An overview: Grand Obsession

It was a sporty climb. -Harvey Butchart 

Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon by Elias Butler and Tom Myers is a book not only for people interested in the life of one of the masters of modern Grand Canyon exploration. Or even about the canyon itself. It is also a book for anyone who tries to balance a passion for outdoor pursuits while maintaining relationships (platonic or romantic) and maintaining a busy career.

Harvey Butchart is one of the acknowledged masters of Grand Canyon exploration in modern times.  Butchart managed to do numerous first ascents, pioneer multiple routes,  spent over 1000 days in the canyon total, logged 560 trips, and hike over 12,000 miles in the canyon. He is the first person known to have walked the entire length of Grand Canyon National Park (as it existed at the time) in the style we would call section hiking today. 

His guidebooks were long the standard for the Grand Canyon hiking and scrambling. The books were written in a style that befitted a professor of mathematics: Understated, to the point, and assuming most people had the basic knowledge to fill in the details themselves without explaining every step of the way.

All these accomplishments were between his late 30s and well into his 70s. While maintaining a career as a professor of mathematics in Flagstaff, AZ, providing for a family and squeezing in hikes on weekends, holidays, and breaks.

Beyond raw numbers, Butchard pioneered the multi-disciplined activity of canyoneering with his proto-pack rafting, climbing, scrambling,  hiking, and route finding.  He packed minimally, and his total pack weight was typically under 30 lbs.  Being of a bookish and scientific nature with a small build, he’d fit right in with the similar people who seem to excel at ultra running and related activities.

He was an important person in the outdoors and the Grand Canyon in particular.

Grand Obsession is an engaging book and quick to read.

The book covers all we would expect from Butchart’s life from his early childhood spent with missionary parents in the mountains of China, to struggling through The Great Depression while attending college, to moving to Arizona to launch a career as a math professor and then finding his niche as the guru of Grand Canyon hiking.

Grand Obsession covers the still lingering debate over Colin Fletcher and Harvey Butchart’s friction.  Fletcher, of course, became well-known for writing The Man Who Walked Through Time. An account of being the first person to thru-hike the Grand Canyon National Park as it existed at that time.  Butchart was the first but did his hike over many years in sections. Fletcher’s account was arguably more glamorous and garnered more press. Because of Fletcher’s publicist or otherwise, the media claimed that Fletcher was the first to hike Grand Canyon National Park’s length. Period.

It did not help that Fletcher, at least by the account in the book, was hinted at enjoying others’ assistance without reciprocating in kind.  Frankly, the more romantic writings and nature of Fletcher’s walks did not connect well with more of the ‘peak bagger’ (of sorts) goals of Butchart and his utilitarian nature.  Some of Butchart’s friends distinctly recall a conversation where he referred to Fletcher as “that idiot.”

Butchart became famous in the niche of southwest outdoor people.  Grand Obsession has instances of the many letters that were exchanged with now well-known outdoors people. A letter from Ken Sleight (known for a character based on him in  The Monkey Wrench Gang ) was included in the book as one example.

The books end with the gradual decline of Butchart’s physical abilities but still be celebrated as the Obi-Wan of the Grand Canyon (as one article in a 1997 issue of Backpacker Magazine called him). 

His death in 2002 at the ripe old age 95 brought out many accolades and people celebrating his life and accomplishments. A touching ceremony was held at the rim of the Grand Canyon with many outdoor enthusiasts attending.

A life to celebrate full of many outdoor accomplishments.

“But at what cost?” the book also asks.

Grand Obsession is a title with multiple meanings.

Butchart lost a good friend in a canyoneering accident from pushing perhaps a bit too much, a death that Butchart felt much remorse about over the years. Many Search and Rescues were done when Butcher lead hikes for what would later be called Northern Arizona University.  And Butchart made his wife Roma worried and angry multiple times when coming back late from the canyon jaunts.

And then there was the strain to the marriage itself. Butchart’s marriage to his wife Roma seemed more of a marriage of convenience the way it was described. Separate bedrooms from 1959 until declining health forced both of them to live with some relatives very late in life, missed family functions and gatherings, and nearly three-years total of their marriage away from each other so he could pursue his obsession with the canyon. Roma went so far as to write a piece titled “Confessions of a Hiking Widow.” 

As any passionate outdoors person could tell you, balancing a career, family, relationships, and outdoor passions can be a tough balancing act. One that is not always successful.  Butchart and his wife lived separate lives in essence for most of their marriage. And any closeness only seemed to be re-kindled towards the end of their lives.

But the book is not all biography about Butchart and ruminations of the balancing act I mentioned.

Other Grand Canyon luminaries are mentioned, and a bit about the history of Grand Canyon National Park is discussed.

The authors also weave in their personal outdoor trips following some of the routes Butchart pioneered. The majesty and beauty of the Grand Canyon are aptly expressed. A person will want to hike, raft, or climb in the canyon after reading the book.

Grand Obsession should be read by anyone interested in this iconic Grand Canyon legend, the outdoors, or the canyon itself. And should especially be read by the outdoors person who is trying to maintain a balancing act with life’s accepted pursuits (relationships, children, career) while still being passionate about the outdoors. You may not find any answers on how to strike a balance, but you will nod knowingly as the theme seems common among many people.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  I think others will, too.

Disclosure: This book was again procured with that most wonderful piece of gear: A library card.

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Barbara Preston
Barbara Preston
6 years ago

Sounds like a book I would enjoy. I will check it out. Have you read Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife?

Nick Gatel
6 years ago

Ah, I just used my library card a couple days ago. Libraries don’t get much use these days. Used to be you could only check out 4 or 5 books at a time. Now our library allows 30 books at a time, and there’re aren’t as many books as there were 30 or 40 years ago… about 1/3 of the space is now dedicated to DVDs and CDs.

Here’s another you will probably like…

Canyons and Ice, The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith