Out and About
Seeking the Wave
The Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness on the Colorado Plateau — spectacular beauty, but at a cost.
by Will Keener
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. The afternoon sun beating down on the four of us as we crouch beneath a lone juniper that is somehow clinging to life in a sea of sandstone. Temperatures in the mid-90s and the rock radiating stored heat — encouraging an even bake on all sides. By this time, we had hoped to be back to the Jeep and headed to the Grand Canyon for a sunset photo op. But life had made other plans, as often happens on wilderness outings, and it is our job to adjust.
Our navigator, the youngest and likely the fittest of our geriatric crew, has inexplicably hit the wall. Crossing a sandy pitch that brought us into this sandstone-rimmed valley of the lone tree, he suddenly ran out of energy as the route turned uphill and he sought the only semi-shade in sight. "I felt like I had a terrible case of heat exhaustion," he tells us later. "I was fine until we hit that section of sand on the way back."
We are quiet in the stifling heat, examining our options. Three of us are diabetics or borderline diabetics. Our ages span the decade from mid-60s to mid-70s. None of us envies the idea of a hike out to the car and then in again, with a rescue team. Fortunately, one of us has glucose tablets, which he now offers to our navigator. It will take a while to see if they will do the trick, so we wait.
You could call this a "near-disaster scenario" in the wild country along the Utah-Arizona state line called the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area. No cell phone service to call for a helicopter. No roads. Not even marked trails to help identify exactly where we are. Just miles and miles of 180-million-year-old Navajo sandstone, the heat, and an unforgiving cloudless blue sky. And for what?
The allure of this place is an area called "The Wave." Deposited as dunes along the western edge of what we now call North America, the sands have hardened to stone. Water and wind have sculpted them into fluted troughs, bowls and monoliths with sweeping buttresses. Contoured streaks of red, yellow, pink, white, brown — colors evolving as the sun moves across the sky — make the resultant rock spectacular.
It is an iconic locale for geologists, photographers, determined hikers and a large number of yearly visitors from Europe and the Asian rim. "People that love the outdoors and have these bucket lists; I think it's become something to check off their list," says Kevin Wright, manager of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. About a third of visitors are from other countries, particularly Germany, with an upswing from Japan and China in recent years, he adds. In 2012, 48,264 people applied for the 7,300 permits issued.
The conventional wisdom for photographers is that the Wave is best photographed at mid-day, when the sun soars and more evenly lights the stripes and bends in the rock without shadows. We follow that wisdom. Thanks to a thunderstorm two days earlier, a pool of water at the lower end of the wave adds a dimension of reflections to the already vivid scene. We scramble to get special angles, to include or exclude other visitors also photographing the rocks. A quick stop for water and a snack and we begin the trip back. We realize that following conventional wisdom puts us on the trail now in the heat of the afternoon.
The real "worst-case" scenario for this area was acted out twice last summer. Once by a couple from California (ages 69 and 70), who became lost and perished a few hundred yards apart, and again just weeks later by a 27-year-old mother of two from Arizona, who was overcome by the heat during the return from the Wave. Her husband hiked ahead to get a cell signal and call for help, but the help came too late. She died of cardiac arrest.
The angles and patterns created by the sandstone layers can be enhanced by pools like this one during monsoon season rains.
Chance brings us to the Wave. Access is deliberately limited by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to 20 hikers a day and a lottery is used to determine whom we may meet on the trail. But this is no place to take chances or come unprepared. We thought we were fairly well prepared with water, a GPS system, snacks, appropriate clothing, gear and sunscreen. But things happen.
Back in the thin shade of the juniper, our stricken mate is better. He gives the shade and the glucose tablets credit for most of the improvement. Later he reflects that more protein for lunch, some electrolytes possibly in the form of a small sports drink, and a more consistent effort to drink water along the trail could have helped as well.
In fact, another member of our group is stopped later, when he runs out of water. "I just felt like I wanted to stop and lay down, but I knew I shouldn't do that," he says. By pooling our supplies, a good reason for traveling with a companion, we were able to get everyone back safely.
Back in the car, a/c running, sipping water from our cooler, we look back on our mistakes. (We will glory in our successes when we get home and see the photos.) All of us should have pushed the physical training a bit harder. By sharing water, we stayed safe, but we should have carried more. Smarter snacks, glucose tablets and salt tablets would have been good additions to our day packs.
We are divided on the issue of route markers. The GPS system we used is clearly better than the map and photos provided by the BLM, but for those without satellite intervention, perhaps some trail marking system would be better. Not all of us agree.
Patterns abound along the hike, like these chevrons of stone west of the main (unmarked) route. Even professional photographers have learned to travel light to this location, carrying a minimum of equipment.
The formation of sandstone from ancient dunes does not always make for competent rock, and the hardness and cohesiveness of the different layers, or bedding planes, vary according to the size of grains and the kind of cement holding them together. It is easy to break off a chunk of the rock, clambering around on various surfaces. Signs of such clambering are often visible. Funneling the foot traffic onto some preferred route will leave marks on the landscape, as it has already. At the same time, a marked trail might spare some of the more delicate features from trampling.
It's a trade-off. But when the downside of a trade-off involves loss of human life, it's a trade-off that should be considered. The BLM in cooperation with other emergency responders is doing just that, examining a number of options including better cell phone coverage, marked trails, and even the option of closing the area at times of extreme heat. A video safety briefing is already required for all hikers into the Wave.
In the end, we recognize, it's not the BLM's job to save us from ourselves. If we want to get out there — to experience the magnificence and immensity of the Colorado Plateau — there are personal responsibilities that go with it. We need to know what we are doing or be ready or join forces with those who do know what they're doing, such as the many BLM-authorized guides in the area. Because things can happen out there. And they do.
Will Keener is a writer who has been drawn to photography since his retirement in 2007. He has worked and lived in the American West for most of his career. He is a Vietnam veteran. He lives in Las Cruces.
The Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness is a 112,500-acre wilderness area located in northern Arizona and southern Utah, USA, within the arid Colorado Plateau region. It's about 175 miles north of Flagstaff, Ariz. If you go: