Paul Petzoldt

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005

Born in 1908, Paul Petzoldt faced difficult times as a child. His family lost its Iowa farm and moved to Twin Falls, Idaho, when Paul was eleven.

He began his climbing career in the rock bluffs overlooking  the Snake  River near Twin  Falls. At sixteen, he climbed the Grand Teton with a  friend -  they  were only the fourth party to make  the ascent. The adventure led him to other climbs in North and South  America, Europe, and Asia. Guiding tourists in the Tetons, he developed new techniques for safe climbing,  many of which he refined during his service with the Tenth Mountain Division in World War II.

In 1961, Petzoldt launched a climbing school in Lander, Wyoming. At about the same time, he testified in favor of the Wilderness Act, which became federal law in 1964.

The creation of the wilderness system fueled a growing interest in the American backcountry. Thousands of people flocked to the wilderness with great enthusiasm and remarkably little training. Petzoldt saw both the interest and the lack of experience and decided to open a school of his own. The National Outdoor Leadership School opened for business in Lander in the summer of 1965.

The classes spent a month in the Wind River Range, backpacking, climbing, fishing, and botanizing. Petzoldt and his colleagues emphasized the need to minimize the impact of wilderness activities: The basic thing to remember is to camp and pass through an area and leave no trace of your being there, he told the  students. The school and its charismatic leader rapidly gained an international reputation. More than 75,000 people have been through NOLS courses, learning backcountry techniques and, at the same time, a reverence for the backcountry itself.

Not satisfied with this contribution to ethical outdoor recreation, Petzoldt launched an even broader program- the Wilderness Education Association. Beginning in  1977,  the association built a curriculum that stresses  low -impact  use of the backcountry.

In 1994 at the age of eighty-six, Petzoldt climbed to the moraine of Middle Teton Glacier at an altitude of 11,000 feet on the Grand Teton. Hand ic a pped by his vision-  he had lost most of his eyesight to glaucoma- he called a halt.

I've been teaching judgment for sixty years, he said. I was afraid if I tried the final pitch, I'd step on a rock that wasn't there.

He came back down to  the valleys unbowed. In 1999, he died at the age of ninety-one. -Chris Madson

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