Going Deep: 750 miles of the Grand Canyon

A century after the Grand Canyon became a National Park, photographer Pete McBride describes his 750-mile hike along its length—enduring discomfort and danger in a quest to highlight its natural and historical importance

WORDS Toby Skinner
February 2019

Mostly, Pete McBride remembers the silence. As a photographer, it’s a little surprising that this was his main takeaway from a 750-mile hike through the Grand Canyon National Park, which taught him “the ultimate lesson in humility” and came close to killing him on more than one occasion.

 “The depth of the silence out there is profound,” he says of his year-long journey with writer Kevin Fedarko, which started as a National Geographic assignment and was recently released as a book, The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim. “Native Americans sometimes talk about listening to the land, which sounds woo-woo until you need to hear even the tiniest noises of nature, which might lead to water, and survival.”

 Most of us can see the Grand Canyon in our mind’s eye: the striated, otherworldly walls, the stomach-churning magnitude of the mile-deep chasm, all of it the result of 1.7 billion years of geological craft. Back in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt stood overlooking the gorge and declared: “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it.”

In February 1919, a hundred years ago this month, President Woodrow Wilson officially made the Grand Canyon part of America’s new network of national parks. It isn’t the country’s oldest or largest park, and it is only the second most-visited (after the Great Smoky Mountains), with 6.25 million visitors in 2017. But the Grand Canyon—visible from space and one of the seven wonders of the natural world—is surely the most iconic of them all.

A 900-year-old Puebloan storage cave, illuminated by headlamp, as the full moon rises above the canyon

 Even before they set out on what was to become an epic journey, McBride and Fedarko knew more about the Grand Canyon than most people. In 2011, Coloradan McBride had paddled through the canyon as part of a four-year project during which he covered the entire 1,450 miles of the Colorado River, from source to sea, walking the last 90 miles where the river runs dry. The project spawned a book and three award-winning documentaries.

Fedarko, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, once worked as a Grand Canyon river guide and wrote a book, The Emerald Mile, about a daredevil team that attempted the fastest-ever boat ride through the canyon, in a tiny wooden dory during the epic floods of 1983. The pair have been firm friends ever since they spent a month together at Everest Base Camp for Outside magazine in 2006.  

Until 2015, when he gave a talk at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim describing his Colorado River project, McBride was relatively sanguine about its future. “Like a lot of people, I thought: The Grand Canyon is a national park, so it’s protected, nothing’s going to happen here,” he says. “But there were a lot of people there who were voicing concerns about how development was putting pressure on the park.”

He learned not just about the boom in helicopter tours on the West Rim, where there can be up to 400 trips a day, but also about the pollutive effects of uranium mining. He heard of plans to build a gondola and retail park near the dramatic vistas at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, which is sacred ground to many of the 11 Native American tribes in the area. “To the Navajo and Hopi, it’s the site of their origin story. It’s their Sistine Chapel.”

Writer Kevin Fedarko and photographer Pete McBride

So McBride and Fedarko started planning a hike through the canyon from end to end, something only 24 people had ever accomplished.

They originally planned to do the trip in four phases over a year, shooting in all four seasons. McBride describes the undertaking as a “three-legged stool”: an adventure story, a photographic project, and perhaps most of all a clarion call to protect an almost 2,000-square-mile park that contains five different major ecosystems, more than any other American national park.

As an adventure story, the pair got more than they bargained for. “It was harder than anything I’ve ever done by a magnitude of 10,” says McBride. Straightaway, they faced the dilemma known to many a Grand Canyon hiker: Stay close to the river, which forms a natural trail, and you have to battle thick mesquite brush; or you head up onto the layers of the canyon where there are steep drops and the ever-present possibility of straying too far from water sources, or simply getting lost.

After the initial 72 hours and 60 miles of their first trek, in September 2015, McBride had bloodied legs from encounters with cacti and brush, and a blister that “looked like someone had fired a shotgun at my foot.” Worse still, he started experiencing tunnel vision and nausea due to hyponatremia, the result of too little salt in his body.

“It almost killed me,” he says. “But it also taught me a lesson about hubris and humility.”

Instead of giving up, the pair got smarter, and decided to break up the hike further, eventually completing it in eight stages and 71 days. McBride ditched much of his heavy kit, relying on a single camera and lens, and they went back to experienced hikers to learn new tricks—like how to follow what McBride calls “sheep poop GPS” (because sheep tend to know where the water is).

But the going was still tough: They almost ran out of food during a winter snowstorm and became dangerously dehydrated when they failed to locate a water source on the west side of the canyon. “We went to sleep one night with less than a liter of water left, knowing we had to find water the next day or it would’ve been the end.” Luckily, they came across a pothole with a depression deep enough to hold rainwater. The only way to extract it was with a syringe. 

Cottonwood leaf compressed onto a stone by flowing water near Mooney Falls

The daily struggles—pulling cactus spines out of their legs, using armpits to warm camera batteries as they slept outdoors—were more than matched by moments of wild, euphoric freedom as they hiked for days without seeing another human, becoming “simpler, more alert, almost like animals,” as McBride puts it. 

The euphoria came in many forms: night skies blanketed with stars; the blooming of an ocotillo cactus; narrow slot canyons of “polished magenta and turquoise rock, filled with frogs, bats and these amazing, soft little sounds.”

McBride’s work changed over the course of the trip. He went from shooting “mostly epic vistas” to obsessing over tiny details: the geometric patterns inside a yucca cactus, say, or a cottonwood leaf plastered flat onto a stone by the pounding of Mooney Falls. He experimented, too: One striking shot from the new book is a composite image of helicopters and boats clogging a portion of the western Grand Canyon, on a day when he counted 363 helicopters passing the same spot over 12 hours.     

Still, after what Fedarko describes in the book as “a visual requiem,” McBride doesn’t say we should avoid the Grand Canyon. Quite the opposite: We should all go, he says, but we shouldn’t just see it as a tick on the bucket list, or an Instagram shot. “You need to give it the time it deserves, and bathe in the silence,” he says. “You can’t just storm through.”

As for the next hundred years, McBride thinks it’s hard to improve on the way Teddy Roosevelt put it all those years ago. “He said that man can only mar it, which seems right. It is a natural classroom, a place that teaches humility. People should go to realize just how small, and how lucky, we really are.”  

The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim is out now, published by Rizzoli


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