NAU professor had a Grand Canyon obsession - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

NAU professor had a Grand Canyon obsession

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Posted: Saturday, August 2, 2008 6:48 pm | Updated: 12:09 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

He didn't look like much. Bespectacled and knock-kneed, he stood 5 feet 7 inches and weighed a slight 135 pounds. Quiet and polite, he came off like a bookish professor and, in fact, he was.

He didn't look like much.

Bespectacled and knock-kneed, he stood 5 feet 7 inches and weighed a slight 135 pounds. Quiet and polite, he came off like a bookish professor and, in fact, he was.

But Harvey Butchart, a Northern Arizona University math professor, became legendary in Grand Canyon country.

" 'Harvey' was a canyon buzzword, and I quickly learned that phrases like 'Harvey says' and 'according to Harvey' were standard jargon in canyon hiking circles," Arizona author Tom Myers wrote in an article on a Grand Canyon river guides Web site. Myers and Scottsdale-raised photographer Elias Butler co-authored "Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon."

"He looked like the ultimate bookworm. If you met him, you'd never guess he was someone who was capable of all these extraordinary feats," says Butler. "When he came to Grand Canyon at age 38 and realized that no one had really explored the place on foot, the chance to prove himself physically and carve out a legend for himself - that was all it took; it was full tilt for him."

From his first hike at the canyon in 1945 through the late 1980s, Butchart spent nearly every free moment pioneering the uncharted backcountry below the rim, logging more than 1,000 days and 12,000 miles across cliffs, side canyons and creeks. He holds the record for most "first ascents" - 28 - in Grand Canyon National Park, and he climbed 83 buttes and charted more than 100 access points to the Colorado River.

Butchart traveled light, wearing bargain work boots rather than expensive models designed for hiking and eschewing a tent and stove in favor of a tarp and campfires.

Butchart was also meticulous about taking notes, and more than 1,000 pages of his logbooks, letters, hand-drawn maps, slides and three guidebooks remain the comprehensive source about off-trail routes, water sources and geography in canyon country.

Butler and Myers began work on the book when Butler noticed a cardboard box labeled "Harvey" in Myers' garage. The box contained notes Myers collected after he decided to write a biography of Butchart in the early 1990s. After Butchart died in 2002, the authors revisited the project, spending days retracing some of Butchart's most daunting routes and poring over his notes.

What began as a story about hiking quickly became something more compelling.

"You can't spend that much time in a place like that and not have things go wrong," says Butler.

Butchart lost a friend and student to the Colorado River on one trip; on others, he broke bones, became lost and was nearly crushed to death in a nighttime rock slide.

There were other costs, too - particularly at home, where his wife and children increasingly felt they came second to Butchart's first love, the Grand Canyon.

"People have been disappointed to come to the realization that he was human, that he had his faults," says Butler. "But we felt we had a great story on our hands, and we had to tell it right so that people could enjoy it and so that it would be true to the successes and failures of Harvey's life. He started out just enjoying a favorite activity, but it developed over time into a true obsession, where he really couldn't help himself, and he became addicted to getting out in this really wild, inhospitable place."

Butchart died - maybe surprisingly, given a life spent in treacherous and remote backcountry - in bed in Tucson; he was 95. He last hiked the Grand Canyon at age 80.

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