NOLS: National Outdoor Leadership School Home

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 the rescue.

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 along fine."

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 world."

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, or both."

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

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.

"This was a man to match our mountains," by Kerry Brophy. The Leader, Fall 1999.

NOLS Founder, Paul Petzoldt
© Skip Shoutis
Chat with a real person.

Sign up for the NOLSie News
NOLS Top of Page
NOLS Home About Us Courses Wilderness Medicine Institute NOLS Professional Training Alumni Store Donate Account NOLS Home Parents Press Room School Resources Photos NOLS.TV Events WRMC The NOLS Blog Introduction About Leadership History Mission & Values Profiles Partnerships Frequent Questions Find a Course School Locations Skills Leave No Trace Financial Aid Academic Credit Find a Course Skills School Locations Course Types Leave No Trace Financial Aid Academic Credit NOLS Pro Home 1-3 Day Courses 7-30 Day Courses Risk Management Staff Clients Design Your Course Contact NOLS Pro NOLS Pro 1-3 Days 7-30 Days Risk Management Clients Contact Us NOLS Pro Design Your Course NOLS Pro Staff Overview Outcome-based Curriculum Faculty Overview Outcome-based Curriculum Faculty Case Studies Overview Administrative Training Staff Training Consulting Conference: WRMC How to Apply Apply Online Download an Application Admission Policies WMI Home About WMI Courses Schedule FAQ Photos & Movies Curriculum Updates Employment Sponsors WMI Home About WMI Admissions Courses Schedule Host a Course Resources Gallery Alumni Home Trips and Events The Leader Alumni Chapters Employment Staying in Touch Volunteer Photos & Videos Home NOLS Photos NOLS.TV The NOLS Podcast NOLS on Flickr Leave No Trace Overview Leave No Trace Principles Leave No Trace Master Educator Course Host a Course Contact Enroll Map of Events Dream Expedition Leadership Week Press Room Images for the Press Archives