By Stan Bush
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (CBS4) – Bryan Skilinski was battling a mid-life crisis when he came to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. What he did to cure it almost killed him.
“I was trying to find motivation for the next 40 years of my life,” said Skilinski. “I wanted to exert myself. I didn’t want to go to the extremes that I did.”
The Syracuse, New York native drove to the expansive desert park in the San Luis Valley to clear his head. Last Saturday Slilinski attempted a 10-mile hike around the perimeter of the park to get to the Cold Creek drainage at the base of Mt. Herard. Along the way he encountered deep snowdrifts but didn’t turn around.
“I said this isn’t going to stop me. Three feet isn’t going to stop me. Four feet isn’t going to stop me. I’m going to keep going. Why? I couldn’t tell you.”
That was a mistake, he admits.
Skilinski would spend that first night in a tree well. He did not pack shelter, a sleeping bag, or extra clothes and only had enough food for two small meals, which he quickly ran out of.
“Had a breakfast bar the first day and travel Oreos and that was all I had,” he said. “I had the Oreos the second day. The third day I licked the bag, and after that it was nothing.”
By day three Skilinski cut the laces and tongue of his boots, which had frozen overnight when he took them off. Desperate to get back, he decided to cut directly across the park by going straight over undulating sand dunes the size of apartment buildings.
He was using the visual of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range to the east to guide his way out, but once he lost sight of them Skilinski got turned around and lost.
He was delirious and dehydrated and struggled to move with his damaged boots. He would spend two more nights on the surface of the dunes has temperatures dipped into single digits.
Rangers from the National Park Service had taken note of Skilinski’s abandoned vehicle and launched a search and rescue operation to find him. Volunteers on horses and on foot began to scour the area and aerial crews scanned to dunes, but could not find Skilinski. Search dogs caught his scent and found Skilinski’s footprints, but could not locate him.
“I had given up on my mission to the stars. I saw a road and that’s when I was discovered by rescuers.”
Skilinski says he wandered onto the search team after getting sight of a nearby road. He was found about a mile south of the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center.
“I walk in there and I see a picture of myself on a bulletin board and a map. To be honest with you I didn’t even think people were looking for me.”
Skilinski’s hands, feet, and skin were badly damaged by frostbite and exposure, but he refused medical treatment. Instead opting to go to a local hotel before driving home to New York. He says he’s embarrassed by the incident, but grateful to rangers for not giving up the search for him.
“What people should appreciate about the parks is if something happens there are groups of trained compassionate people who will look for you,” said Skilinski.