A man to match our mountains
by Ali Macalady And Tom ReedThe 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 mountaineering techniques.
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 country.
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 ascent.
Petzoldt is survived by his wife, Virginia. Though he had no children, he has said he considered all of his former students his family.
Memorials can be sent to the Paul Petzoldt Legacy Scholarship at NOLS, 288 Main St., Lander, WY 82520.
* Ali Macalady and Tom Reed © High Country News