Dick Mitchell and his wife, Sheila Daly, were among the 620 people who hiked in to The Wave in July, and 617 who made it back alive. But it could have gone the other way.
The Cameron Park, Calif., residents embarked on the 6-mile round trip early on July 15, having practiced extensively and studied photos of key landmarks that are given to each day's 20 permit winners by the Bureau of Land Management in Kanab. The way to The Wave wasn't particularly challenging. Then, after they took in the banded sandstone slopes and set off on the return leg, the desert's baking heat began to take its toll on Mitchell.
And this is how tragedy was averted: Armed with a functioning GPS, Mitchell, 61, was on track, unlike Elisabeth Ann Bervel, a 27-year-old mother of two who lost the trail for two hours during a fatal hike with her husband on July 22. As Mitchell's heat exhaustion began to set in, Daly poured cool water over his head, and a sudden breeze provided relief; there was no such salvation for Ulrich and Patricia Wahli, 70 and 69, respectively, when they died 250 yards apart as temperatures neared triple digits on July 4.
The Bureau of Land Management will consider a range of options in the wake of those incidents, even though there has only been one other fatality in the trail's recent history. The Wave is part of the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, and BLM is not charged with shepherding hikers along the trail, as officials do at many national parks. But Mitchell thinks a few trail markers wouldn't hurt.
"We're not talking about neon signs," Mitchell says. "Ordinary markers. Just a post in the ground with reflector that says 'trail.' "
Former KUTV outdoors reporter Reece Stein says he's opposed to highly visible developments inside a congressionally designated wilderness area like The Wave. A few rock cairns, though? Sure.
"There are a couple of areas there where it's not really well-known where to go," says Stein, who has hiked to The Wave three times. He suggests that BLM officials rent out GPS units, rather than installing any new cellphone towers to increase reception for stranded hikers. "If you're gonna use technology, let's make it unobtrusive technology."
Carrie Templin, Arizona BLM public affairs specialist, says a working group has yet to meet about possible changes and she expects a "very well-thought-out, deliberate process." BLM is always interested in improving safety, she says, but wilderness laws limit what they can do: "Wilderness is designed to be a remote, primitive location, where people are on their own."
Kane County sheriff deputy Tracy Glover has previously said that BLM officials were considering increasing the number of permits issued each day. People on the trail often help each other stay on track. But while Mitchell is thankful for a Ukranian couple who passed him on his return trip and helped show him the way, he thinks additional permits are a bad idea.
"There were many places where you were alone out there," he says. "And that's why you go. If I wanted to be in a mall, I'd go hike in a mall."
Houston resident Artin Arakelian hiked the trail in 2011, and he favors increasing permits not because it would make the trail safer, but because more people should see the wondrous sight. As an avid hiker, he says he has explored vast swaths of southern Utah wilderness, and nothing he's seen is quite like The Wave.
"The rocks are not that fragile," he says. "They can let at least 200 people in there [per day]. They way they instruct people is like the Soviet Union. 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' "
Vermilion Cliffs Manager Kevin Wright says he's heard many suggestions to add safety measures, but he's also heard from a lot of people who urge them not to change a thing. Protect the land, they tell him. Arakelian is baffled by that notion.
"Who are you trying to protect? It's a geology process. It will melt. It will erode. One of these days, everything will be gone."
Weigh in about changes
If you have an idea of what the Bureau of Land Management should or shouldn't do to the trail leading to The Wave, email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.