourist developments and possible uranium drilling. (The threat of uranium isn’t a hypothetical issue: Three buckets of uranium ore were stored at the park museum for nearly two decades, according to a park employee who went public in February. Federal officials are investigating his report.)
While some of the developers who want to make money off the park aren’t from the area, some are Native American tribes who have watched others profit for decades.
A park under threat of development
Most visitors spend only a few minutes at the South Rim, experiencing just that famous view of Grand Canyon National Park, unaware of the canyon’s role as home to ancient peoples, animals and plant life or the threats and economic pressures placed on it.
So McBride decided to hike the length of the canyon, a 750-mile journey (give or take a few miles).
There wasn’t any thru-trail for him to follow. And the hike would include an elevation gain and loss of around 100,000 vertical feet, unstable rock and temperatures fluctuating from 8 degrees to 116 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I don’t know why I got the idea to walk it,” since there’s no trail for much of the distance, he says. “I figured it’d be challenging, but I’ve done a lot in the back country and wilderness and I figured it couldn’t be that hard. And oh, how wrong I was.”
When McBride and his friend, writer Kevin Fedarko, first started planning their hike, they convinced experienced Grand Canyon hiker Rich Rudow to let them join his September 2015 hike.
It didn’t go well.
Loaded up with way too much camera gear and not prepared for the impact of the extreme heat on their bodies, the canyon made them sick and disoriented, forcing them out on their sixth day, as Fedarko later wrote in National Geographic.
Back in Flagstaff, Arizona, McBride was diagnosed with hyponatremia, a heat-induced imbalance of salts and minerals, which could have killed him.
There would be no thru-hike.
In fact, McBride and Fedarko thought about quitting as they got medical attention and recovered from their first attempt. But the local hiking community and Native American conservationists convinced them to complete the trip in order to draw attention to the magnificent natural wonder.
Hiking in two-week stints
During five weeks in October, they planned a hiking trip that involved hiking the canyon in two- to three-week stints starting in November 2015 going through March 2016, often bringing more experienced Grand Canyon hikers along, traveling about 15 miles per day and 150-200 miles per trip, completing about 600 miles before summer.
They skipped hiking during the deadly hot summer months — but still photographed the park — and finished up their last two-week stint in late October of 2016.
“There’s no trail for 70 to 80 percent of it, so you have to find your way and you have to learn how to find water. You have to make sure you don’t get pinned up on a cliff, just kinda figure out how to stay alive,” McBride said. “it’s a great lesson in humility and self-sufficiency and getting back in tune with our natural world.”
He carried just one camera, a Sony A7 with a wide angle lens 16-35, to shoot the video that became “Into the Grand Canyon,” a movie airing on National Geographic and streaming on NationalGeographic.com, and the pictures that became his book,