Petrified sand dunes - that is essentially what the Wave in northern Arizona is. And just like the Wave, much of the nearby geology you must cross to visit it is also composed of petrified sand dunes. To protect this strange landscape from too many feet scuffing across the sand, only 20 people per day are allowed to enter the area. This means only 7,300 people per year are allowed to visit. And I am willing to bet that every year, all 7,300 slots are filled by people eager to hike to the Wave. But eagerness does not necessarily equal preparedness.
The hike from the trail-head at Wire Pass is only a few miles, but the geology, climate and weather conspire to make it among the most dangerous few miles that many hikers have ever faced. Each hiker is advised to carry at least a gallon (4 L) of water for the day. And they are advised to travel early to cover the distance over the slickrock before the sun can heat it to temperatures over 100° F (38° C).
Three days before my trip to the Wave with family and friends in 2013, a couple from California perished on their return from visiting the Wave. Much of the southwestern corner of North America had been in the grip of a viscous heat wave that was driving day-time highs close to 115° F (46° C) or more. On the evening of the day these people died we had reached St. George, Utah to stop for the night and the air temperature was 112° F (44° C) at 7 pm. Within a month or so of our visit, a pair of newlyweds hiked to the Wave as part of their honeymoon. One the way out, the woman perished.
I'm not criticizing these unfortunate people - they are complete strangers to me - I have no knowledge of their skill or preparedness for a trip like this. Neither, exactly, am I criticizing the permit system employed by the Bureau of Land Management to control the impact on this site. The website for the online lottery, and staff at the in-person lottery both diligently describe the conditions and provide ample warning about what hikers must be prepared to endure. But since the demand for permits far outpaces the supply, the winner of a lottery pass genuinely feels like they have struck gold. I know this for a fact, as I was the one in our group of four whose lottery number came up.
But the sad consequence of the demand so far outweighing the supply is that the winners are going to go no matter what the conditions are. There is no solution, as allowing more people to enter will only degrade the landscape more quickly. And every day there are 20 more people eagerly awaiting the chance to make the trip. You might think the Bureau could close access when temperatures or other conditions reach certain limits, but then what of those previously lucky 20 people who may have traveled from Europe or Asia for this singular event?
I just find it extremely sad that people end up dying while trying to enjoy the wonders of nature. It was a very strange experience for me while sharing the highlights of my trip with others to talk about the wonders of the trip, but then try to relate the fact that people had died just days before I had gone. The expression on many faces made me wonder if I should have apologized for having gone, or that I should have aborted the trip upon hearing the news. But by that point we were committed. We were just like the other 16 people who had lottery tickets for that same day. We knew this might be our only chance to visit. We had confidence in our abilities. We knew we were prepared. But then wasn't that most likely the same way the other 16 people that day felt? The same way that couple from four days earlier had felt on the morning they set out from the trail-head?
This week's photo was taken with a Canon EF 17-40 mm f/4 lens zoomed to 27 mm and mounted on a Canon EOS 5D Mk III. This is an HDR image composed from three images exposed at ISO 400, an aperture of f/16, and shutter speeds of 1/30 sec, 1/60 sec and 1/125 sec.