Visions of Sand, When Adventure Starts, Moonlight Dune Climb
07/06/2012 94 °F
The View From My First Campsite.
Prairie Sun Flower.
The Edge of the Dunes.
Sand and Pine.
“Ha ha ha…. Wheeeeeeeeeeee! What a Predicament… ha ha ha…”
It was hot. The sun blazed overhead turning the dune landscape into a sandy broiler. I felt like a twice baked potato. Temperatures on the sand of Great Sand Dunes National Park can reach up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit during midday. The park service warns against walking on the dunes during this time, but there I was, padding along in the deep sand just after noon (a mistake). I began to feel woozy. I stopped to take another swig from my water bottle. I still had enough water, but the next creek was three miles further along the trail. I had long way to go to get there, if I got there.
My pack felt exceptionally heavy. I chose my food and equipment poorly for this trek. The problem was that I had made the plan to hike deep into the mountains after I had gone shopping the day before. Therefore, I was stuck with too many heavy food items. I love my new pack, but the weight dug into my shoulders and drove the load down my legs and into my feet, which sunk into the dune a good four inches. I could feel a moving pocket of sand inside both of my hiking boots. It was annoying, but that was the least of my problems.
My left leg began to hurt. With each step in the sand, my left hip ached. Then I began to feel an aching knot in my calves as well. I rarely feel any soreness in my body. When I do, I know I am straining my body too hard. I kept going, though I was noticeably slower than when I started this trek. The sand was going to be my downfall. Thinking back to my planning in the Visitor’s Center, I remember the ranger didn’t mention the first ten miles was through sand. He must have assumed I’d know. At the time, I felt good about my chances of hiking ten miles on the first day. Out on the sand, I laughed aloud at my stupidity.
On the trail in front of me, were fresh footprints of a black bear. The bear seemed to be following the trail. I had first noticed its huge prints in the mud near the last creek I crossed. I had not yet seen the bear, but I sang out once in awhile to avoid a surprise encounter. Bears don’t like surprises, and I don’t like surprising bears. Sure, it’s exciting, but the outcome in never certain.
An ominous roll of thunder sounded off to the west. The hazy bluish clouds of the front were building on the far side of the valley and moving east. The thunder was a subtle reminder of the power of a storm. The park service also warns hikers that “lightning can kill.” They go on to recommend leaving the dunes area immediately upon seeing signs of a storm. I looked at my GPS again. The elevation read just over 9,000 feet, which meant I was nearing the high point of this section of trail. Damn.
I took another twenty steps along the sandy trail before I stopped again. I was panting, and I bent over to rest my hands on my knees. I felt lightheaded. I took another swig of water, and realized that there was no way in hell I was getting to the Sand Creek campground. It was still six miles away, and I was feeling like crap. I had to get out of the sun. Ahead of me were some pine trees that offered a bit of shade. I left the path, and crossed two hundred yards of sage covered flatland to the pines. I dropped my pack in the sand, dug out my other water bottle and sat down in the shade with a plop. I was beat.
Now I had to decide what to do. I grabbed some food, and while I munched I took stock of my situation: I was five miles out on the edge of the dunes. I was showing signs of heat exhaustion. My left leg hurt a lot. I was following a bear. The nearest water was a mile and a half back down the trail, or three miles ahead of me. There was a thunderstorm approaching from the west. And I was fairly exposed high on top of the dune. Mulling this, I decided that, “Yes, this was a good one.” I had not been up against adversity in awhile, and this was a pretty good pickle.
Yvon Chouinard once said that, “Adventures start when everything goes wrong.” It was safe to say, this trek wasn’t going according to plan. But what to do? I know my limits, and I’m good at recognizing bad situations (and good ones, too). To continue would be foolish. If I decided to stay where I was to avoid the heat, my water would run out, and I would be exposing myself to the thunderstorm. I knew I was close to a campground, but since it didn’t have water, I couldn’t stay there either. I decided water was the key. I needed water to stay hydrated, and the nearest source was back the way I came. I also decided that though I was very tired, that it would be in my best interest to get off the exposed dune. My leg was sore, but there was nothing to do about that. The bear would show up, or it wouldn’t. I’d deal with it if I had to. Satisfied with my rational thinking, I heaved my pack up on my shoulders and started back down the trail.
As I walked, the thunderstorm passed by me to the north. It rumbled a bit, but it didn’t rain. Nor were there any terrifying lighting bolts to dodge (as if I could). The heavy clouds blocked out the sun, and I relished the cooling change. My trek back to the creek was uneventful. I was still sore, but I would heal. I drank the last of my water before I pumped more into my bottles. I continued on to Little Medora Campground where I set up my camp. Easing into my hammock, I contemplated the day and laughed. I had just enjoyed yet another near life experience.
Starlight Dune Climb
I looked up at the stars to check my orientation. The North Star was still off to my right, and I could still see one of the two bright stars I had been using as a guide ahead of me. Not that star navigation was necessary, the dune field was directly west of the campground. All I really needed to do was walk toward the giant blob of sand. But I like to practice navigation, and stars are an easy guide to use at night.
I chose to hike the dune at night for several reasons. It is much cooler at night than during the heat of the day. I wanted solitude, and nobody else was getting up at 3:30 in the morning to climb the dune. I wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of the dune. I wanted to photograph the dunes with good light. Finally, I figured it would be an awesome experience to hike the dune at night, then watching the day dawn over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado.
My feet made a “Hisssssk-Hissssk” sound with each step I took on the cool sand. I couldn’t see the definition of the dune I was climbing due to the almost total darkness. The moon had set two hours ago, and the only light available was starlight. I had a flashlight, but where was the challenge in that? The dune began to climb again, and so did I. I was more or less climbing this dune by brail, only instead of using my hands, I used my feet to sense the changes of the dune.
The dune I was climbing was the highest sand dune in North America. At its highest point, it rose seven hundred and fifty feet above the valley floor. My calves began to throb with the increasing pitch of the pyramid I was climbing. This dune isn’t one giant wall of sand. It has twisting ridges, valleys and pits. Just when I reached the top of one ridge and followed to a peak, I found that I had to descend down into a pit and climb an even higher pyramid. It wasn’t easy, but it was enjoyable.
The stillness and silence of the desert was complete. I’m not sure I have heard a silence as deep as that anywhere else on earth. It was so quiet, I swear I could almost hear the energy of the sand. It sounded like a very low hum on the lowest frequency that I can hear. Maybe I was imagining things. At any rate, I felt a strong connection to the earth and the dunes.
I started the final climb. I could only take thirty steps before I was gasping with the effort. The dry air parched my throat. After my breath settled, I took another swig of water. Then I would climb another thirty steps. There might have been easier ways to climb the dune, but I couldn’t see them. I had a sure fire way of getting to the top, which was simply to keep climbing up.
Then, with a push, I was on top. I rested my hands on my knees and let my heart and lungs slow down. Then I looked about at the expanse of the sand plateau all about me. It was amazing. I went in search of the perfect spot. My perfect spot needed to meet the following criteria: It needed a view of the dune field below me. It needed to be photographically interesting. It needed to be a good breakfast spot. After wandering another two hundred yards, I found it. Satisfied, I pulled out my breakfast (an orange and a Clif bar), and settled in to enjoy the start of the day.
The Dune Field In Pictures
"Behold, The Sands of Thom!"