When Pete McBride first learned the startling fact that the Colorado River dries up long before it reaches the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, Mexico, he was stunned. The photographer, recently named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year (2009), was at the time paddling from central Colorado to the river’s end when, about 100 miles short of his destination, the river shrunk to the size of a ditch and the water turned into an impassible sludge. There wasn’t then, and there is still not today, enough water to make the Colorado flow all the way to the sea. McBride couldn’t understand why this wasn’t major news—after all, the Colorado is the primary freshwater source for the American Southwest. It was the first step in his transformation from interested photographer to passionate conservationist, fighting to protect fresh water everywhere and to preserve the Colorado River in particular.
“I think that at that point,” McBride says, “I became more than just a photographer. I became someone who was trying to protect my backyard river, the Colorado. I saw it turn into this little junky Frappuccino pit of garbage 100 miles from the sea. Why is nobody talking about this? We can live without oil—maybe not comfortably—but we can’t live without water. And we just dried up the biggest lifeline, the major artery of the Southwest, we’ve dried it up and I never heard about it.
“So that’s when I was like, wait a second,” McBride adds, “this needs a little more attention. It actually came from a dry, hot, dusty afternoon crossing the Mexican border with a pack raft planning to paddle to the sea, and I went one mile and I was like, what? I have to walk to the end of the river? Something ain’t right here. And I’ve since learned that this is happening all over the world, but we don’t talk about it.
“At the rate we’re going,” he continues, “it’s getting more and more challenged. Some argue there’s enough water in the system, that if we have better efficiencies, we use water for agriculture better, water like my family uses for ranching, there are places where we are wasteful with it, and we can improve that. But if we’re going to keep growing or put more straws in the drink, yeah, the river is going to keep getting worse.”
As a photojournalist, McBride has taken up the cause of preserving and protecting fresh water around the world. He’s done stories in Asia, Africa and Antarctica—it’s said that 40 percent of the globe has insufficient access to fresh water—but having grown up on a Colorado ranch, it’s the Colorado River’s plight that’s closest to his heart. To that end, he’s paddled the full length of the river, all 1500 miles from its origin in the Rocky Mountains to its terminus near the Mexican coast. And he’s done it on multiple occasions. He may know as much about the river as anyone ever has. He has even accomplished a feat that only 33 other humans have done before him: He walked the length of the river, from east to west, through the entire Grand Canyon. Noting that includes a 277-mile stretch of water, McBride estimates it was at least a 750-mile hike.
“I just finished this Grand Canyon walk,” he says. “It seems the river has called me, and it’s called me back. We walked the entire length of the Grand Canyon. There’s no trail, and more people have walked on the moon than have completed a through hike of the Grand Canyon without stopping. More people have orbited the earth than have done a connected walk of the Grand Canyon, a sectional. It adds up to be 750 or 800 miles, because you have to walk around all these remarkable side canyons. I would say without a doubt it’s the wildest section of the United States. Excluding Alaska.”
For their newly published article in National Geographic, McBride and writer Kevin Fedarko made eight separate trips to the Grand Canyon in order to hike it in sections over the course of 14 months, beginning in September of 2015. The grueling trek took them from hiking directly riverside to outside the canyon, thousands of feet up on the Colorado plateau. In every instance where the river is bounded by sheer cliffs, the duo had to hike up and out to continue their journey. All the while, McBride’s camera—a Sony α7R II—dangled from his neck.
For the entirety of his 71-day journey, McBride carried only that one camera and one lens: the α7R II outfitted with a 16-35mm zoom. Now a dedicated Sony shooter, the photographer experienced his first use of a Sony camera—which he selected specifically because of its unique capability to tackle such a daunting project. First and foremost, it was a compact and light camera that would travel well. But it was also essential that the camera provide the high dynamic range and low-light capabilities that would enable McBride to capture the beautiful low-light scenarios in the canyon and its dramatic, star-filled night skies. The α7R II was the photographer’s ideal choice.
“I chose the camera specifically for weight and for its sensitivity to light,” McBride says. “At the time, and I still think it’s the case today, that’s the Sony α7R II. I don’t mean to pitch that hard, I’m not trying to give a sales pitch. But that was the best camera for the job, end of story.
“I needed to go as light as possible or we wouldn’t make it,” McBride explains. “Put it this way: I had to measure my pack weight so extremely that I was measuring calories per nut. When you’re trying to get your backpack to weigh, with one liter of water, exactly 32 pounds, and then you throw your camera gear on top of that, climbing sometimes five-seven, five-eight with a 55- or 60-pound pack versus a 45-pound pack is a big difference. So I got my camera weight, with a solar panel and a charging battery, my photo cards and four batteries, down to 14 pounds, all said and done. And everything involved with it, including a mini little tripod that was [a few inches tall], my intervalometer, the whole deal. A Nikon or a Canon with the same system would have been 24 or 26 pounds. This was 13.2.”
McBride said traveling with just one camera was nerve wracking but necessary. He initially tried to take a backup, but it was simply too much.
“I tried it with two cameras,” he says, “but it was too heavy, and I got sick and my feet were exploding. I had to quit and reprogram the whole thing. And the risk was like, alright, am I going to go shoot a National Geographic assignment on one camera? The Grand Canyon is notorious for fine silt, which eats into every orifice of everything that exists. And I was like, I’m gonna give it a go. And the camera worked the entire trip, 71 days. More, because I was shooting beyond that, shooting outside of our walk, too. I was amazed. I was afraid it was going to break down. I fell, I dropped it, we had rock fall…The camera’s pretty banged up and it keeps working. I would give it two thumbs up on its durability. To do what we did, you know, it wasn’t like I was carrying a big fancy camera bag. It was sitting in a tiny little Think Tank bag on my chest getting beat around, in and out of the bag, in and out of dust, doing time-lapse for six hours at night. And it just kept ticking.”
Because McBride makes documentary films, he used the α7R II to shoot a series of short videos that accompany the National Geographic story online. He’s also hoping to produce a feature-length documentary as well, all with footage from the same little Sony. It’s quite a lot to expect from one camera, any camera, but McBride specifically selected this camera for the task. While low weight and durability were crucial, image quality and low light sensitivity were equally important.
“In the Grand Canyon,” McBride says, “one of the greatest attributes of the place is its silence and its night sky. And so that means stars, and time lapses with star trails and trying to capture that. One of my favorite images from the trip is the writer and another guy talking under headlamps with this huge spray of stars behind them by a little tiny spring in a very remote section of the Canyon. And another shot of the south rim. There was actually no tripod; I set up in the rocks because it was too windy. And then the image of a guy with a headlamp. I think these highlight the dynamic range. The ability to capture this…The beauty, too, is you’re not taking five-minute images, you’re able to capture these in 30 seconds. Sometimes less. Yeah, it was a hard place to get to, but then to have the camera perform that well? It was great. It was exciting.
“That one of the stars above the camp?” McBride adds. “Are you kidding me? I knew it was cool on the back of the camera, but once I got back and processed it, I was like, this one’s a zinger, to quote my editor. It’s a zinger. I didn’t think it would hold. There are other images where you’re actually capturing the reflection of the stars so cleanly in the water. Even in the river, when it’s moving. That really impressed me with the camera.”
The physical challenge in McBride’s Grand Canyon walk was immense. His project’s success hinged on his choice of camera, but it also impacted the greater question of his own survival.
“Believe me,” he says, “if I could’ve, I would’ve brought two cameras. But the more you weigh, the more on your back, the slower you go, the longer it takes you to get to water, the more risk you have of not making it. It’s a simple matrix.”
Equally daunting, if not a matter of life and death, is the journalistic challenge presented by the editors of National Geographic. They have the highest photographic standards in the world, and as one prominent editor famously said, they don’t publish excuses.
“The fact that the camera was able to do so much heavy lifting,” McBride says, “I’m still amazed. What that camera did for one lens and one camera? It blows my mind. I don’t know another camera that can do that.”
Native Coloradan Pete McBride has spent two decades studying the world with a camera. A self-taught photographer, filmmaker, writer, and public speaker, he has traveled on assignment to over 75 countries for the National Geographic Society, Smithsonian, Outside, Esquire, Microsoft, The Nature Conservancy and many more. Visit his website at petemcbride.com.
To read the article McBride and Fedarko recently published in National Geographic, and to see McBride’s images and videos all made from the Sony α7R II, visit nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/09/grand-canyon-development-hiking-national-parks.
Additional Photos From McBride's Grand Canyon Journey