Heigh-Ho, It's Off to the Woods We Go

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Camping Special, April 1997

Heigh-Ho, It's Off to the Woods We Go

And who better to lead us than the man who literally wrote the book on camping
By Elizabeth Royte















"Paul loved to go through people's packs and make fun of all the ridiculous things they were carrying. People would have a fountain pen and a bottle of ink--a bottle of ink! I mean, it only weighed about four ounces, but as Paul pointed out, you get four of those and it's almost a pound!"

--Nancy Carson, guide with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. Petzoldt student in 1967.


"Paul used to teach what he called conservation of energy--maintaining an even pace and never getting hungry, never getting tired, never getting sweaty. Everyone knew he wasn't a fast walker; he would just mosey along, yet he would still get to camp before anyone else. Students would get to camp at the end of the day and his tent would already be there, set up and with him in it, snoring."

--George Hunker, fly-fishing guide in Wyoming and New Zeland and former NOLS instructor. Petzoldt student in 1970.


"I remember we used to practice fire-building. We'd put sand on rocks and build a fire on that; we'd take up sod and dig a pit. But we couldn't break twigs off of trees for kindling. That was a big thing with Paul. I can still hear him bellowing from his tent: 'I hear someone snapping twigs!'"

--"Tap" Tapley, Outward Bound instructor with Petzoldt, 1961-1964.


"He believed in practical learning. When he taught rappelling, he stressed that if you're at the bottom of a cliff and you yell you're all clear, you'd better be sure you're all clear; otherwise you could get hit by a falling rock. To prove his point, he'd peek over the cliff, make sure everybody was out of the way, then roll a big boulder down. Nobody forgot that lesson, let me tell you."

--Skip Shoutis, outdoor recreation planner for Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest and former NOLS instructor. Petzoldt student in 1967.

Paul Petzoldt, icon of the outdoors, the man who's taught more campers to move lightly through the wilderness than anyone else in history, is planted in his usual seat, on a soft brown couch facing a picture window that looks out over Maine's Sebago Lake. Photographs of Petzoldt in his true element--the Tetons--hang on the walls beside weathering snapshots of former students at Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, a Kodacolor log of some of the thousands Petzoldt has passed his wisdom to over the years.

The afternoon sunlight streams through the white pines and onto Petzoldt's potatoey face. "I can just make out the shape of your head, and your teeth," he says, leaning toward me. An assistant sets a mug of tea on an end table and places Petzoldt's fingers on the handle. Preoccupied, he simply nods. He settles both giant feet flat on the floor and rests his wooden cane on his lap.

"You know, I've renamed Mount Washington," he says. The 6,288-foot New Hampshire peak, renowned among hikers for its brutal weather conditions, is just visible above the treetops, though Petzoldt's failing eyes can no longer discern it. "I call it the New England Booby Trap. We see Ph.D.'s from private schools taking kids up there in shorts. People die like flies up there!"

After more than seven decades of climbing and guiding, there's nothing Petzoldt relishes more than a good disaster story. Given the choice, he'd rather discuss the unfaltering stupidity of man in the wilderness than any of his own impressive accomplishments: As a teenager, he started the first mountain-guiding business in America; in 1964, he left his job as head instructor at Colorado Outward Bound to found NOLS, one of the most respected wilderness-education programs in the country; and in 1974, he wrote what would become the outdoor enthusiast's bible, The Wilderness Handbook. In the course of it all, Petzoldt almost single-handedly introduced a nation of campers to the concept of low-impact camping.

And at 89, he remains an imposing presence. Standing about six-foot-one and weighing 250 pounds, he has eyebrows that sprout like tufts of white wool over pale blue eyes. He squints a lot. He'll often take several long, unself-conscious moments to speak and then erupt with emphatic exclamations like "of course!" or "why not?" It's a little disconcerting. After a lengthy, winding tale about a Boy Scout hike in the Tetons gone awry, he falls silent before bellowing the punch line. "When they made it out of the woods, I overheard one of the trip leaders say to the other, 'You know, next year, we should get some maps.'" Petzoldt slaps his knee, roaring.

