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Guiding Utah's Canyon Country

Matt Park is a Canyoneering Guide and adventurer based in Utah. In this guest post Matt shares his experience traversing the sacred slot Canyons of Utah and his conservation perspective as a native Utahn. Learn more about Matt and his partner Sarah on their Instagram 


The smooth canyon walls feel nice and cool on my hands as I walk through the narrow fissure of sandstone a hand on each side to feel the wavy walls weave in and out as I move down the canyon. A welcome respite to the soaring temperatures above the rim where the sun is heating everything up for the day. The sun is still too low to make it into the canyon, keeping it cool and pleasant inside. The cold sand feels good on my feet as we approach the first of many rappels needed to make it down the canyon to where the steep rock walls give way to a gently sloping dirt trail and we can hike back to our vehicle.

I have been a mountain guide in one form or another for the last 5 years, the last two summers have been spent guiding climbing and canyoneering outside Zion National Park in southern Utah. I enjoy every day there, mornings are spent watching the sun/shadow line move down the West Temple of Zion. A reverse curtain call to start the day. Evenings are spent kicking it with my family of coworkers and watching the golden light of a desert sunset make Mt. Allgood glow like gold.

During the day, I am usually making friends with a new group of people as we descend some slot canyon. I get to see their fear at what is usually their first rappel ever, their awe at the sculpted canyon walls, and their growing confidence with each completed rappel. It’s a satisfying job being the gatekeeper that enables people to enter places they could not on their own. It comes with its own stress and downsides, but assisting someone through dangerous terrain and making them feel safe enough to step out of their comfort zone far outweighs any negatives of guiding for me.

I used to think that mountain guides knew everything, that’s why people hired them. They must know every turn in the trail, every rock, and every secret of the places they guide. This is true to some extent, but the more I guide the more I realize that knowledge of the terrain isn’t why mountain guides get work. We get hired to make decisions. Our experience in the mountains and our training helps us make the correct decision for the group. Knowledge of the terrain helps, but these skills translate to new places.

The vast burnt orange landscape of southern Utah has been my home since I was a teenager. With a brand-new driver’s license enabling my friends and I to take weekend and summer trips to the sandstone wilderness, we could get lost in the canyon country seeking adventure. There is something supernatural about this land. The connection felt to the land itself and the people that have called it home is almost tangible. When you’ve left the throws of civilization and the last dirt road is miles behind you, it becomes easy to see the land through the eyes of those who came first and left their bewildering marks on the walls of the canyons to prove they were there and leave us guessing as to the rest.

There are many important native American lands in Utah. Recently a huge tract of land came under federal protection in the form of a National Monument entitled Bears Ears. It includes some amazing areas for rock climbing as well as very important cultural sites and artifacts. Almost as impressive as the land, is the fact that this is the first National Monument to be co-managed by the federal government and a commission of 5 native American tribes. For a piece of land with such important history to the native Americans held in the Bears Ears, it’s a special place and deserves the input to be appropriately managed by those who call it home.           

“A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime, or drugs, or psychoanalysis.” – Edward Abby



Greed, selfishness, power, ignorance and hate are tearing this country and its government apart. Led from the top down by people who believe it’s more important to be right than to do what is right. If I tried to pull that as a mountain guide people could get hurt or die. If I can’t have the humility to backtrack after making a wrong turn on a trail then I lead the group astray and into potential danger. Not so different from a politician. They are elected/hired to make decisions based on their knowledge and experience to benefit the greater good of the people they were chosen to lead. They do not know every twist and turn the trail will take them, but we trust them to navigate that landscape better than we can based on their training and experience.

My own representatives in the state of Utah seem to me, to be taking us down the wrong path. Deeming it more important to undo the work of the past organization and thus prove themselves right, rather than strive to move forward. They have voted and lobbied to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument. They also personally signed a letter to the President asking him to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement. They want to lower the protection and shrink the boundaries of other National Parks and Monuments around the state of Utah to allow them to sell the land to be mined for coal, fracked for natural gas, and excavated for shale oil.

These lands are irreplaceable and fragile. They hold the secrets of those who came first and lived in harmony with the land. They hold an infinite number of connections with people, who like me, feel as though I am a part of that land. There is a supernatural feeling of never being alone when surrounded by Juniper trees, sand, canyon walls and desert animals, despite being miles from the nearest human. The land becomes family that misses you when you are gone and welcomes you back each time you return.

Our political guides are leading us towards the cliff, swayed by the input from those with money who care only about increasing their money, even if it comes at the cost of the land and a habitable planet. We need to make our voices heard, to yell so loud that the guide questions the path they are on. To say nothing is to follow.

All photos taken by and property of Matt Park.

1 Response

First Mate French

First Mate French

June 18, 2017

Well written. Couldn’t agree more. We all need to decide which side we’re on “and if you chose not to decide you still have made a choice.”

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