The West lost a legendary mountaineer and outdoor educator Oct. 6. Paul Petzoldt, founder of the National Outdoor Leadership Training School (NOLS) and Wilderness Education Association (WEA), died at 91.
"Paul was a
tireless visionary," said Jeff Liddle, former director of WEA. "He
was one of the first people to draw a line in the sand between what
it meant to be an outdoor leader versus an outdoor enthusiast."
Petzoldt grew up in southern Idaho and developed
a love of the surrounding mountains while young. In 1924, at the
age of 16 and wearing cowboy boots, he climbed Wyoming's
13,772-foot Grand Teton. The trip almost ended in disaster.
Petzoldt spent a cold and snowy night trapped on a ledge and said
he summited by using a pen knife to carve footholds in the last icy
stretches. He realized then the need for better training and
preparation, he said, and began a life developing and teaching
In the early 1930s,
he started the first guide concession in Grand Teton National Park,
and in 1938, joined the first American expedition to K2 in the
Himalayas. During World War II, he served in the Army's 10th
Mountain Division at Camp Hale, Colo., teaching troops skiing and
mountaineering skills. He helped establish in 1963 the first
American Outward Bound program in Colorado, and founded NOLS in
Lander, Wyo., in 1965 to train outdoor leaders. In 1977, he founded
the WEA to bring wilderness education to colleges around the
Jim Ratz, a former NOLS director, says
Petzoldt's charisma made his message of responsibility in the
backcountry appealing. "The paradox of Paul was that he was a
renegade, but he got all kinds of us to take responsibility for the
land and conservation and for each other. He could make it seem
really exciting and new. He put kids in situations where they had
to use their noodle to figure things out, and at that time, that
was pretty new stuff."
NOLS is now the leading
nonprofit outdoor education school, with nine branch schools and
more than 50,000 alumni.
He was "a man to match
our mountains, with the guts and courage of a mountain lion," said
former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson. "I loved how he'd go up and have
New Year's Eve on the Grand Teton. On top. He did that for years,"
Simpson said. "It didn't matter what the weather was."
At the age of 76, Petzoldt climbed the Grand
Teton to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his first
Petzoldt is survived by his wife,
Virginia. Though he had no children, he has said he considered all
of his former students his family.
be sent to the Paul Petzoldt Legacy Scholarship at NOLS, 288 Main
St., Lander, WY 82520.
* Ali Macalady and Tom