Sunday 23 November 2008

Book Review: Grand Obsession, Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of the Grand Canyon by Elias Butler and Tom Myers

Continuing the Colin Fletcher theme of the last couple of posts I’ve been reading an engrossing biography of the man who provided Fletcher with most of the information for his walk the length of the Grand Canyon, mathematics professor Harvey Butchart. At the time of Fletcher’s walk in 1963 Butchart had been exploring the Grand Canyon wilderness on foot for seventeen years and, as Fletcher discovered, was the only expert in this field. When Butchart started hiking there in the late 1940s most of the Grand Canyon was little visited and unknown to walkers. In the past Native Americans, prospectors and explorers had ventured into the Canyon but routes and trails had faded and knowledge of them had been lost. Only a few rim-to-river routes were known and barely any traverses inside the Canyon. In a series of short but intense expeditions, mostly 2-4 days in length, Butchart explored the Canyon systematically, filling in gaps on the map as he covered some 12,000 miles. As well as finding ways down to the Colorado river he climbed many of the massive steep rock buttes that lie inside the Canyon. He kept detailed logs too and published short guidebooks under the title Grand Canyon Treks (now available in a single illustrated volume). All hikers and climbers in the Grand Canyon owe Butchart a huge debt for his efforts, which lie behind all subsequent guidebooks.

Everyone who has hiked in the Grand Canyon away from the maintained corridor route trails will know just how forbidding and serious, with steep cliffs, loose rocks and scree, frequent exposure, scarcity of water, heat and remoteness, it can be even though there are now detailed maps and guidebooks and often other backpackers. For Butchart it really was an exciting unexplored world replete with wonders and dangers and it became the main aim of his life to trace every possible route. A Grand Obsession indeed. In their book Butler and Myers tell the story of Butchart and how the Canyon came to be so important in his life. Canyon hikers and climbers themselves, the authors also set out to follow one of Butchart’s routes, the ascent of Wotan’s Throne (Grand Canyon features often have romantic names that fit the strange and glorious landscape). They used Butchart’s terse and minimalist description (his guidebooks are not the easiest to follow) and it takes them two attempts and gets them into some desperate situations. Interspersing their own adventure with Butchart’s and showing just how difficult hiking and climbing still is in much of the Canyon helps show just how determined, skilled and tough Butchart was.

A key part of the book is about the relationship of Fletcher and Butchart. When Fletcher announced he wanted to hike the Grand Canyon in one long walk Butchart had almost completed a traverse himself, though in a series of short walks spread over many years (Butchart didn’t think that he would like long trips, a few days at a time were enough). Butchart assisted Fletcher with his planning and then completed the last section of the traverse after Fletcher had started out, becoming the first person to do so and leaving Fletcher to become the first person to do so in one continuous walk. After his hike Fletcher and Butchart fell out, why not being clear, as Butler and Myers point out, but it does look as though Fletcher writing a successful and eloquent book about his hike was a major part of the reason, even though Butchart is praised and thanked extensively in it. Also the two men come across as very different in their writing and approach. Fletcher is romantic, expansive and able to express the beauty and wonder of nature and landscape and the joys of backpacking while Butchart is pragmatic and unemotional, describing the Canyon in terms of routes, statistics and physical challenges. Whilst both clearly wanted success Butchart often gives the impression that the achievement of doing new routes and climbs is his main impetus whilst for Fletcher it is the experience itself. Whatever the reasons for their falling out both are now part of the history of the exploration of the Grand Canyon.

Being Grand Canyon enthusiasts themselves means the authors understand just what Butchart achieved and they express this well in the book. For anyone who has hiked in the Grand Canyon (which is the most amazing place I have ever visited) this book tells the story of the pioneer who opened up the way for them. But it’s not just for Grand Canyon hikers. It’s for any outdoors lover who likes stories of adventure and exploration.

Photo info: Wild camping in the Grand Canyon. Photo info: Ricoh RDC-5000, JPEG processed in DxO Optics Pro.

1 comment:

  1. Good review! I just finished reading the book and loved it. Checked out of Cornell library many months ago before our first trip to the Canyon. It was better reading this book after our Grand Canyon trip because I knew some of what he was talking about, like Wotan's Throne.