BLM to consider changes following third death at The Wave

By Katie McKellar

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, July 25 2013 8:18 p.m. MDT

A May 28, 2013, file photo shows a hiker on a rock formation known as The Wave in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. A hiker visiting The Wave died of cardiac arrest Tuesday July 23, 2013. The flowing sandstone rock formation near the Utah-Arizona border that claimed the lives of a California couple earlier this month.

Brian Witte, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

KANAB — Bureau of Land Management officials are considering actions to improve hiking safety after the summer’s third fatality occurred this week near The Wave.

“Anytime that there is a fatality on public lands, of course there is great concern, and our hearts go out to the families,” said Arizona BLM public affairs officer Rachel Tueller. “That’s why we’re looking at a wide range of options and actions.”

Tueller said BLM is evaluating suggestions made by partners such as Kane County officials, which include boosting cell phone coverage, adding more trail markers, increasing the daily permit total so more people can help each other stay on the trail, and reviewing the hike’s permit issuing and application process.

However, BLM officials have not made a decision on how best to ensure public safety while also maintaining the integrity of the wilderness.

“We are looking at every aspect of this program at this time,” Tueller said.

The Wave — a deposit of ancient, undulating sandstone famous to hikers worldwide — is located halfway between Kanab and Page, Ariz. in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, about 45 miles from amenities or assistance.

“It is a wilderness area, so it’s rugged and remote,” Tueller said. “We’re talking about an area that doesn’t have any kind of development within miles.”

Tueller said The Wave’s trail is about six miles round-trip and is fully exposed to the heat of the sun. The undulating sandstone and sand may also make the hike challenging for hikers.

“It’s more of a rugged area than some might anticipate,” she said.

Monday 27-year-old Elisabeth Ann Bervel died while hiking The Wave with her husband. Kane County officials reported the couple spent extra hours in the heat as a result of losing the trail on their way back.

Less than a month earlier, Ulrich and Patricia Wahli, 70 and 69, died of what officials believe to be heat-related stress while hiking The Wave in temperatures more than 100 degrees.

Tueller said The Wave’s trail is marked only by natural landscape markers because it’s located in a wilderness area that was congressionally designated as a place meant to grant visitors a sense of remoteness and solitude.

Tueller said BLM officials ensure hikers have access to many forms of safety information and resources, such as access to GPS points and brochures that outline the importance of proper hydration, trip preparation, and details of trail markers. Additionally, those who wish to hike The Wave must first obtain a permit. When hikers apply for the permit online, they are required to watch a safety video, Tueller said.

“We encourage folks, because we are all so different and come from a wide range of backgrounds, abilities and experiences, to just do as much research as possible ... and always stay well hydrated, especially in the desert,” she said.

Sgt. Alan Alldredge of the Kane County Sheriff's Office said Kane County and BLM officials have been meeting informally to discuss ideas, and BLM officials have taken "a hard look at their requests" to post signs or mark the trail in some way.

"It's the BLM's call," he said. "We'd love to see it happen this month, or this week. But whatever the time-table would be it's up to them."

No formal meetings have been scheduled yet to discuss BLM's options, Tueller said.

"Considering the fact that we're still waiting for some of the reports, (the plan) is still early on," she said. "BLM is looking at all the different potential actions, and we're in the process of internal deliberations, so that's going to take some time."

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

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