As part of Marty Smith’s America (tonight, 8 ET, ESPN), host/reporter Smith along with his crew spent time off the field with some of college football’s biggest names. But it was the desire to tell Nebraska football coach Scott Frost’s story that took them to the Grand Canyon.
“At first we were going to golf in Pebble Beach with Scott Frost but then I got a call from his media guy,” said producer Jonathan Whyley. “He said, ‘Hey, Scott’s getting ready to do this Grand Canyon hike, do you guys want to go?’ Without even thinking I said, ‘We’re there.’”
The first of many challenges for Smith and Whyley was figuring out how to get a camera crew in place at the mouth of the Colorado River.
“I quickly found out the only options were on foot or by donkey. And the donkeys are booked years in advance, so we had to get the equipment to the bottom on foot,” said Whyley.
Lucky for Smith and Whyley, their loyal crew happens to consist of two former wrestlers who would be able to accompany them on the journey with backpacks full of equipment.
“We [Whyley, Cory Harrilchak, and Sam Hoerdemann] picked Marty up at the airport at 11 p.m. because he was coming from covering The Preakness. Then I drove us three-and-a-half-hours where we met Scott and the guys at 3 a.m.,” said Whyley. “We got on the trail at 4 a.m. in the dark and started the hike with 30-50 pounds of equipment on our backs.”
“We were not prepared. We had barely any food with us; fortunately, there were water stops along the way,” said Smith.
Smith says once they made it to the bottom he bought a camp out of electrolyte powder.
“We had lost a lot of salt in our bodies, I knew we needed that powder in order to make it back another 9 miles,” Smith said.
There are signs throughout that advise hikers not to attempt this hike in one day – and that’s without carrying 50 pounds of equipment.
The boys & me just competed the most difficult physical challenge of our lives.
Hiked 10 miles into Grand Canyon, down to mouth of Colorado River to interview @Coach_Frost — then 10M back out, up the canyon, 5000+ feet of climb.
Damn near ended us.#MartySmithsAmerica
June 14. pic.twitter.com/xX2tEVYp1I
— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) May 23, 2018
“The physical challenge intersected with the mental and emotional challenge to create four hours where you had to literally remind yourself to put one foot in front of the next. You don’t look around at the beauty during those last few hours because if you lose focus you could slip on a rock or stumble off the ledge,” Smith said. “You have to be really diligent about what you’re doing physically because it’s so overwhelming mentally and emotionally.”
With six miles left, the guys said the hike took a severe toll on their bodies. They worked as a team taking turns carrying the equipment and resting knowing they had to make it out in time to catch a flight home.
“It’s really hard to articulate the way that that day made me feel,” said Smith. “It’s been a long time since I was a part of an athletic union where I felt like I was an integral piece of others winning and that day I felt that again. We’ve gone all over the world together, we’ve seen the world together, but that was another level of fostering and cementing a brotherhood for life,” said Smith.
The crew was able to complete the 24-mile hike in 13 hours, just in time to head back to the airport and take a red-eye back east.
“It was the hardest thing any of us have ever done, but the minute we’re starting putting it all together for the piece it all registered, that’s why we’re doing this. Because we love telling stories and that’s what Marty’s show is all about. Interesting people in interesting places doing interesting things,” Whyley said.