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"This was a man to match our mountains"

Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 1999

Old man of the mountains dies at 91
Paul Kiesow Petzoldt, January 16, 1908 - October 6, 1999

Paul Petzoldt, world-class mountaineer and founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School, died October 6, 1999. He was born January 16, 1908 in Creston, Iowa.

Petzoldt is considered one of the early pioneers of American mountaineering and wilderness education.

"This was a man to match our mountains," said former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson. "That was Paul. Earthy, warm, wise, witty, a bear of a man with a heart as big as his body and a smile as big as both of those. I worked with him on environmental legislation. He sure enriched my life, and he brought joy and pleasure and had the guts and courage of a mountain lion. He was just magnificent. He was all the man there is. My only regret was that I didn't get to tell him I loved him one more time."

Paul's life-long dream to teach others how to safely enjoy and conserve the outdoors led to the establishment of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1965. What began as a small-town operation in the mountains of Wyoming has since grown into a nonprofit, educational corporation with more than 50,000 graduates world-wide and course locations throughout North America, Alaska, Western Canada, Mexico, Patagonia, India, Kenya, and Australia.

Petzoldt launched NOLS after nearly four decades of guiding and exploring in the mountains-- adventures that led him to summit Wyoming's Grand Teton at the age of 16 and join the first American expedition to K2 in 1938. The wild outdoors were his life even before these impressive mountaineering feats. His first experience leading an expedition came at age 12 when he led a friend and his dog, Ranger, into Idaho's Sawtooth Range. "Perhaps," wrote Petzoldt, "it was then I realized the mountains and wilderness were indispensable to me."

In 1924, when he joined another friend to scale the Grand Teton, Petzoldt set out with little more than blue jeans, cowboy boots and a map. Three days later, the weary climbers returned after braving hypothermia, hunger and fatigue. They had reached the summit, but it nearly cost them their lives. "It was awful," said Petzoldt years later. "We did everything wrong."

Petzoldt's risky adventure taught him a thing or two about surviving in a wilderness setting. In fact, the ascent inspired him to learn as much as possible about safe outdoor travel. Soon after, he established his own mountain guide service, a business that put him in contact with other mountaineers and a variety of different climbing skills and techniques. Petzoldt began analyzing and experimenting with these methods and quickly discovered that, while his fellow mountaineers might have been skilled climbers, they knew very little about conservation practices, safety, or expedition planning. And they didn't know much about teaching wilderness skills.

"Almost from the beginning of my guiding career," wrote Petzoldt, "I had the desire not only to guide my clients but to teach them as well."

Determined to find better ways to travel safely and efficiently in the outdoors, Paul not only passed on his findings to other wilderness guides but also began developing innovative climbing techniques of his own. He pioneered a voice-signal system that climbers still rely on today and developed the popular Sliding Middleman Technique for snow climbing.

The world's political arena swept Petzoldt away from the Wyoming climbing scene for awhile, sending him first to Windsor Castle where he was a guest of Sir Alfred Bailey, private chaplain to the King and Queen of England, for two years, and then on a series of ascents in the Alps, including a one-day double traverse of the Matterhorn.

In 1938, Paul was selected to join the first American expedition to K2 in the Himalayas, an experience that furthered his camping and cold-weather skills and his mission to initiate wilderness education in America. While on this climb, he set a record for the longest continuous time at an altitude of more than 20,000 feet without artificial oxygen.

At the onset of World War II, Petzoldt served as an U.S. representative for the Department of Agriculture in Lend-Lease, and completed his wartime service in Berlin's Control Council, finding ways to feed the defeated Germans. Petzoldt also taught mountain evacuation and cold-weather dress to the Army's Tenth Mountain Division ski troops at Camp Hale, Colo.

When Paul found himself once again at the foot of Wyoming's Wind River Range--2,000 square miles of lakes, glaciers, and mountains--he saw before him an enormous outdoor classroom. In 1963-64 Petzoldt helped establish the first American Outward Bound program in Colorado. He was on his way towards what would be the culmination of a lifetime spent practicing and refining his outdoor skills.

