Great Sand Dunes

A year or two ago Lucas put an idea in my head that it might be fun to spend a night on the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park, about four hours drive from where we live. I've been to the dunes before, slid down them on a snowboard and camped there during a 15° night in early October even. So why not go back again in early October and spend a night on the sand?

The amateur photographer that I am, I fired up the open source space viewer Stellarium and found that the weekend of October 3rd had great star viewing - the moon would only be about half full, and didn't rise until 11:30pm or so. Given the 6:50 sunset, there would be several hours of complete darkness to view the stars. I enlisted Ben to join the trek as well, and with a good weather forcast we were excited for the advenutre.

Unfortunately Lucas had to bail at the last minute, but Ben and I continued onward, making the four-hour drive on Saturday morning. To camp on the dunes themselves, you have to get a free backcountry permit from the visitor center. This keeps the number of people out there sane (though only the insane would even want to camp out there...) and makes campers sign their life away saying they know the rules and regulations. There aren't too many, and the most limiting is trekkers are required to make camp a mile or more from the edge of the dunes.

Permit in hand, we set out with our gear and made our way to the dune field.

Anyone who has hiked or walked on sand dunes can tell you - it's tough moving. Your feet sink with every step, and even small slopes can make the most fit among us gasp for breath. The ~8,000 feet of elevation don't help the lungs, either.

We got to the base of the first dune, paused, and powered up.

I checked my phone again and again. Soon after we crested the highest ridge we had passed the one mile mark. I wasn't too keen on going much further - all the more to hike out, so we started looking for a suitable camp.

The thing about the dunes is they are absolutely brutal to life. Sand is blowing everywhere at incredible rates, and there is very little shelter from the battering to be found.

We did the best we could, and found a small, flat valley that was suitable to putting tents up. We dropped the bags and explored our home for the evening.

The views were out of this world - truly. If there was any water, one might think it was mars ;)

We pitched our tents. We happen to camp together a lot and both happen to have settled on carrying the same model of tent made by MSR. It is a good thing for us, too, because it's easy to set up and free-standing, meaning it doesn't require stakes to be set up properly. There was much pondering, struggling and eventual despair trying to get tent stakes to set in the unfathomably deep sand.

The tent itself is free-standing, but the rain fly does require stakes to function properly. We looked up at the clearing sky and decided that the flies could stay tucked away in the bag, besides we want to see the stars from the tent! [ed: obvious foreshadowing is obvious?]

With camp made as best we could and all our gear weighing the tents to keep them from blowing away in the gusty wind, we hiked up the nearest hill to responsibly enjoy an adult beverage in a tall aluminum can and watch the sun set.

As the sun set, the temperature dropped quickly. I donned my warm under layers and windbreaker to get prepared for the night. I ruffled through the pack and - oh, hey, a bottle of bulleit rye! That should help with keeping warm as well!

We wound up cooking dinner inside our tents because the wind was so harsh and our stoves wouldn't work anywhere else. As we were cleaning up, the sky started to shine in ways I have never seen before.

You can usually see the Milky Way from Boulder on a nice, clear night, but this was something else entirely. As the sun's last rays dipped behind the highest of the dunes, the night sky took my breath.

We spent several hours pondering the sky, the meaning of life, that sort of thing. When the whiskey was gone and the cold sunk in deeper to our selves, we crawled into our tents. I was surprised at how clean I had managed to keep everything. I put the camera back into the hard shell everything-proof case and left it outside, and slid into my sleeping bag.

I don't know what I expected.

I certainly did not expect a storm to roll through during the night, dropping rain on our tents and snow at the higher elevations. I certainly did not realize that a tent without a rain fly is not, indeed, sand proof.

I woke up just after two with sand in my face. Not just on my face, but swirling all around inside the tent. I looked down the tent, and sand was everywhere. It was all over my sleeping bag, backpack, clothes, stove, anything not inside a plastic baggy was covered.

In addition, it was flying everywhere in the tent. Sand was pelting my face, getting in my eyes, gritting between my teeth. The moon, half full as it was, was visible just overhead, but a long line of pitch black clouds covered half the sky. We were on the edge of a system, and feeling the full effects of the wind it brought.

At one point, my tent hit me in the head after bowing in the wind. Thank goodness it did not buckle completely. I hunkered down in my bag, covered my head and slept best I could.

The morning revealed the disaster that was the night. Though the tent did not move, the sand around it sure did. The corner under the leading edge of the tent in the wind had a hole about a foot deep underneath it where the sand had flown away. The whiskey bottle was almost completely covered. The camera was fine, thank goodness for pelican cases.

I asked Ben how he weathered the storm.

"What storm?"

I guess Ben is a heavier sleeper than I had thought.

We cleaned up the tents best we could, and got as much sand out of our belongings as possible when you are surrounded by sand. I hiked up our dune and watched the sun break through the clouds and thought again, "what are we doing here?"

After a cup of coffee - with sand, of course - we packed up our wet gear and made our way out, off the dunes again.

The hike out went significantly faster. Sliding down a dune turns out to be quite a bit more fun, and faster, than hiking up. We made it back to the car in 45 minutes, and shook out the rest of our gear.

Safe in the car again, driving with the dunes in the rear view, Ben looked over and said,

"Yeah. I'd do that again."