Lines in the Sand

True Grit: Sand makes a nice base for a few inches of fresh. Photo: Justin Nyberg

Skiing the snowy dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park was a stupid idea, but it was getting stupider by the minute. Half an hour earlier, my friend Pete and I had been hurtling down Highway 17, in the San Luis Valley, with a much more defensible plan—going home after a weekend cat skiing a huge storm at Monarch Mountain. But 30 miles from the town of Alamosa, we saw something unusual: the enormous Sahara-like dunefield that’s nestled, improbably, at the foot of the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains, was completely white.

We both stared mutely. The dunes, some of them as high as 750 feet tall, were blanketed in powder. It looked, from a distance, like a skier’s hallucination—a dreamlike, miniature range of steep, treeless, untracked hills, rising out of the griddle-flat high-desert sage and rangeland of the San Luis Valley. “Can you ski those?” I asked. Pete seemed to think so. “Should we try?” If we had any sense of perspective, we wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But with a roof rack loaded with powder boards, there wasn’t much choice. We made the turn off Highway 17 toward the dunes, and I stepped on it.

Most people who try to ride the dunes in summer fail to realize how slowly skis or a snowboard move down even the steepest dry sand, or how awkwardly they bite on crust. It’s more thrilling to walk around your front lawn in alpine skis and wave to the neighbors. But even a light sheen of snow is enough to grease the skids. The sand grows firm if it’s the slightest bit damp, and the bases slide quickly. Since piled sand rests at 34-degrees, and some of the dune slopes are as high as 500-vertical feet, you can get what look—from a reasonable distance, and without much rum—like turns.

But then there’s the question of timing. Even in southern Colorado, at an elevation of 8,200 feet, Great Sand Dunes National Park gets only about 36 inches of snow a year—with maybe six inches falling during a big storm—and it’s almost always gone within hours, baked away by the sun or blown off by the dunes’ sculpting wind. Already in the 25 minutes it took us to drag race the 35 miles to the National Park entrance, we’d watched the snow lose ground to big brown patches of sand. The four-inch base had already become three. By the time Pete managed to get his gloves and hustle back to where I was waiting, the sand patches had swollen ominously. What began as a lark had now become desperate. Even if we knew we were wasting the afternoon dune skiing, we weren’t about to waste the time not dune skiing.

Within an hour we’d hustled to the top of the tallest dunes, 300 feet above the parking lot, and stood there sweating and catching our breath. The snow, where it remained, was one-inch deep. “Not much of a base,” Pete said, as he unstrapped his stiff, carving Kastles. I stepped into a pair of rockered, 119-millimmeter-waisted Scott MegaDozers, a test pair of fat powder boards generously on loan from the company, now grotesquely out of their comfort zone. Lunar white hills folded away in the distance.

As a good friend, I volunteered to ski first. I smeared a few turns. The Megadozers, born to surf bottomless powder, began to eat sand. They twitched and squeaked as I tried to keep them off their edges. Then the dune steepened, and in a few turns the rhythm kicked in. The old feeling began. That easy, swaying, wind-in-the-face euphoria of stealing turns that should never have happened—like a morning run on corduroy before the lifts begin to move—with no one watching, nothing in mind, no place to be, and no reason left to rush. It was, in whatever ridiculous, desert-addled sense, skiing. Ridiculous, yes, but perfect.

As the slope bent around to the sharp crest of a dune, a kind of dune cornice, I let the Megadozers run, got as much speed as I could on the grabby, once-inch base, hit the lip, and sailed as far over the softly waiting sand as I could.

To the Scott ski company, which will soon find an impressive quantity of sand smashed into every cranny of those bindings, I apologize.

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