It's been Petzoldt's lifelong aim to make sure that people not become the subject of one of his cautionary tales. But despite enlightened attitudes about the outdoors and technological innovations such as Gore-Tex, freeze-dried stew, and global positioning system devices, the job hasn't gotten much easier. Too often, says Petzoldt, campers continue to act like idiots, leaving common sense and good judgment at the trailhead--they're more in need of guidance then ever. His latest project, a wilderness program for junior-high and high school students in Maine, is just such an attempt to instruct an audience that's both impressionable and unlikely to have acquired a lot of bad backcountry habits.

"In school, all they teach is memorization, regurgitation, memorization, regurgitation," says Petzoldt. "We try to teach kids decision-making. They learn to act based on reality--real people, real outdoors, real weather. They're making decisions and seeing if they work, not just learning things for Jeopardy."

Petzoldt laughs again. "When I started guiding and teaching, people began to think of me as a wonderful person. And now I'm well known, I've got an ego. And that's what every person deserves: self-respect and success. That's what I try to give them. I'm interested in people and I'm interested in the country, in America! Why else would I be doing this for so many years?"

Petzoldt made his name in 1924 as a kid not much older than the ones he's now teaching. He was 16 when he blew into Jackson Hole with his pal Ralph Herron, took a look at the 13,766-foot Grand Teton, and announced he was going to climb it. Only nine people had done such a thing before. Petzoldt had grown up climbing and hunting in Idaho and was, he says, "adventuresome and unafraid of the consequences." At 13, he'd spent a month near Ketchum under a canvas fly, living off a 100-pound sack of potatoes.

At the time, few people went into the mountains without a good reason, usually to get something--timber, food, pelts. "Otherwise you were wasting your time," says Petzoldt. "The mountains were seen as a place to be avoided. Wildlands were supposed to be plowed up or cut down, not enjoyed for their own sake."

Dressed in overalls and cowboy boots, carrying two patchwork quilts and a few cans of beans, Petzoldt and Herron dropped their gear two-thirds of the way up the Grand and set off on a new route to the summit. Darkness fell, and the two were forced to spend the night huddled together against a rock. "If the word hypothermia had been in the dictionary then, we would have died of it," Petzoldt says.

In the morning, the boys began to carve steps in an ice chute with a pocketknife, and eventually they made it back to their quilts. They rested, scrambled to the top following an established route, and hied back to town, humbled but bursting with their news.

That climb 73 years ago was the defining moment of Petzoldt's life. He immediately went into the guiding business, vowing never again to climb unprepared and underequipped. He hasn't been in a survival situation since.

But guiding tended to be seasonal and spotty. Before taking a job in 1961 with Outward Bound, Petzoldt put in time as a chef, a used-car salesman, an alfalfa farmer, a rodeo rider, a cardsharp, a fur trapper, and a dude rancher. In between these diversions, he managed to set an oxygen-free altitude record 27,000 feet up K2 in 1938 and invented both the sliding middleman technique for crossing crevasse-riddled snowfields and a widely used signal system for rock climbers. Petzoldt was also one of the few people in the country who climbed all winter long, which made him a shoo-in to train the Tenth Mountain Division ski troops in World War II. "They had good clothing but didn't know how to use it," Petzoldt remembers, chuckling. "They were outdoor idiots."

With some hindsight, Petzoldt might say the same of himself in those go-go days. Back then, Petzoldt and his buddies would routinely dig trenches around their canvas tents to channel rainwater. They would roll rocks together to make fire pits, toss cans and bottles all around the campsite, and chop down saplings every time they wanted a pine-bough bed. "I was real handy with an ax," Petzoldt says.

But as the years passed and Petzoldt brought hundreds into the wilderness, he began to notice the damage that he and others were causing. "It slowly dawned on us that this wasn't ethical behavior," he says. "And it wasn't safe."

Committed to lessening user impact, Petzoldt founded the National Outdoor Leadership School. In the beginning, courses were geared toward outdoor-education instructors. Later, enrollment broadened to include anyone who showed an interest, from high school students to the elderly. (Today, worldwide, an estimated 2,700 take courses through the Lander, Wyoming-based school each year.) Petzoldt taught his troops how to hike without tromping delicate terrain, to filter the food scraps from their dishwater, to scrub their cook pots with pinecones, and to pitch their tents away from streams and lakes. Obsessed with reality-based lessons, he sometimes took things to absurd lengths: For years he began each course by having students shoot and dress out a few cows to eat along the trail.

