In an interview eight years before he died at age 95, Harvey Butchart was asked why he spent so much time exploring the Grand Canyon, logging more than 12,000 hiking miles on- and off-trail over 42 years.
“I used to give a real glib answer,” Butchart said. “I said there were two reasons for me to do something: one was that somebody had already done it and the other was that nobody had done it.” No one had walked the entire Grand Canyon from end to end before Butchart, so he got after it, and over 17 years, he gradually found a route.
Butchart was 38 when he moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, to become a math professor at Arizona State College (later to become Northern Arizona University) in 1945. He hiked in the canyon, exploring game paths, old native American trails, washes, rappels, and any new route that drew his curiosity. He discovered more than 160 routes down through the canyon’s Redwall limestone layer, climbed 83 of its interior buttes and spires (28 of those were first ascents), and spent more than 1,000 days of his life — almost three years — below the rim of the Big Ditch.
And he kept track of all of it, pounding out 1,079 pages of logbook entries over the years. The library at the University of Northern Arizona has those logbooks, as well as more than 7,000 photographic slides of Butchart’s explorations in the canyon.
Butchart was nearly “over the hill” when he took his first hike in the Canyon, but his curiosity was unmatched. Before the Glen Canyon Dam was built, making the water temperature of the Colorado River drop, Butchart would float it on a light air mattress instead of a raft, improvising his own sort of poor man’s packrafting strategy to explore side canyons off the Colorado. He never carried a tent, just a plastic sheet, and never spent money on expensive shoes, hiking in what he called “ordinary working man’s shoes.”
In 1963, legendary backpacking writer Colin Fletcher set out to hike the length of the canyon in one continuous trip. He sought out the only man who’d done it — Harvey Butchart. Most people who have heard of Butchart read about him in Fletcher’s 1968 book, The Man Who Walked Through Time.
Butchart had close calls and a few minor epics in the canyon, and long days out hiking and more hours spent recording it put a strain on his marriage. On one particularly exciting trip, Butchart hung a rope 85 feet down an overhanging ledge, and rappelled down. When he started to jumar back up, the goldline rope (which had a reputation for twisting and spinning) spun him around, slowing his progress to a crawl. He untied his waist from the rope, lost his grip and flipped upside down, hanging from the sling he had been standing in, his hands just barely able to touch the ground. He clawed at trees and rocks to flip back up, frantically trying to untie his shoes, held tight by the slings, and finally freed himself and retrieved his shoes. His escape route was unmanageable. So he walked down and around the Redwall, a detour of 15 or 20 miles, back to his car, in the dark. He topped out and got back to his car at 2:45 p.m., more than 32 hours after he started and more than 27 hours since he’d eaten. He sent his wife a radio message saying he was going to take a little nap in the car before he drove home. His wife, Roma, had gotten somewhat used to it.
“She finally got tired of worrying,” Butchart said in a 1994 interview on grandcanyontreks.org. “She said, well heck with it, she’s washing her hands of any kind of responsibility.”
Butchart’s book of stories and descriptions of routes, Grand Canyon Treks: 12,000 Miles Through the Grand Canyon, is in its third printing and continues to sell. His name lives on in the Grand Canyon in Butchart Fault, a break in the Redwall named by geologist George Billingsley. After he died in 2002, Butchart’s ashes were dropped into Grand Canyon at Shoshone Point. Naturally.
Photo by Dale Slocum