With 800 miles of brutal terrain behind them, author Kevin Fedarko and photographer Pete McBride have joined less than two dozen others in completing a sectional thru-hike of the Grand Canyon. It took the pair over a year; they finished earlier this month.
“Hiking through the Grand Canyon is the closest to hell that I expect to come before I get there when I die,” Fedarko told Outside in August, after pulling out of 105-degree weather to rest. He wrapped up the hike on November 18. “There’s no exaggeration. That’s not hyperbole. It’s absolutely the most physical challenge that Pete and I have endured in our lives.”
Fedarko, 51, and McBride, 45, have a certain amount of expertise in connection with the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. McBride paddled down the length of the 1,450-mile river for the book The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict. Fedarko, a former editor at Outside and river guide in the canyon, wrote The Emerald Mile, the story of the fastest boat ride ever down the 277-mile-stretch of river during the flood of 1983. (The two previously worked together in 2006 for Outside covering the raucous nature of Everest Base Camp.)
Established in 1919, Grand Canyon National Park is now set to a host of development threats poised to harm the crown jewel of America’s national park system. A uranium mine has been proposed just north of the park; developers have proposed a multi-use development on the Navajo Nation that would include a hotel, RV park, and a tramway from the rim into the canyon itself; and in the unregulated Helicopter Valley to the west of the canyon, between 400 and 600 airplane flights each day produce noise that’s disruptive to the park’s ecosystem.
In September 2015, with funding from National Geographic, the journalists set out to explore and expose these issues. They hiked the canyon in eight stages; each one took them between one and a half and three weeks. At times they were helped along by backpackers and hikers they happened upon. “Without them, the navigational complexities alone would have stopped us in the first 72 hours,” Fedarko said.
Fedarko and McBride climbed shale ledges and used ropes and harnesses to descend down to the river to collect food caches placed by friends (who located them via GPS). One of the longest descents required seven rappels down 150 feet of rock. At other times they carried miniature inflatable rafts to paddle along the river. “The terrain here is difficult,” Fedarko said in August. “There are no trails, and you’ve got 50 pounds of supply and gear on your back in temperatures that extend from 100-degree heat waves to sub-zero mornings, when the entire canyon is blanketed in nine inches of snow.”
Fedarko and McBride pulled out of 105-degree temperatures in March and cooled their heels until October. They have since released short films and articles about the trip for National Geographic. Most recently, they were nominated as some of the magazine's annual Adventurers of the Year. (Voting for the People's Choice version of the award will continue until December 16.)
“The best and worst moments were braided, interweaving of continuous pain mixed in with sublime wonder,” Fedarko said. “There was a delicious moment at the canyon every single day when we finally stopped walking. The camp was set up. There was nothing to do but lay back and look up at the stars and watch the evening turn into night. That’s a process that happens in the Grand Canyon unlike anywhere else.”
“In many ways, the real—the harder journey—begins right now for McBride and me," Fedarko said. "We finished the walk. Not we have to figure out how to tell the story.”