Basalt photographer and filmmaker Pete McBride didn’t set out to be a champion of rivers, but it’s sure turned out that way.
He has two acclaimed short films about the plight of the Colorado River — “Chasing Water” and “I Am Red.” A book with stunning photography details his journey of tracing the Colorado River from high in the mountains to the delta where it peters out before reaching the Sea of Cortez.
Now McBride is preparing a multi-media presentation of his more recent journey to India to follow the course of the Ganges River, treated reverently by millions of Hindu people . He was given a National Geographic Expedition Council Grant for the project. It’s rare that a photographer rather than a scientist receives such a grant, he said. His earlier work — both a trip to India and his exploration of the Colorado River — whetted his interest to explore the Ganges.
“From doing the Colorado (project), I was pretty amazed at what I learned,” McBride said.
He spent seven weeks tracing the river’s route — from harrowing climbs in one of the most isolated parts of the Himalaya to negotiating the dense cities in the highly populated plains of India. He learned that the Ganges is not only one of the most sacred rivers, it’s also one of the most polluted. While the Hindu revere the river as the reincarnation of the goddess Ganga, they haven’t developed an environmental ethic. It’s a paradox, he said.
And while the river gets polluted with industrial waste and fertilizers, it also plays a major role in so many lives in India. The water is embraced for everything from alleged healing powers to irrigating crops and powering industry.
“They embrace their rivers daily, and we turn our backs on them,” McBride said.
Both the Colorado River and the Ganges are overtaxed. Both run dry at times. But the stakes are magnified for India and Bangladesh. The Ganges supports a population of 400 million compared to the 36 million supported by the Colorado, according to McBride.
He has a lot of stories to tell about his journey by foot, boat, rickshaw, raft, bus, train and elephant. While the river runs 1,550 miles, he and companions had to travel nearly double that to follow its course because of access and logistics issues. McBride said he lost 30 pounds on the trip last September and October.
He will share the stories Wednesday from 7 to 8 p.m. at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ headquarters at Hallam Lake. The presentation is free for ACES members, $5 for non-members.
McBride is cautious at this point with the amount of information he will share. He will get into more detail at ACES, but he’s preparing a massive package of words, pictures and video for National Geographic Online. It’s due out later this year.
McBride was willing to provide a glimpse of a harrowing leg of the trip near the headwaters of the Ganges, at the end of the Gangotri Glacier. Eddie Bauer athletes and 7 Summits guides Dave Morton and Jake Norton accompanied him.
“We learned why these peaks are unclimbed,” he said.
While camped overnight during preparations for the final push to the headwaters, they were deluged by about three feet of snow in 12 hours. Neither use of satellite phones nor the possibility of helicopter rescue in case of trouble was available to them. The men decided they must make a hasty retreat, then struggled to break trail in all the fresh snow.
“It’s about as far out there as I’ve been,” McBride said. It gave his companions, who have made the ascent of Mount Everest nine times between the two of them, nearly all they could handle as well.
McBride and his companions departed India with 23 water samples from separate sections of the river. They will be tested for heavy metals and a variety of other conditions to help gauge the Ganges’ health.
McBride said he is thrilled for the opportunity to discuss his journey during a Potbelly Perspective at ACES. “I grew up going to ACES as a kid,” he said.
When asked if he discovered common bonds on his trips along the Colorado and Ganges rivers, McBride identified a disturbing trend.
“We take water for granted,” he said. “We abuse it.”
“From doing the Colorado (project), I was pretty amazed at what I learned.”