By his own admission, his methods were "somewhat autocratic." And while he's openly sarcastic and disdainful about unprepared people wandering off into the backcountry, he softens when talking about former students and employees. When I pass along greetings from six or seven old friends--people invariably wanted me to say hi for them--he has praise for every one of them. "The greatest outdoorsman in America," he says, or, "She changed the way we looked at cooking in the outdoors."

Clearly, the fondness is mutual. "He's a crusty old fart, for sure," says Jack Niggemyer, a 42-year-old former NOLS student and instructor who is now manager of the Iditarod sled-dog race. "But when I'm sitting in my rocking chair when I'm 83, working for him will be one of the main things I remember, and just about all of it will be positive."

Three years ago, Petzoldt attempted to climb the Grand Teton, a 70th-anniversary celebration of his first ascent. With an entourage of admirers carrying his gear and guiding his steps, he made it, on day two, to 11,000 feet. But his eyes were worse than he expected, and Petzoldt, exercising egoless judgment, called it a day.

Still, he remains an outdoorsman. Nearly every weekend year-round, sometimes accompanied by his 77-year-old wife, Ginny, Petzoldt hikes the smoother trails around Sebago Lake. "If I've got someone with a rope," he says, "I might even climb a little." He camps with "young uns" from his new Wilderness Education Association program in the White Mountains and the hills around Sebago. Often, he'll set up his tent 75 feet from his cabin. "I do it just for fun," he says, smiling. "Ginny and I have these special sleeping bags. We'll camp right there on the lakeshore. Oh, it's very romantic."

Curiously, Petzoldt doesn't agree with all of the low-impact tenets he fostered at NOLS. After retiring from the school in the 1970s (he still serves on the board of advisers), he came to believe that people had gotten "carried away." He saw no need to drink dishwater, for instance, as some hard-cores recommend. And digging holes for latrines wasn't always a bad idea: Loosening soil in a compacted site, he says, helps the gophers and moles. Regarding the use of pinecones over toilet paper, he notes, "There's nothing better in the wild outdoors for sanitation and health than toilet paper." Disposed of properly, he adds, it can even be beneficial to plants and soil. "It's a wood product, ain't it? Why not put it in the ground? Out in the yard, I have certain plants that I like, and when I'm out there at night I urinate on 'em, and they love it! They get bigger; the roses are redder. I sometimes say, 'You've got assets, don't waste 'em.'"

In other words, campers should use their heads rather than sticking to hard and fast rules of behavior. "Don't call it no-impact camping; call it minimum," Petzoldt insists. "You can't be absolutist about it. No two situations are ever the same; no two campsites are ever the same. If you can fluff up the grass, do it. But sometimes it's better to leave it. If you've tented on perennial grasses, they'll recover and straighten up themselves, but if you go scraping around attempting to fluff them up, you could damage them. You have to have judgment. There are all sorts of variations. You shouldn't make them goddamn rules. Rules are for fools!"

For the past several months, Petzoldt has been recording sermons such as these in his third book, The New Wilderness Ethic. (Teton Trails, a collection of Petzoldt's essays, was published in 1976.) In a guest house adjoining his log cabin on the lake, ten sheets of loose-leaf paper--the handwritten outline for the book--are taped to a window over a desk. An assistant named Stephanie Karabec sits at the computer while he talks, taking the cusswords out of his "anec-doties."

The book will be something of a sequel to Petzoldt's 1974 classic, The Wilderness Handbook. Even the 1984 updating, The New Wilderness Handbook, can seem quaint. For example, the new handbook elevates wool to a level of holiness approaching that of the Shroud of Turin. But that was then. Now Petzoldt is an eager convert to polyester fleece and other synthetics. He even tests equipment for L.L. Bean.

In such innovations he sees both a blessing and a curse. Petzoldt has never used a cellular phone or GPS, but he suspects new technology could have its place, so long as it doesn't give false confidence. "People still make stupid mistakes," he says. "Did you hear about those people lost in the woods with their GPS and cell phone? They called the local police with their coordinates and got their exact location. But when they got off the phone, they were still lost, because"--Petzoldt pauses dramatically--"they didn't have a map!"

Elizabeth Royte wrote about the Iditarod in the December 1996 issue.

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