Canyon hiking legend<br>dies at age 95
Harvey Butchart saw the Grand Canyon for the first time in 1945. He had just moved his wife and two kids to Flagstaff from Iowa and his initial view came from Yaki Point. It would be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the mighty gorge.
Harvey Butchart gets ready to board air mattresses on the Colorado River in the days before Glen Canyon Dam when the water was warm. (Photo by Jorgen Visbak; courtesy of GCNP Museum Collection)
Butchart, once called by author Colin Fletcher the "undisputed king of extreme and obsessive Grand Canyon hiking," died Wednesday in Tucson at age 95.
"He was very unique and an unusual guy," son Jim Butchart said in a phone interview from Louisville, Ky. "I guess he had a one-track mind. His mind was tracked toward the Grand Canyon."
Friends and admirers of Butchart talked fondly of the man’s accomplishments.
"Harvey probably knew the Canyon better than any living person," said Jim Babbitt, now with the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, who asked for a moment of silence for Butchart during a National Trails Day event Saturday morning on the South Rim. "I will always have him in my memory."
Al Richmond never hiked with Butchart, but knew him well through the Grand Canyon Pioneers Society.
"I just dearly loved that guy," Richmond said. "It was hard to see him not hiking the Canyon anymore."
Butchart’s contributions to the Grand Canyon through his hiking and map-making have probably saved lives over the past half-century. A duplication of a large map he created hangs in the park’s backcountry office.
"We use all of his hikes," GCNP superintendent Joe Alston said. "When visitors ask about hiking, we take them to that map. We tell them, Harvey did it, but that doesn’t mean you can do it."
"You know he walked each and every one of those trails," Richmond said. "He either established trails or made his own."
Jim Butchart recalls the huge map his dad would get out after coming home from a hike.
"That map would cover the entire living room rug," he said. "He’d get out his pen with India ink and trace in detail exactly where he had been. There just wasn’t a place on that map that wasn’t criss-crossed with lines where he had been."
Dr. Tom Myers got to know Butchart with plans to write a biography about the hiking legend.
"To me, he was an enigma," Myers said. "He was a guy who was the undisputed king of Grand Canyon backcountry trekking, and yet there was so little known about him. He was a fairly humble about his accomplishments."
Myers said Butchart told him his last real Canyon hike came in May 1987 at age 80.
"He inspired three generations of hikers, me included," Myers said. "Everybody referred to what Harvey said about this route or that."
Butchart took backcountry trekking in the Canyon to a new level. As Myers said, "Harvey’s been places that even bighorn sheep haven’t gone."
In all, Butchart logged 12,000 miles of hiking over 1,024 days in the Canyon. He found or established 116 different routes from the rim to the Colorado River, scaled 83 of the 138 named peaks in the Canyon with 35 of those being first ascents.
"I once asked him if he had hiked more miles than anyone else in the Canyon," Jim Butchart said. "He said, ‘I don’t know if that’s true, there may have been a prehistoric Indian who hiked more.’"
Butchart was born in 1907 in China, the son of missionaries. It was during these early years of childhood when Butchart realized his love for hiking, living in a mountainous region of China.
At age 9, his father died and he went to the United States with his mother, only to return to China because of problems with citizenship. They returned to America for good when he was age 13 in 1920.
Interestingly, Butchart did not finish high school and went to college at age 16. He graduated from Eureka College in Illinois in 1928 and later earned his master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Illinois. After teaching in Oklahoma, Missouri and Iowa, Butchart and his family moved to Flagstaff in 1945.
In retirement, Butchart and wife Roma eventually moved to Sun City. His wife died eight weeks before her husband on April 3 at age 96. They were married for 72 years.
Butchart became a reliable source for Grand Canyon National Park rangers out on search-and-rescue missions. His expertise on Canyon routes, which included detailed map-making, was consulted on several occasions over the years.
During the summer of 1959, Butchart helped rangers in the search for Catholic priest Eugene Gavigan and two teen-age boys, John M. Owens and Pete Mahaney, on the Tanner Trail. After Gavigan and Mahaney were found dead and the search for Owens continued, Butchart suggested that the second teen may have tried to make the river and go downstream.
As it turned out, Butchart was right and Owens was eventually rescued. Although rangers rejected his idea, Butchart offered to float downriver on one of his air mattresses.
It’s believed that Butchart also helped search parties in 1956 get into the remote area of where two airliners crashed after colliding in mid-air over the Canyon, killing 128 people.
"As I recall, it was in such a remote area of the Canyon that it would take a lot of time to get a search party into the area," son Jim Butchart said. "Dad had just discovered an old abandoned prospector’s trail that led into this area. He was able to guide people in within 24 hours. I’m not positive that’s a true story, but I’ve known that story for many, many years."
Butchart will be remembered for more than his Canyon hikes. At Northern Arizona University, formerly called Arizona State College when he first arrived in 1945, Butchart was known as a mathematics genius. He taught at the Flagstaff university, serving as academic chairman of the math department, until 1976.
"He was just a brilliant man," son Jim Butchart said. "His speciality was geometry and he worked with NASA in the early stages of the space program."
Butchart would spend his free time working on his Grand Canyon maps, solving mathematical problems or playing chess. He was also an avid tennis player.
"I remember in Flagstaff, when he was home, he’d be reading chess books and playing chess with himself, or studying his maps on the Grand Canyon or drawing and working on geometry kinds of challenges and problems," Jim Butchart said.
Daughter Ann Madariaga has many fond memories of her father, from the time he piggy-backed her brother out of the Canyon the day before his sixth birthday to the days in Iowa when she learned to ski.
There were the times he constructed canoes out of canvas and orange crates, the time he forgot to put the truck in gear while hauling a boat out of Lake Powell, causing the vehicle to become submerged, the time he floated down the Colorado River by himself on air mattresses.
"He was a real generous, kind man," Madariaga said. "He was always donating to this and that; he donated to his church consistently and at Christmas, he always donated to the Salvation Army and other places. He just wanted to do it."
Madariaga remembers her dad as a brilliant and kind man who was also competitive.
"He was competitive by nature, but he competed against himself a lot in the Canyon," Madariaga said. "If someone wanted to know something, he’d tell them.
"Dad was very giving and sharing with other people, but he was flamboyant," she added. "He was very modest."
Butchart authored the three popular "Grand Canyon Treks" books, which were recently combined into one volume.