Last Mountain Man? Not if He Can Help It
LIFE magazine, December 19, 1969'Don't
destroy the outdoors,' Paul Petzoldt urges his students. 'Learn
how to enjoy it.'
By Jane Howard
If I could choose somebody to be stranded with on a desert island,
or to get me out of any dilemma from a flat tire to the charge
of an enraged bull moose during a lightening storm, I would instantly
and confidently ask for Paul Petzoldt.
I'd have good reason. For one thing, Petzoldt is reassuring just
to look at, reminding one as he does of Santa Claus, Falstaff
and Hercules. He is six feet one inch tall, weighs 240 pounds
and has gigantic circumflex brows over slightly slanted blue eyes.
He is also transfixing to listen to, using words like alpen-glow,
timberline and scarify to tell of nearly 62 years
of adventures-set not only in Wyoming, where he lives, but the
Himalayas, the Alps and even flatlands and offices.
More to the point, Petzoldt would get us both out of there, wherever
"there" might be, with more finesse than anyone I know
of. We'd end up safe, warm, and a little sorry it all was over,
because adventure is to Petzoldt what hymns are to a choir-master.
It has been not only his livelihood but his delight ever since
1924, when the first pair of dudes hired him to guide them up
the Teton mountains. "I guess I've never been afraid to try
anything," he says, and I guess he's probably right.
But he is not merely intrepid. Besides his gusto for skirmishes
with the elements, he has a militant reverence for the natural
world, as those whom he ushers into the wilderness soon learn.
Once he made two boys walk back 12 miles to pick up a couple of
pieces of tinfoil.
Petzoldt legends abound. He holds the world record for spending
the longest continuous time at an altitude of more than 20,000
feet without artificial oxygen. He has invented a widely used
system of signals for rope climbers, started the first mountaineering
guide service in the United States, and probably made more first
ascents of mountains than anyone in this country.
He knows the Tetons and the Wind River Mountain Range the way
a good cabbie knows the Bronx. Once, when nobody else dared climb
to the top of the Tetons to investigate a plane crash, he and
a ranger made a three-day ascent in a whiteout blizzard to discover
23 corpses. Another time, when a hapless parachutist had been
trapped for a week atop a 5,117-foot volcano plug, Petzoldt led
Once he skied seven days in howling winds and -30° weather,
to dig through 10 feet of snow in search of uranium, only to find
himself the victim of a hoax: the rock sample that had sent him
off turned out to be from the Belgian Congo. Once he stayed in
an Arizona canal all day to avoid walking barefoot on the sizzling
rocks. He has also been know to kill an elk with a pocketknife,
walk a tightrope, and disguise himself as a Sikh potentate during
an anti-Western street riot in Calcutta. He has played water polo
and football, raised alfalfa, hopped freights, and been a chef,
a fur trapper, a downhill and slalom ski champion, a traveling
lecturer, a golfer, a used car salesman and a dude rancher.
"Once," says an old friend, "Paul and Gene Tunney
nearly came to blows in my living room in an argument over Chinese
politics. I had to strain to keep them apart, because I wasn't
at all sure Gene would win." Once Petzoldt bicycled all the
400 miles from Basle to Antwerp without a centime in his pocket.
Once he gave some thought to running for Congress. Earlier he
yearned to be a rodeo rider, "but a horse named Appendicitis
changed my mind about that." Never mind. If someone told
me Petzoldt had a blue ox named Babe or could literally leap tall
buildings with a single bound, I wouldn't be too surprised.
Now, at a point in life when most men face retirement, Petzoldt
is plunged into an involving new venture. His National Outdoor
Leadership School, founded in 1965 and affiliated with the University
of Wyoming and Kansas State Teachers College, is growing so fast
it keeps him in the mountains all but four or five nights every
summer and absorbs his year-round attention. The NOLS campus,
in Wyoming, is the rugged Wind River Mountain Range, some of which
has never been accurately mapped.
NOLS students, mostly in their teens and twenties, flock by the
hundreds from all over the country and world for five-week courses.
Divided into patrols of 12, they carry everything they will need
in backpacks that can weigh more than 40 pounds. There is no weaving
of lanyards, no compulsory singing of jolly songs around campfires.
