Ulrich and Patricia Wahli, of Campbell, Calif., had permits to hike the 3 miles across open country in blazing heat and in energy-sapping deep sand. Authorities said they apparently succumbed to temperatures that reached 106 degrees on Wednesday.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows only 20 hikers a day to visit The Wave's dramatically flowing sandstone contours at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, near the Utah border.
Many hikers enter an online lottery months in advance to their disappointment. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management says the odds of winning a permit to The Wave are as low as 10 percent. Half of the 20 daily permits are doled out on a walk-in basis at a visitor's center in Kanab, Utah, with up to 100 people showing up for one.
More than 48,000 people applied last year for 7,300 available hiking permits, officials said. The Wave is a richly colored geological upheaval, its fiery swirls emblazoned on countless postcards, posters, maps and computer screensavers.
The couple's bodies were found Thursday morning by other hikers. Ulrich Wahli was 70; his wife, 69. They won their permits by showing up for a walk-in lottery, said Rachel Tueller, spokeswoman for the BLM's Arizona Strip.
The lottery system may be the only way to go for a wildly popular backcountry spot, wilderness guides say. But a winning ticket encourages many to grab a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity regardless of the dangers. Guides say they can't help because they are prohibited from running trips inside national parks or monuments.
"The law of averages takes it from there," said Mike Banach of Zion Mountain School in Springdale, Utah. "People go out who aren't suited to the heat, and they don't bring enough water or equipment."
Kane County sheriff's Sgt. Alan Alldredge said The Wave isn't an easy place to reach; no marked trail leads the way. Monument officials say only a few juniper trees provide shade along the open route.
"Add that to the high heat we are experiencing right now, and it makes for a lethal combination," Alldredge said Thursday in a statement. "If you must hike, it is best to do it early in the morning, and make sure you have enough water and supplies."
The BLM does its best to educate visitors on safety, said Kevin Wright, manager of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. He said the hiker limit is necessary to protect the rock formations and preserve a sense of wilderness at The Wave.
A lottery system is the only way to govern crowds, he said.
"We don't even know what caused these fatalities, which are obviously a tragedy," Wright said Friday. "We are going to see what the cause was, then review our policies and procedures."
Ulrich and Patricia Wahli were "avid travelers and fairly capable folks," said Tracy Glover, chief deputy of the Kane County Sheriff's Office. The AP was unable to locate any family members or friends of the couple who might have known their intentions.
"I don't know that the lottery is a problem," Glover said Friday. "I'm not going to throw the BLM under a bus."
Patricia Wahli was found under a tree "as though she was trying to find some relief from the heat," Alldredge said.
Ulrich Wahli was found 250 yards away, apparently in the open. The bodies were sent to the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office for an autopsy.
Temperatures reached 106 Wednesday afternoon at nearby Page, Ariz., dipping to an overnight low of 80 degrees, the National Weather Service said.