Update: On November 2, 2016, at approximately 1:30 p.m. local time, Pete McBride completed his sectional "grand walk" through the Grand Canyon, becoming the first journalist to achieve this feat. McBride says he walked roughly 875 miles by the conclusion of the journey. Kevin Fedarko will continue his last leg of the hike this month. For the complete story of the team's trek, with additional photos and video, explore this interactive map.
Pete McBride ate a cracker, and unbridled joy emanated from his entire being. After days of hiking through the Grand Canyon’s trail-free terrain, and with their provisions almost gone, he and Kevin Fedarko finally came upon their food cache at Olo Canyon. In the second of two short films McBride has made about their “grand walk,” the snack served as a simple but profound reward for nearly completing a sectional thru-hike of the Grand Canyon—a feat that, as of 2015, fewer than two dozen people have ever achieved.
McBride, a photographer and filmmaker, and Fedarko, a journalist and author, are about to embark on the home stretch of their nearly 700-mile trek, which began in August 2015. They plan to leave from Kelly Point on October 23 and arrive at Lake Mead in early November, completing the last of eight stages. (Fedarko will have one final push after that—a trek between the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers and park headquarters on the South Rim—that he saved to walk with his brother.) Along the way, they will hike over parched plateaus, open rocky valleys, and steep, deep slot canyons.
“There’s one cliffy, scary section that goes a thousand feet straight down to the river. We’ll be following goat paths on ledges about two feet wide,” McBride says.
Myriad dangers include crumbly, loose rock; ubiquitous cactus, and exposure to sun and wind. The pair will also be on a constant lookout for water.
“We’ll be hiking way above the river, about 3,000 feet up” on the canyon walls, McBride says. “We’d need a wingsuit to get water from the river itself.”
Without sufficient water, McBride says this could be the trek’s toughest stretch. “We can carry only five liters a day—that’s a toilet flush—and that presents our entire lives. Every day we’ll be looking for a gallon and a half at places on our way. And we have no idea where they are.”
When they reach Lake Mead, they will almost certainly be the first journalists to “tackle this hiking lunacy,” as McBride says in his first short film. But that wasn’t their primary motivation. They wanted the pure challenge of completing a sectional thru-hike of the canyon, and a “unique perspective” about what could be lost—Native American cultural sites, unspoiled vistas, clear-running rivers—if several massive development projects in and around the canyon come to pass.
On previous stages of the walk, they examined the risks of a proposed tourist tram from the rim to river, a huge commercial development at the “gateway” to the Grand Canyon, and uranium mining. Conservationists are asking President Barack Obama to designate the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, which would create a 1.7-million-acre buffer zone around the canyon and ban mining, before he leaves office in January 2017.
Now, Fedarko and McBride will travel through another contested section of the canyon: “helicopter alley.”
“The greatest treasure of the Grand Canyon is its silence,” McBride says. But that peace is disrupted by a noisy stream of chopper flights, operated by the Hualapai Nation, that ferry tourists from the rim to a busy helipad at the river’s edge in the park’s southwest corner. Locals call the area of constant air traffic “helicopter alley.” On the trek’s final stretch, the pair will pass the area where McBride says 300 to 400 flights a day disrupt the canyon’s stillness. Many Hualapai welcome the boost to their local economy, while others argue that the flights disturb wildlife and tribal traditions.
“We live in a crowded, busy world, and it’s incredible to be in a place that is not touched by man. [The canyon is] remarkably beautiful, and unique, and fragile. It’s so humbling to see millions and billions of years of the planet’s history in rock, in fossils,” McBride says.
“It comes down to how we, the public, want to experience our parks. Do we want handrails, Wi-Fi, and cushions? Or a place where you can test your ability to survive in the wilderness?” he adds. “If we can’t protect the Grand Canyon, what can we protect?”