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Paul Kiesow Petzoldt, 1908-1999


Legendary mountaineer, educator and conservationist Paul Kiesow Petzoldt died in Maine on October 6.

From the moment of his birth on January 16, 1908, Paul’s character was forged on an anvil of resourceful poverty with a view. He was the youngest of nine children on an Iowa homestead; lost his father, Charles, to diphtheria in 1911; accompanied his mother, Emma, on the family trek to the promise of farming in the Magic Valley in Idaho; and endured the consequent lack of financial security that dogged them.

Paul was pretty much self-supporting by 1923 when, at the age of 15, he rode the rails across the country and back. At 16, he found his true destiny during an ill-conceived yet successful ascent of the Grand Teton in Jackson’s Hole, WY. His was only the fourth or fifth ascent of the peak. He loved to tell this story, and does so in his 1995 book, Teton Tales. His appetite for mountain adventure was irrevocably whetted by an experience that might have put most people off climbing for life. “If hypothermia’d been in the dictionary we’d’ve died of it,” Petzoldt said.

When I met Paul in 1967 at the National Outdoor Leadership School, I was 21, which was about Paul’s age when the Tetons became part of Grand Teton National Park in 1929 and he officially established his American School of Mountaineering. He’d already been guiding and exploring the Tetons for five years, honing his skills and creating climbing systems still in use today (voice signals, sliding middleman [a snow-climbing belay system], rhythmic breathing and other practical innovations.) He trained Glenn Exum, three years his junior, to guide and made him a partner in his little business, renaming it the Petzoldt-Exum Climbing School in 1932. He turned the concession over to Exum in 1955. It continues today under the Exum name.

In the years before WWII, Paul pioneered numerous, now classic routes in the Tetons, Wind River Range, Sawtooths and in Columbia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Many were made with clients, his brothers or his first wife, Bernice, in tow. Despite his proclamation that “there are no old bold climbers,” Paul’s solo first ascent of Mount Owen’s Northeast Snowfields in 1934 still has climbers in awe of his boldness. His first ascent of the Grand Teton’s North Face (1936, with Eldon “Curly” Petzoldt and Jack Durrance), and first winter ascent of the Grand (1935, with Curly and Fred Brown) are two other remarkable feats among many. In 1934, Paul and a partner made the (British) Alpine Journal by climbing the Matterhorn from Switzerland to Italy and back in the same day.

Paul always felt gratified to have been selected to fill a last-minute vacancy on the elite 1938 American K2 expedition. He reached a record altitude of the time—higher than 26,000 feet—without auxiliary oxygen as he and his team reconnoitered the route that would be used for the first ascent in 1954 by Italians.

Paul often was called upon for rescues in the early days, notably for the parachutist stranded in 1941 on the summit of Devils Tower, and the crash of the New Tribes Mission plane on Mount Moran in November, 1950. When the U.S. entered the war, he joined and helped train the Army’s 10th Mountain Division ski and mountaineering troops.

Paul was a pragmatic genius, iconoclast and humanitarian, though few could venture to be as self-promoting as he. His controversial annual New Year’s attempts on the Grand with students were both adventurous and great advertising for his fledgling school.

Accompanying Paul on his 50th, 60th, and 70th anniversary climbs of the Grand Teton taught me more about spirit than I knew existed. On his last successful ascent in 1984, he took a new-fangled camming device from my hand and placed it himself for the belay with obvious satisfaction. On the 1994 climb, his claims to have turned around out of his own good judgment (as quoted by Ray Ringholtz in her 1998 biography On Belay) are not exactly accurate. He was ready to go on as long as any of us dared. It was only his crew’s desire not to become the people who killed Paul Petzoldt that put the kibosh on that climb at 11,000 feet, at the base of the fixed ropes just below the Lower Saddle.

Now I’m in my 50s, about the age Paul was in 1965 when he started the National Outdoor Leadership School in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. I’m dreaming of retirement and travel, but his dream was bold. In creating NOLS, Paul tapped a universal desire for adventure and communion with wild nature. Maybe because of his own youthful successes, he taught and then trusted us kids to do the most amazing things: climb mountains, ford rivers, plan long trips to unknown places and survive in style while leaving no trace. Because of Paul, NOLS graduates are stronger, braver, kinder and more conscious. His students and their students and offspring number tens of thousands now and Paul’s philosophy of expedition behavior, planning and pacing ripples outward into the 21st century and beyond, where his legacy will endure.

Paul tried many things in his life, and some of his failures were subjects of his stories. Others were not. Gambling and golfing for money and wagons of bootleg whiskey, drinking, fighting and smoking were not beneath him. A student at the universities of Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, he never finished a degree, but gladly adopted the title “Doctor” when it was awarded him by Kansas State University in the early 1970s and later by Unity College, Maine. His capitalist ventures in sheep herding, alfalfa farming, used car sales, real estate and outdoor equipment were not his most successful. And he had some choice words about the folks who ousted him from NOLS in 1976, his beloved school lost to him until Jim Ratz reconciled them for NOLS’ 20th anniversary in 1985. It does often happen that the innovator has to step aside and let the next generation take charge, though I wish he could have stayed at NOLS’ helm where he belonged and been spared the bitterness. But Paul was indomitable. He went on to create the Wilderness Education Association to train and certify outdoor leaders countrywide and was three years into the Paul Petzoldt Outdoor Leadership School to instruct Raymond, Maine, school kids at the time of his death.

Paul always warned us not to “pick a lemon in the garden of love,” but now I see he considered himself one. Paul’s first three marriages (to Bernice Patricia McGarrity, who wrote his first biography On Top of the World in 1953, Dorothy Dewhurst Reed and Joan Brodbeck) ended in divorce. His fourth wife, however, made lemonade. How grateful all Paul’s “kids” are to Virginia Stroud Pyle (Ginnie) for treasuring and encouraging Paul during the last decades of his life and gamely accompanying him to the ends of the earth. And to Kelly Munson, who at the age of 21 became Paul’s final protege and director of his ambitious Maine project. While he was dying of prostate cancer in a nursing home, Paul was lovingly attended by his beautiful old Ginnie, who came to feed and comfort him every meal, and beautiful young Kelly, who used the interims for Robert Service poetry and foot rubs. Add the visits from his friends, many of whom had celebrated his glorious 90th birthday with him in the Tetons in 1998, and one can certainly say he went out in style.

Paul was inducted into the Explorers’ Club, was a recipient of the Eddie Bauer Award for conservation, and was posthumously elected as an honorary member of the AAC. He was honored as a senior guide by the American Mountain Guides Association shortly before his death. He wrote The Wilderness Handbook in 1974 and Petzoldt’s Teton Trails in 1976. He received numerous conservation awards, was in Who’s Who in America 1967-1968, was honored with the Banquet of the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and the Conservation Award from the Department of Interior, among other honors.

Even though Paul was no angel, I can imagine a future when a religion of the outdoors arises in recognition of the holiness of the earth’s remaining wildness. Paul will surely be one of its saints. He devoted his life to exploring and treasuring the wild and getting people and wilderness together without harm to either and to the benefit of all.

Nancy Wise Carson