The first time Paul Petzoldt took the responsibility of guiding someone in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho was in 1920. He led a friend and his dog, Ranger, on a tour of the Sawtooths and later wrote of the experience, "Perhaps it was then I realized the mountains and wilderness were indispensable to me."
He was 12 years old.
From that time until his death in 1999 at the age of 91, Petzoldt was a true pioneer of American mountaineering, wilderness education, conservation and the culture of mountain living. Born in Creston, Iowa, in 1908, he was raised on a farm by the Snake River in southern Idaho. His impressive résumé includes climbing Wyoming's Grand Teton at the age of 16 in cowboy boots, a nearly disastrous adventure that convinced him he needed to learn a great deal more if he was to continue as a mountaineer. He realized that better training, preparation and techniques were essential to survival in the mountains, and he became a pioneer in those areas, both in his own climbing and, ultimately, in teaching others.
His impressive education is reflected in his ascent of Grand Teton in 1984, on the 60th anniversary of his first ascent. He tried again on the 70th, aged 86 and suffering from glaucoma. He reached 11,000 of the 13,766 feet before deciding that enough was enough for a blind octogenarian. By then, he had accomplished hundreds of ascents of Grand Teton and many other mountains.
In the 1930s, Petzoldt was on the first American expedition to K2 in the Himalayas and set a record for living above 20,000 feet for the longest time. On that same expedition he was the first to reach 8,000 meters on the Abruzzi Spur of K2. In 1936, he and his brother, Curly, and Fred Brown made the first winter ascent of Grand Teton. He also did a one-day double traverse of the Matterhorn on the Swiss/Italian border.
The Petzoldt Couloir on Mount Heyburn, which rises above Redfish Lake in the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains, is named after him. He climbed it in 1947, but it is not clear that his was the first ascent.
His career as a professional guide began a few years after that first foray into the Sawtooths with a paying customer, and in 1929 he began climbing with Glenn Exum in the Teton Mountains. Together they formed the Petzoldt-Exum School of American Mountaineering, which still exists as Exum Mountain Guides in Grand Teton National Park.
During World War II, Petzoldt was an instructor with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, a unique mountain warfare unit. Bigger than life in both physical size and prowess, gregarious and a natural (and practiced) storyteller, Petzoldt was a man who always forged his own path and thereby helped others do the same.
Contact with other climbers and climbing guides convinced Petzoldt that, while many of them were excellent climbers, they knew little about conservation practices, safety in the mountains, expedition planning or teaching wilderness skills to others.
"Almost from the beginning of my guiding career," he wrote. "I had the desire not only to guide my clients, but to teach them as well." He helped establish the first American Outward Bound program in Colorado, and in 1965, he established the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming. The first American school specifically designed to train wilderness educators, NOLS's mission statement is "to train leaders capable of conducting all-round wilderness programs in a safe and rewarding manner."
His timing was perfect. The 1960s in America was a tumultuous time of cultural re-evaluation and mass protests, and many young people were marginalized and even shunned by mainstream America. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.
"He had a great belief in young people," said John Gans, currently executive director of NOLS. "There was Petzoldt, in his 50s, taking kids with long hair into the mountains. He believed in their potential as leaders—he believed that if given a chance, they'd do great things. He built an organization on it, and he built his life on it. His contributions to the youth of America, to wilderness and to the development of leaders is unparalleled."
Petzoldt was married four times but had no children. He viewed his students as his children. Any man who has been married four times obviously has an appreciation for women, and among Petzoldt's legacies is that of being the first to put women in positions of leadership in wilderness education. "Paul empowered us with confidence in ourselves to make decisions," said Diane Shoutis, a NOLS graduate and alumni relations coordinator. "He was a man among men, leading the way and encouraging women to try new things."
Neil Short, a Casper, Wyoming, attorney and NOLS graduate, said "NOLS alumni are leaders in many different areas—including business and politics. The impact on my life is hard to measure. There's something that's longer lasting than mountaineering skills and wilderness expeditioning skills. Perhaps the greatest talk that Paul would give was not about technique or about technical aspects of mountaineering, or about fly fishing or wilderness travel. The greatest talk he would give was about expedition behavior—how to get along with one another. It was actually a short course on how to view life."
Archive image collection of the jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum
Paul Petzoldt stands in front of The Grand Teton mountains in the early 1920s.