Leaving a Trace

Paul Petzoldt, wilderness giant, left behind an indelible legacy

Jan 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

In 1924, when Paul Petzoldt was 16 years old, he and a friend set out to ascend Wyoming's 13,766-foot Grand Teton wearing cowboy boots and carrying a few cans of beans, two patchwork quilts, and a pocket-knife, which they used to cut steps into an ice chute. The climb was, by Petzoldt's own admission, a foolish escapade, though a fateful one; upon descending from the summit he vowed never again to venture into the backcountry ill-prepared. By the time he died, on October 6, 1999, at the age of 91, Petzoldt had made good on that pledge by repeating his climb of the Grand more than 300 times, always with proper gear. Along the way, he helped to introduce a nation of wilderness enthusiasts to a concept of low-impact camping that emphasized good judgment and respect for the terrain.

From a boyhood spent hunting and climbing in southern Idaho, Petzoldt grew into a bearish man with enormous flat feet and eyebrows of legendary bushiness. At 21, he started the first mountaineering guide business in a national park—which eventually became Exum Mountain Guides—and in 1938 he set a no-oxygen ascent record at 27,000 feet on the face of K2. From 1943 to 1945, he prepared the Tenth Mountain Division ski troops for combat in World War II. His accomplishments as an educator, however, will be his most distinct legacy..In 1964 he founded the Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School, one of the most respected wilderness-education programs in the country. And in 1974 he wrote.The Wilderness Handbook, a compendium of backcountry wisdom that stood for many years as a premier how-to guide on the subject. "Paul had one purpose in life," says Jay Johnson, president of the Wilderness Education Association, an outdoor leadership-training group based on Petzoldt's ideas. "He was an advocate for the outdoors."

He was also an endearingly tetchy coot whose prejudices, passions, and irascibility remained uncompromised over time. Well into old age, Petzoldt continued to wear wool, drink his tea from a baking soda can, and delight in telling "anec-doties" about the idiocy of neophyte hikers. In early .November, a group of friends carried a canister with his ashes into the Tetons and .scattered them into the wind, over the mountains he cherished.