Basalt photographer Pete McBride hiked the Grand Canyon to capture grandeur, document threats for National Geo

Scott Condon The Aspen Times
Basalt photographer Pete McBride films above the Elve's Chasm in the Grand Canyon last winter while on assignment for National Geographic Magazine.
Pete McBride/courtesy photo |


Basalt photographer Pete McBride and writer Kevin Fedarko hiked the entire Grand Canyon in sections between September 2015 and November 2016. Here’s some numbers from their trip.

Miles: Between 750 and 800

Time: 71 days and 70 nights

Nights in tents: 20

High temp: 111 degrees

Low temp: -5 degrees

Pairs of boots: 4 for McBride, 3 for Fedarko

Lost toenails: 15 collectively

Calories: 2,000 per day intake, 5,000 burned

Weight loss: 30 pounds, McBride

Adventure usually comes with the territory for a photographer on assignment for National Geographic Magazine, but Basalt resident Pete McBride’s experience was off the charts on a recent job.

McBride, a photographer, teamed with writer Kevin Fedarko to walk the length of the Grand Canyon to truly experience its grandeur and also to get a better feel for the man-made threats it’s facing.

“It was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ll ever do,” McBride said. It was both physically and psychologically challenging, even for a guy who grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley and spends a lot of time outdoors.

The writer and photographer embarked on the journey Sept. 25, 2015, from Lee’s Ferry, intending to shadow an experienced thru-canyon hiker on an epic journey from east to west.

It didn’t work out as planned. Here’s how Fedarko described it in National Geographic Magazine: “The canyon sucker punches its challengers with some of the most punishing territory right out of the gate.”

The heat reached 110 degrees in those opening days, leaving both men feeling like they spent 10 rounds in the ring with Muhammad Ali. They crawled out of the canyon on day six, and McBride was diagnosed in Flagstaff, Arizona, with hyponatremia, a dangerous loss of salts and minerals.

Regrouped with Plan B

They regrouped and resumed the journey in October. They relied heavily on information from hikers in the Flagstaff area so they could navigate through the magnificent maze of side canyons and sheer rock walls.

“Seventy percent of it was no trails,” McBride said. “It was pretty bushwhacky.”

A lot of the time they relied on droppings of bighorn sheep to navigate the right route. “Their turds were like black gold,” McBride quipped.

All told, the men hiked an estimated 750 to 800 miles, though not in one shot. They covered roughly 3/4 of the distance in nine trips by March. They returned in October and November to finish the remaining miles.

McBride said they became adept at hiking the canyon, covering up to 20 miles and climbing up to 3,500 vertical feet per day. “You just get conditioned,” he said.

Their story and photographs ran in the September National Geographic Magazine and can be found at http://www.national national-parks.

Helicopters and tram

The size and scale of the canyon was greater than McBride said he anticipated, even though he had floated through it before and hiked portions. It was easy to underestimate how arduous it was to hike it, he said.

And, probably most importantly, it was a surprise to learn how fragile the canyon really is, despite its geologic prominence. That was the point of their trip. They wanted to experience the Grand Canyon as it is now, before any of the possible threats turn to reality.

The silence and feeling of wildness is shattered on the western edge by as many as 400 flights per day by sightseeing helicopters on land owned by the Hualapai Indians.

Developers have approached the Navajo tribe that owns land at the east boundary of the park with a proposal to run a tram down to near the valley floor. The tram would have capacity to deliver 10,000 passengers per day to an overlook of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, a place regarded as sacred by some Indian tribes.

At a point south of the middle of the canyon, a development conglomerate is pursuing approvals for 2,000 residences and commercial property at Tusayan, Arizona, a gateway village to the national park. It is feared that drilling wells to supply the development with water will alter countless springs and seeps that wildlife in the biologically diverse canyon depend on.

No amusement park

McBride is concerned about the intrusions in helicopter alley and the prospects for more disruption by a tram. There has to be a balance between access and conservation, he said, noting the park already hosted 5.5 million visitors last year, not including visits made to the Hualapai lands, which include a popular skywalk overlook.

“People are seeing the Grand Canyon as a bucket list amusement park — and it’s not an amusement,” he said.

The goal of the hike, he said, was to spur debate on “how we see and appreciate our parks.” The Grand Canyon isn’t the oldest national park, but it many ways it is the grandest and a national symbol.

“If we can’t protect it, it raises the question — what the hell can we protect?”

In addition to the National Geographic article, McBride is working on a documentary about the canyon and its threats, and he is going on a speaking tour. He urged people who are concerned to join efforts underway by Grand Canyon Trust and American Rivers.

In the long run, the Grand Canyon will be fine because it will outlive humanity, McBride said. But its treatment at the hands of man disturbs him. Construction of the tram, for example, would make a thru walk impossible.

“It’s very possible that you could never do that again,” McBride said.