Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO: Into Isolation

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What I did
Great Sand Dunes National Park

Flag of United States  , Colorado
Sunday, February 17, 2013

Less than a week of talking to an Old Friend about sandboarding over lunch, I found myself trudging along the grainy ridge of a culebra-like beast that extends for miles in twists and turns, in edgy peaks and slippery troughs.  The path snaked upward from the dry flatbed of Medano Creek towards the high jagged snow-covered peaks of the Crestone cluster whose summits are well over 14,000 ft.  It took 3 U.S. Presidents (Herbert Hoover, Wm. Clinton, & G. W. Bush) to transform this unique land from just a dune field into a national park that hosts some 280,000+ visitors per year.  On the day of my arrival, fewer than 20 came for a visit.  I was essentially alone in a 108,000-acre park...12 miles from the nearest outpost that was closed for the season and 26 miles from a 3-personnel police department whose wooden town hall is smaller than a one-room cabin. 

The highest point in the park is the Star Dune; it wouldn't be me if I were to ignore it so I headed there for a grueling 700+ vertical feet climb in knee-deep sand that could engulf me or send me over the precarious cornice if I wasn't too careful.  Coldplay's Viva La Vida lyrics about being "upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand" came to mind.  My feet felt heavy.  My lungs burned cold.  The water was half gone, used up by a thirsty body.  But the eyes remained focused at the transient summit.  So I crawled on and slipped back a foot or two for every 3 gained.  When the sun was out, its rays baked my exposed skin.  When it hid behind the dense desert clouds that had been trapped by the high summits that form the Sangre de Cristo (the Blood of Christ) Mountain Range, the wind and the fleeting grains bothered my eyes, nose, and ears.  If it wasn't one, it was always the other.  I had to push on.  The Star Dune had to be taken.  I went into a summit assault mode against the last pitch and claimed the most magnificent prize: a gorgeous view of the what could be considered James Hilton's Shangri-La.  Utopia could not be more perfect than what I saw that day.  I had to recite the late Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev's endearing quote: "Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion...I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate Creation. On each journey, I am reborn."  I also added that I hope one day they will become my everlasting tombstones.  What can be more fantastic than to have these magnificent spires commemorate a life well-lived, jetting into the infinite sky guarded by the constellations of mythological beasts and warriors.  A wind brushed against me and I was alerted to a distant point.  It seemed mundanely natural to the untrained eyes, but to mine it sent shivers down my spine and raise the hair on the nape.

I walked a few steps higher towards it as if to show my defiance.  When I couldn't go any farther, I stood on my boot tips to steal a glimpse of the nemesis, Humboldt Peak.  At 14,064 ft. the somewhat humble Humboldt Peak rested northeast between Crestone (14,294 ft.) and Broken Hand (13,573 ft.).  Among these mighty cathedrals, I solemnly thought of my friend, David "Talus Monkey" Worthington.  We were supposed to meet in Alamosa for lunch in June back in 2007, but there was a terrible accident in May that caused him to fall off Humboldt's slippery slope.  The Talus Monkey died in a spring snowstorm that Sunday night; I guess his eyes saw the galaxy before they closed eternally.  My email to him before I received the sad news went forever unanswered.  I miss my friend dearly as I sat there on the dunes thinking about the yester-years and the peaks that we could have climbed in the decades to come.  You tend to lose friends sooner than later in this sport so you try to value their presence a lot more when you're with them.  Before leaving, I ran downward towards the Crestones, kicking sand in the air, as if to say "I still remember you" while capturing the moment with the Canon.  12 hours later, my journey took me into a snowstorm at 13,000+ ft. adjacent to Loveland Pass in the Arapaho National Forest.  A day earlier, the A-Basin Ski Resort had a near catastrophic avalanche which trapped 16 skiers and snowboarders under a pile of loose snow.  Fortunately, they were rescued.  I boarded for 26 miles until the storm passed and the sun came out.  I finished my day with 2 super delicious elk sausages at the Euro Grill in Georgetown, CO.  "Mmmm...ummm...ummm!"  

"When hiking in bear country one doesn't need to be the fastest runner in the party -- just not the slowest." -Talus Monkey
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