The students eat what they carry and find and catch, sleep in
tents, and read topographical maps so they can plot their own
100-mile itineraries up and down through arctic and tundra zones,
learning as they travel to recognize mushrooms, wildflowers, and
trees. They never even see the rear end of a jeep, much less a
newspaper or a franchised root beer stand.
A handful of them, each summer, turn out to be "lookers
and readers instead of doers." Two or three usually drop
out, "because they suddenly decide their mothers need them
at home"-a neat trick when they have no communication whatever
with the world. The majority, however, find astonishing reserves
of strength. Petzoldt keeps saying he is no missionary, but somehow
he transmits an evangelistic message: you are more and better
and stronger than you ever thought you could be. You didn't think
you could rappel your way down that cliff, or sleep comfortably
outside in a blizzard, or swing by a rope across a furious river,
but guess what: you can. The students emerge with a self-reliance
useful even back in the overcivilized world where problems are
murky and abstract and solutions more so.
To get a glimpse of what he is about, I spent a few days with
Petzoldt. We flew over the Wind Rivers, which for all their majesty
looked about as habitable as a bank of clouds, as if they'd just
been sprinkled with some giant Claes Oldenburg shaker of powdered
sugar. Then we went camping in the Tetons, which in profile resemble
the growth graph of some highly erratic corporation. We heard,
once in a while, what must be the most primeval noise in the world:
the bugling of male elks, in many-syllabled cries ranging over
an octave. They sounded a little like inept Boy Scouts trying
to play taps and a little like rusty door hinges, but not really
much like either.
This gentle trip was no flirtation with peril. Even when frost
covered our tents at night we were plenty warm with two sleeping
bags apiece. My only trouble was trudging a steep quarter-mile
uphill through tangled knots of sagebrush, but I did what Petzoldt
advised and took a breath with each step to save wind. We made
coffee from Jenny Lake water, cooked potato pancakes, used sage
leaves as napkins and wished trout weren't out of season. When
the time came to reload our packs I felt sad to go back down.
Even Wyoming, one of the few states to have lost population in
late years, seemed too crowded.
Brief as it was, this excursion showed me how Petzoldt is to
outdoorsmen what Heloise is to house-wives: an endless and bountiful
source of useful tips and hints. My notebook was a jumble of miscellaneous
outdoor lore. Fir needles are flat, spruce needles are square.
Bottles and cans don't belong in the mountains at all. There are
at least 13 ways of cooking trout. Salt is much more essential
in cold weather than people realize. The quietest place in the
world is a snow cave (a handy thing to know how to dig now that
winter camping is getting to be as promisingly popular as skiing
was 30 years ago). Fiber-glass saddles are better than leather
ones, but horses mar the wilderness even more than jeeps do, pawing
at roots of trees, tearing up flower beds, and giving trail dust
a lingering manure smell.
Dacron is better than down for sleeping bags and jackets; down
is too warm if you wear it uphill and takes far too long to dry.
A foam-rubber produce called Insulite is much better than an air
mattress to put under a sleeping bag. Most books on survival are
phony and impractical because they teach you to whittle wooden
spoons instead of what you really need to know, like reading maps
and dressing right.
Europeans and cowboys dress worse than anybody. "We almost
consider it sinful," Petzoldt said, "to take young people
into the hills shivering in Levis, letting their feet get bloody
with blisters and sleeping cold all night." Proper dress
means four layers of wool, to be added or removed as the sun and
body heat change. Thermal socks aren't good, "because they're
made principally of nylon and cotton, not wool. Electric socks?
They're warm, sure, but who wants to carry batteries around?"
Good outdoorsman travel light. Bad ones "accumulate so much
arctic and Himalayan stuff they practically need a moving van
to carry it around. All you really need to do, to be practical
and warm, is scrounge around your own basement or attic. Before
you leave you should make two piles: things you'll absolutely
have to have and things you think you might need, and throw all
the 'might needs' away." Good outdoorsmen needn't spend much
money on food, either. "Even at today's prices you can eat
well-two pounds and 3, 500 to 4,000 calories-on $1.25 a day, if
you buy stuff like Bisquick, dried soups, cereals and dried milk
cheap at supermarkets.
