Road Tales:  Sandstorms Make For Rough Nights

By:  Talor Stone                                                                                                                 April 16th, 2018

It was time to leave.

After an hour of waiting in the dark for the wind to stop, my tent, which had entirely collapsed on top of me, began to rip under the relentless gusts that whipped across the dunes.  Sand blasted into my tent in complete defiance of gravity and the dust fly I had attached.

As I sat miserably huddled inside, I finally realized that if these conditions continued much longer I would have a pretty serious problem.  The possibility of losing my shelter and becoming exposed to the wind, sand and 20 degree temperatures meant that frostbite and hypothermia were real concerns.  I wasn’t too worried about freezing per se because  I came prepared and my gear was more than adequate.  But, being sand blasted alone in the dark for God knows how long sure didn’t sound like a good time.  I made my decision and began following my emergency bail out plan.

How Had I Gotten Here?

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Sunrise lights the dunes

This misadventure is set at Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado.  It was the off season, so there were hardly any tourists in the park during the day, and I never saw another soul at night.  For me, this means the conditions were perfect.  Nothing but miles of solitude and no one to interrupt the surreal landscape that laid before me.

Great Sand Dunes features the tallest sand dunes in North America and the location of this stunning sandbox couldn’t be more surprising.  The immense dune field rises straight out of the plains of the San Luis Valley and features the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountain range as a fabulous backdrop.  The dunes are lovely to shoot from a distance, but I really wanted to shoot a consecutive sunset, full moon, and sunrise from deep within the dunes themselves.  So, on my second day in the area, I gathered my gear and set out.

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My camp before the wind began

I’ll tell you straight up…the going is rough walking through these dunes!  I’ve camped in the dunes at White Sands, New Mexico before, but that paled in comparison to the amount of effort it took to make it over these nearly 700 foot dunes comprised of incredibly deep, soft sand.  I didn’t have a particular destination in mind as there are no actual trails here, but I trudged into the depths of the dune field for a few hours until I found a promising trough to set up camp.

Everything went pretty smoothly right up until sunset.  But unfortunately, as the sun settled, the wind began to really pick up.  I tried to hold my ground on the ridge so I could continue to shoot, but that quickly became impossible.  I was quite literally being blasted by sand and getting blown backwards by huge gusts of wind.  I’ll freely admit that my attempts to shoot at this point were halfhearted at best.  The temperature had dropped into the mid-20s, and with wind like this any tiny sliver of exposed skin felt as though it was being cut by knives.

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Just as the wind began to pick up

As night fell around me, I ducked into the safety of my tent.  At least that was the idea. . .  Turns out the tent wasn’t much protection at all!  I crawled back out to see if I could find a better camp location with more protection, but honestly I was in the best place possible from what I could tell.  I decided to ride it out as the windy evening rapidly became a full-on wind and sand storm.

Now, before you say anything. . . Yes, I did check the forecast before I went!  I swear I did!  Winds of 8 mph were forecast for the whole evening!  Wow that couldn’t have been more wrong!  But berating the weatherman wouldn’t do me any good.  I was already in the thick of it and I had a decision to make:  Do I try to ride it out or bail?

At first I decided to just hunker down and wait.  Surely the winds can’t maintain this degree of ferocity for too long, right?  So I sat in my dusty tent with my face covered as sand poured in.  Gusts in rapid succession repeatedly collapsed my tent around me.  After an hour of being pummeled, I started to hear small threads tearing.  My poor tent was losing the battle.

Gotta Know When to Hold ‘em, Know When to Fold ‘em

It was time to leave.

No one would ever call me an indecisive person. . . unless you’re my boyfriend asking me what I want to eat for dinner (#facts).  So as soon as my mind was made up, I started moving.  I really do make an effort to go into these backcountry situations fairly well prepared.  Before I had begun hiking into the dunes I oriented myself with a compass and map and set my waypoint on my Garmin Fortrex.  Thankfully, I had also noted the general compass heading of the nearest road just in case I needed to quickly bail.  I chose that option.

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Hiking into the dunes before the wind started

I shoved everything into my pack and sprawled across my tent as I unstaked it to prevent it from disappearing into the night.  Once everything was on my back, I pulled out my compass and started my slow, miserable march out.  Thankfully it was a full moon, so even with lots of clouds there was still some visibility.  Without that little bit of light I can’t even imagine how disorienting it would have been stumbling through the dunes in the dark.  But even that ray of hope wasn’t enough to make the whole thing not suck.  Planning a sensible route through the incredibly steep dunes was a real struggle in the dark.  Walking along the ridges is generally easier going, but the incredible wind made that impossible without being blown over.  I literally fell multiple times and pitifully crumpled into the sand – a victim of the wind, the constantly shifting ground, and exhaustion.

When I finally saw the distant light of the parking lot I was truly relieved.  It had taken me over 3 hours to emerge from the dune field, but I wasn’t done yet.  Because I had decided to bail out to the closest paved road, now I had to walk all the way back to my vehicle which was several miles away.  By now it was nearly 1 a.m. so I brushed off the sand and began walking.  Thankfully, a mile later a vehicle full of college kids stopped and gave me a lift to my car.  I’m not sure who picks up a pitiful hitchhiker at that time of night, but I sure was grateful.  I never got their names, but thank you.  I was so very tired and that simple act of kindness made all the difference.

Defeated But Not Deterred

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With a moonset like this, all was forgiven

Back at my vehicle I simply crawled into the back seat and collapsed, exhausted.  But not before setting my alarm for sunrise.  I refused to let this sandstorm debacle make this day of shooting a total loss.  Fortunately a few hours later I was rewarded with the beautiful sight of the moon setting over the dunes just as the sun rose.

I didn’t end up getting the shots I had envisioned, but that just means that I’ll have to try again!  Maybe that makes me crazy, but I’d prefer to think of it as determined.  Great Sand Dunes is a truly unique environment.  It is strikingly beautiful yet savagely inhospitable.  We humans are only meant to be visitors here which is precisely what preserves its untamed beauty and alluring mystery.  I’ll definitely be back to see it again.

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