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Tom Kelly: Powder and sand

Tom Kelly jeeping through snow and ice in Mill Canyon, north of Moab, in 2015.
Photo by Nicholas Mates

I inched my way up slowly from the creek bed through the new fallen snow. Everywhere I looked the sky was bursting blue with a brilliant, cold winter glow as I cursed my way to the ridgeline.

At the top, you could gaze seemingly forever across the desert range. Six to 8 inches of fluffy, untracked white powder covered the landscape. I accelerated down the trail cranking turns to the left and to the right — literally floating through fluffy snow.

With temperatures dipping into the low teens, it was hard to imagine being on this same trail in the Moab desert six months ago with scorching 104-degree heat. We’ve often taken a break from the Park City holiday crush to pile into the Jeep Rubicon for the four-hour drive to Moab for a few days. We long ago ceased to look forward to it as a warm winter break. It’s still winter, but enjoyed in a bit of a different way.



The sensation of dipping your tips into a stache of powder in Triangle Trees at Deer Valley can be much the same in a Jeep. The difference is that you have 202 horsepower pushing a set of Goodyear Duratracs through the snow — usually pretty effortlessly.

The desert is a fascinating place in winter. Footprints in the snow tell the story of wildlife adjusting to the season. Sagebrush pop up through the snowpack with pillows of white adorning their crowns.



The redrock spires and boulders stand out vividly against the sky, which shines with a deeper blue — it’s clarity belying the temperature outside.

Our favorite winter ride is 14 miles north of Moab in Mill Canyon, a place dinosaurs inhabited tens of millions of years ago. Dry creek beds form a pattern across the landscape while spires like Determination Towers reach skyward, landmarks on the horizon. Sandy trails blend with wide slickrock plateaus, where ice and snow form a mosaic on the light-colored rock.

One winter day with the grandkids we were following a track across a slickrock track dotted with patches of snow. The trail took me across an open plateau as I placed the right front across a thin patch of white snow.

BAMMMM. We came to a screeching halt. That patch of snow apparently was covering a thin layer of ice. We had dropped the right front into a 3-foot-deep pothole. Correspondingly, the left rear tire came off the ground by 2 feet. A third wheel sat on another ice patch. But, thankfully, there was one tire still touching bare rock.

We surveyed the situation. It was about an 8-mile hike back to the highway. Cell coverage was spotty, at best. It was two hours to sunset.

Never fear! With a push of the wheel locker button and some skillful maneuvering, that one wheel touching bare rock eventually grabbed and we drove out of the hole.

Park Record columnist Tom Kelly.

We had survived! And the grandkids had another story about adventures with papa — a midwinter afternoon’s journey in the desert that would bring memories for years to come.

I’m an adventurer, an explorer. I like to break the comfort zone — ever so much. Whether it’s floating through the trees on Dreamscape at Canyons or introducing a friend to X File at Deer Valley, adventure is about creating an experience.

The Jeep just keeps floating on the track of its own inertia — straight ahead. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to powder skiing in a four-wheeled vehicle.”

The deep sand trails of Mill Canyon, heading out to Tusher Tunnel, are a delight in winter. In the heat of the summer sun, the sand can easily suck you in, tires digging deep. But in the cold of winter, the sand sets somewhat firm. Add 6 inches of fresh snow on top and you have a unique powder experience.

Get up to speed and crank the wheels hard to the left and suddenly to the right. The Jeep just keeps floating on the track of its own inertia — straight ahead. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to powder skiing in a four-wheeled vehicle.

At the end of every desert adventure there’s always that final good feeling of seeing semis on the highway in the distance, knowing that you’ve finished another adventure and civilization lies ahead.

But while that adventure may be over, the memories are just beginning.

Happy New Year!

Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.


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