"Some of the great mountaineers don't know how to camp or
fish or swim or even start a fire," Petzoldt said. "A
big percentage of people who go into the wilderness-even those
who think of themselves as great conservationalists-ruin what
they came to enjoy. We do less damage taking 100 people into the
wilderness for 35 days than some parties of four camping out for
two nights. It doesn't follow that if you've climbed K-2 or Everest
you're a good outdoorsman."
Petzoldt's school is not for sybarites. Even in July the weather
can be far from clement, with snows, lightening and rainstorms
that can last a week. "And at the beginning of the course
we generally kill a couple of cows-shoot them, cut their throats,
de-gut them and have the girls butcher them. It's a good way to
learn how to dress game. Inevitably someone faints and accuses
us of cruelty, but we say, 'Where do you think your steaks come
from? They aren't manufactured at the supermarket, you know."
His students, Petzoldt thinks, hunger for reality. "Much
of what they see around them," he says, "is phony. All
through society they find people who talk one thing and say another.
If they have a brain in their heads they can see that something
is radically wrong." So, at NOLS, raw honesty is encouraged.
"If somebody makes you mad in the mountains (where you have
to pay, sometimes immediately, for every rationalization and mistake)
you don't beat around the bush. You tell him about it."
But back in civilization, where half-truths are sometimes a necessity,
such candor can lead to trouble. "When I tell my friends
at Rotary or the Elks Club what I honestly think of youth and
long hair and a few other things, they make me feel like a goddam
effete intellectual. Out here there's an open season on Democrats."
Even Petzoldt's wife Dottie is an ardent Republican, and an indoorswoman
at that. She would rather work at the CBS radio station in Lander,
of which she is co-owner, than rappel down a mountain. "But
she has terrific humor," says her husband, "and we get
He is nobody's father but a vociferous champion of young people,
"maybe because I was a protesting kid myself in the Depression.
The world is changing so fast the old mores don't have a chance.
Most judgements against kids are wrong. Suddenly they've become
they type of Christians we were always told to be-their brothers'
keepers. My generation says you're just supposed to talk about
such things. I've always distinguished between Christianity and
churchianity, which hides a lot of hypocrisy and evil."
Petzoldt was born in Iowa, the last of nine children, and raised
on a farm in southern Idaho. When he was 14 his widowed mother
returned to the Midwest, and he decided he'd rather set forth
on his own than live with her or his married older siblings (one
of whom became a champion jockey). "I wasn't' running away
from anything, but toward something," he says-that something
of course being adventure. By thumb, rail and whatever means he
could devise, he made his way all around the country, busing dishes,
waiting tables, guiding dudes and playing poker. "I'm a good
card player," he admits. "No, that's wrong. I'm a very
good card player."
Horatio Alger could have written a book about Petzoldt's early
years. Once, after he guided the dean of the chapel at Windsor
Castle through the Tetons, the good dean bade him spend a year
in England as his guest, studying and traveling. Petzoldt went,
and stayed to investigate most of Europe, including of course
the Alps, where he didn't like the way guides were treated. "I
never allowed myself or my guides to be treated like Swiss guides,"
he says. "We'd treat our people as our equals, even if we
didn't think they were, and expected the same of them." Nor
did he much like the traditional explanations of why men climb.
"I never could see the sense of going to the top of the goddamn
mountain just because it was there," he says. "If that's
all, you might as well stay at the bottom in a bar."
The freighter that brought him back from Europe docked in New
Orleans, and Petzoldt enrolled for a year at Louisiana State University.
Later he studied at the universities of Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
He never did get a degree, which oversight bothered him only in
establishing NOLS. "Then I finally realized that if you don't
have a degree you're like a car going around without a taillight.
If you do have one you have to prove you're stupid, and
if you don't you have to prove you're smart."
Nobody questioned his brains during World War II, when he managed
lend-lease programs for food shipped to Russia, devised medical
evacuation methods for the Army's 10th Mountain Division and was
later assigned to the Control Council in Berlin. Then he worked
with the Chinese Nationalist Relief Administration in Shanghai
and made his second excursion in the Himalayas, after which, for
a time, he helped run a cold cream factory in India.
