Kevin Fedarko and Pete McBride looked down the guns of Chechen border guards, slaughtered a cow in a parking lot and survived an avalanche on Mount Everest – but their most challenging journey may have been their 750-mile hike across Grand Canyon National Park.
“More people have stood on the surface of the moon than have completed a continuous through hike of the Grand Canyon,” McBride said.
The end-to-end hike (not the more popular rim-to-rim hike) was McBride’s idea – one of the many bad ideas, Fedarko joked, proposed during the adventurers’ “dysfunctional” relationship. Together, they spent a year hiking the canyon and documenting it for National Geographic’s “Into the Grand Canyon,” which was nominated for an Emmy and earned the two the title of “Adventurers of the Year” from National Geographic.
They shared their experience with Chautauquans at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater with their lecture, “The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim,” to continue the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Seven theme, “The National Parks: How America’s ‘Best Idea’ is Meeting 21st-Century Challenges.”
McBride’s interest in the Grand Canyon was sparked after he returned from Mount Everest and found himself stuck at his home in Colorado. He followed the tributaries in his backyard to the Colorado River, which he called “the lifeline of the Midwest.” After decades of mismanagement, overuse and drought, the river was at its lowest point in 1,600 years.
Fedarko also took an interest in the river. He had been researching the storied dory boats used to traverse the Grand Canyon’s rapids, particularly “The Emerald Mile” – which did a speedrun of the canyon in 1983.
Clearly, they had another adventure on their hands, and the two set off with little preparation. That was a mistake.
“This is a place that was first penetrated and explored for the first time in written history in the summer of 1869 by boat; people didn’t figure out how to walk through it by foot until 1977,” Fedarko said. “It is designed to resist human movement on foot.”
The hike was mostly vertical, and without any trails the two regularly had to push through cacti. Between the walls of the red rock, everything wanted to either bite or sting them, and the nighttime temperature was 112 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River, the two met with Renae Yellowhorse, a Navajo woman who organized her community in a fight against a planned entertainment development on the land.
“The confluence is where life begins,” Yellowhorse told the two. “It is a sacred space.”
The people who joined Yellowhorse in her protest were mostly elderly, just four spoke English and few had running water in their homes. They were passionate, but Fedarko and McBride had to continue their hike.
However, it was not long before issues facing the 11 tribes with ties to the Grand Canyon appeared again.
As the two passed the South Rim of the canyon, where most visitors go, they were advised not to drink the water from Horn Creek. Uranium mines had contaminated the creek, and tribes were in the process of fighting to prevent new mines.
But the need to keep moving came back, especially as winter storms approached. The canyon turned into an icebox, Fedarko said, until the temperature ballooned from -8 degrees to 80 degrees overnight.
About 500 miles in, the two started to feel demoralized. Water was hard to find, and they relied on puddles of rain to stay hydrated. This stretch taught them the difference between “what we want, and what we need.”
“Physical challenges aside, we discovered a solitude and stillness that we experienced nowhere else,” McBride said.
But as they neared the end of the park, they found a Grand Canyon unlike the one they had come to know over the past months. A constant stream of helicopters raced across the sky; they had reached one of the busiest heliports in the world.
For the rest of their journey, the sound of spinning rotors defined their days. Before, they would wake up from the flutter of bat wings; now, they woke up from the swoosh of helicopters tearing through the sky.
Soon, they finished their hike at the western border of the park. Averaging 15 miles a day, the effects on their bodies were visible; their feet blistered, their skin burned, each of them lost 40 pounds. Together, they went through eight pairs of shoes, sprained four ankles, broke two fingers, and got stuck by hundreds of cactus needles, all while having to stave off the constant threat of infections and dehydration. McBride even needed heart surgery after the journey.
“Our bodies started to erode away and disappear onto the trail,” McBride said. “But it wasn’t a story about the challenges for us; it was a story about the challenges to this place.”
The canyon has the widest range of biodiversity of any of the country’s national parks. Home to 1,700 species of vascular plants, 650 species of wild flowers, 450 species of birds, 90 species mammals, 47 species of reptiles and 22 species of bats, it is the “backyard of the United States.”
“When we step to the edge of this extraordinary, monumental landscape we look inside and we see all of that rock – that ocean of rock – and we say to ourselves, ‘My God, it’s so empty,’ ” Fedarko said. “It’s filled with life.”
The land is also full of human history. The two encountered evidence everywhere of those who once lived there, including their pottery, tools and art carved onto walls as far back as 4,000 years ago.
“This place was home to people whose connection to and understanding of this land ran deeper than anybody,” Fedarko said.
Their descendants are now fighting to keep their ancestral home, while also understanding what it would mean to have access to the prosperity the rest of the country enjoys.
The development Yellowhorse protested against has since been shelved, though it can always return. Recently – in fact, during Fedarko and McBride’s lecture – President Joe Biden declared a portion of the Grand Canyon a national monument, preventing the expansion of uranium mines.
“As they look over the land, they ask themselves the same question that we would do well to ask ourselves,” McBride said, “which is: What is this place, what is our connection to it and how do we move from consumers of it to stewards of it?”