Saturday, December 24, 2016

Summit Great Sand Dunes

We first visited Great Sand Dunes National Park five years ago. Chance took us there again this winter and I had a very clear plan this time, that was to make up for what we missed the first time - climb to the summit of the dunefield.

It was a cold clear late Sunday morning, temperature at single digit (F) when we arrived at the park. We watched a video about the great sand dunes at the visitor center and headed toward the dunefield around noon time.

Great Sand Dunes at the edge of San Luis Valley and Snow peaked Alpines 

The best way to hike in the dunefield is to walk along or near the ridges - where the slope is minimum and thus less backward motion for each step. Also small quick steps,  which take advantage of time delayed response of sands to external force,  would minimize the sinking into sands. The sand was much firmer than what we experienced last time due to snow the previous day and very cold temperature, which made the hiking less tiring.

It was still very cold, -9C. The few groups arrived earlier at sand dune parking lot, lingered around in the dried up Mosca river bed. We were the only group marching into the dunefield. In the parking lot and Mosca river, the High Dune is clearly the tallest sand dune in the field. Each of us, applied sunscreen, took a bottle of water and a protein bar, put on skiing-ready coat and started marching toward the high dune. There was no body else in the dunefield ahead of us!
Marching to the Peak

The rest of the group reached the first local peak while I was near high dune by taking shortcut
Initially Justin was leading the way followed by my niece and I. Quickly high altitude and steep slope got to us, we slowed down, taking breath every few steps. We also took the opportunity to enjoy the scenery and take pictures, totally immersed in the moment, between blue sky, brownish sands, white snow and the sound of our footsteps.

As we were approaching the first local peak, two young men got there ahead of us via a different route. One of them turned around, the other continued to high dune.  Since our goal was to reach the high dune, I skipped the first local peak and went straight to high dune via the side of the peak.

I walked along the narrow ridge of high dune gingerly toward the summit,  beautiful scenery in every direction - hikers climbing the curvatures of the sand dunes from east, snow covered Sangre de Cristo mountains to the north and north east, large area of sand dune field  and the expansive San Luis Valley to the south.  The vivid color that snow and blue sky provided made everything so much more beautiful. When the rest of the group was joining me at the summit, I raised my arm to celebrate our success. It was exhilarating to be on top of the "world",

the Ridge of the high Dune and beyond

Justin on the way to High Dune

On top of High Dune, I raised my arms

far field of sand dune from high dune

snow patched sand dune field
End Notes:

1. I tuned on my Garmin GPS tracking to record my trail. It took us about 1 hour 39 minutes for the round trip of 2.62 miles (4.21 km), 1 hour uphill, 40 minutes downhill. My heart beat was about the same as my 5K run.

2. We did indeed reached high dune according to the GPS. The elevation gain was 222m (728ft), which was 24 meters higher than what is stated on national park service website.But high dune is not the tallest dune at the park, Star Dune is according to national park service, which is 1.5 mile west of High Dune.
track of my trail - numbers indicate mile stone marks
3. Two incidents occurred during the visit - a) my glove fell several feet down the ridge of high dune on a steep slope. I sat down and dug in my boots into the sand to prevent mini sand avalanche to retrieve it. b) when we were leaving the sand dune parking lot, my van stuck on a short (~ 20m, 45deg) slope. I decided that the van was too slow when reaching the slope. I backed down the slop, increased the van's  speed to reach the slope. Tires started to slip again in the middle of the slope, so I changed the gear from normal to D2, and then drove on the left hand side of the road where it was less slick. The van slowly overcame the slope!

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