There he came to wonder about a practice nowadays known as transcendental
meditation. "First I was convinced they were all a bunch
of cultists lying to each other," he says, "but after
practicing what they called 'concentration' for two months, eight
or 10 hours a day, I got the idea. It was a beautiful sort of
trance. I don't think any opium eater ever had it any better.
It was so pleasant, physically as well as mentally, that I quit,
because I was afraid I might get hooked and withdraw from the
Instead he went back to Wyoming to raise certified alfalfa seed.
But the elevator in which he deposited his crops took bankruptcy,
and he ended up broke. He struggled to recoup his losses until
1963, when he was asked to teach at the Colorado branch of an
international program to accustom young people to outdoor adversity,
called Outward Bound. Later he became chief instructor.
"I owe a great debt to Outward Bound," he says. "I
disagree with their emphasis on toughness for its own sake, because
I think toughness should only come through doing things that are
fun. But I think Outward Bound is great, and it convinced me of
the importance of something further-something I'd had in the back
of my mind all along: giving people proper technical training
to take kids outdoors (which is plenty tough, all right, but plenty
of fun, too). All the organizations that tried to do this-the
YMCA, the Scouts, the church groups-meant well, but they were
stymied because they just didn't have the know-how. Not that you
aren't doing a city kid a great favor if you take him to the country
and say, 'Look, this is a tree, this is a flower, this is a rabbit.'
But I saw a need for something more--something that might require
more stamina and energy than Outward Bound, and yet be more fun."
Hence NOLS. "We started the school from scratch without
one penny of financing," Petzoldt says. "Maybe it's
a good thing the school doesn't have any angels: it makes us operate
more efficiently. I wish we could give more scholarships, so more
poor kids and black kids could come, but to beg them to come and
be our token Negroes would be patronizing and insulting. We do
give a few scholarships-some to kids who are getting out of penal
institutions. The school is a great transition place for the return
of criminals to society-for them just as for kids from rich prep
schools in New England, all that counts is what you do,
not what you were."
Those who get scholarships are expected eventually to pay the
school back the $400 each course costs, and so far most have.
Petzoldt doesn't regret his financial status. "Once I could
have bought a cheap option on the Jackson Hole ski resort,"
he says, "but that I didn't is probably the most fortunate
thing of my life. If I had a lot of money I'd get into all kinds
of trouble. I'd probably weigh 300 pounds or be an alcoholic,
Instead he has taken arms against the desecration of the wilderness,
even as he leads more people into it. Critics find this paradoxical
and say that even the best-taught, best-intentioned of visitors
can only help sully such relatively untouched places as the Wind
River Mountains. They foresee a glum day when public comfort stations
and hot dog stands will mar places where, so far at least, few
men have ever set foot. As somebody said in Jackson Hole, "It's
a matter of numbers. As the population keeps exploding everybody
professes to hope that the hordes of kids now growing up will
dig the outdoors and the mountains, sure, but not my mountain--try
that one over there." Some long for the old pre-Petzoldt
days when cowboys, squinting at the awesome peaks and doubtless
speaking for most other people, would say, "I ain't lost
nothin' up there; why should I want to go up?"
But now that masses of people do want to go up, Petzoldt figures
it's all to the good if they go up prepared. He thinks, in fact,
that nobody should be allowed into the wilderness who hasn't demonstrated-perhaps
to the satisfaction of some governmental agency-that he can read
maps, has proper equipment, and knows what he's doing. The last
thing he wants to do is keep people from savoring the outdoors,
the best arena he knows of to slake thirst for adventure-"maybe
even better," he suggests, "than marijuana or LSD."
Aware of the Peter Principle dangers of his school's getting too
big for its own good, he nevertheless contemplates establishing
a branch in the East, and welcomes all imitators.
Home in Lander after a summer outdoors with his school, Petzoldt
relishes hot baths and clean clothes, reads, listens to music,
and takes Dottie out for a six-course haute cuisine dinner.
"I have no desire to wear a hair shirt," he says. "I
like comforts and civilization as much as anybody." But it's
never very long before he has vanished again, for a while anyway,
up into the mountains.
This article on Paul Petzoldt and NOLS appeared in the December
19, 1969 issue of LIFE magazine.
More about Paul Petzoldt
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.
was a man to match our mountains," by Kerry Brophy. The
Leader, Fall 1999.