Heigh-Ho, It’s Off to the Woods We Go
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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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Elizabeth Royte wrote about the Iditarod in the December 1996 issue.