In 1965, he pitched a sign in front of a cabin tucked away in the mountains near Lander, Wyo.: The National Outdoor Leadership School, the sign read. It was America's first school specifically set up to instruct wilderness educators. Petzoldt himself drafted the school's mission statement, which was "to train leaders capable of conducting all-round wilderness programs in a safe and rewarding manner."

That first year, there were only a handful of students and a few qualified instructors heading into the mountains for up to five weeks. The school provided a model in experiential education: to teach mountaineering, the students scaled mountains; to teach fishing, they caught trout; to learn how to cross a fast-moving river, they crossed rivers; to teach conservation, they practiced conservation. And it worked. Within a few years, all the instructors had graduated from a NOLS course and received special instructor training. NOLS continued to grow and captured America's attention with the nationally televised movie Thirty Days to Survival, a 1970 documentary about the NOLS experience.

Even in his later years, Petzoldt remained connected and devoted to the mountains and to mountain climbing. In 1984, at the age of 76, Petzoldt made a successful ascent of the Grand Teton on the 60th anniversary of his first summit of the 13, 770 ft. peak. His enthusiasm and desire to teach and lead people in outdoor education never diminished. In 1996 at the age of 88, he started The Paul Petzoldt Leadership School in Maine.

Over the years Petzoldt authored several books including the "Wilderness Handbook" and "Teton Tales." Books written on his life include "On Top of the World" by Patricia Petzoldt and "On Belay" by Raye Ringholz.

Throughout Petzoldt's lifetime he received numerous conservation awards and honorary college degrees. He was in Who's Who in America 1967-68 and was honored with the Banquet of the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and the Conservation Award from the Department of Interior in 1951. An avid environmentalist, Petzoldt testified before Congress in favor of the Wilderness Act in 1963. He also founded WEA (Wilderness Education Association) in 1977 to bring wilderness education to colleges around the country.

Petzoldt was inducted into the Explorers' Club in the early 1990's and was among a half dozen recipients of the Eddie Bauer Award for conservation.

Today, much has changed at NOLS, but much of Paul's original vision still remains intact. "Paul's contribution to the youth of America, to wilderness and to the development of leaders is unparalleled," said John Gans, executive director of NOLS. "We are saddened by the loss. He left an indelible mark upon our school and as founder was a keen mentor to 50,000 staff and students who have gone on to play key roles in conservation and in their communities. Paul developed the concept of outdoor education, forever giving the world a gift."

His educational mission, and his thirst for adventure as a route to self-discovery, confidence, and renewal, is still felt by the thousands of students who embark on NOLS courses around the world. Students nowadays may have fancier gear, better food, and the wonders of Gore-Tex, but the voice behind their journey will always be attributed to Paul Petzoldt. "We have to have something that is good," he once said. "We have to have something that is real adventure: like climbing mountains, like fording wild rivers, like exploring wild country, like facing the storms, like surviving alone in the wilderness. In order to supply this outdoor adventure, at least in order to supply it safely, it takes real leaders."

Legacy scholarship to honor Paul Petzoldt

The Paul Petzoldt Legacy Scholarship has been created to recognize the man who has helped shape the lives of so many people, and to provide a means for all of those people to give something back to Paul, to the school he founded, and to future generations of students who might benefit from Paul's vision. The Scholarship is also a means to recognize Paul's contribution to American mountaineering and his environmental efforts.

A group of early alumni have been working to raise enough money to create endowed scholarships in Paul's name. In order to establish a scholarship of this type the amount needed is $65,000. This amount makes it possible to award a full NOLS scholarship to a deserving student each year.

Paul's wife Virginia has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Paul Petzoldt Legacy Scholarship at NOLS. For further information or to make a contribution to the scholarship contact Diane Shoutis at the alumni office 1-800-332-4280 ext 2243 or email

More about Paul Petzoldt

Last Mountain Man? Not if He Can Help It by Jane Howard. Life magazine, December 19, 1969.

Paul Tells His Story by Molly Absolon.The Leader, Fall 1995.

Old Man of the Mountains Dies at 91: Paul Kiesow Petzoldt, January 16, 1908 - October 6, 1999. NOLS Press Release, October 7, 1999.



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