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Paul Petzoldt
Brief Biography & Quotes

James Neill
Last updated:
27 Sep 2003

  • Paul Petzoldt (1908-1999)

  • Made his first ascent of the Grand Teton aged 16

  • Member of 1st US expedition to K-2

  • 1st chief instructor of Outward Bound in the USA

  • Founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

  • Founded Wilderness Education Association

  • Founded Paul Petzoldt Leadership School aged 88


"I have three rules for leaders in the outdoors: You have to know where the people you're leading are coming from, you have to know what you want to do with them, and you have to love them."


"All my life, people have asked the question, directly or indirectly, "Why the hell do you climb mountains?"  I can't explain this to other people.  I love the physical exertion.  I love the wind, I love the storms: I love the fresh air.  I love the companionship in the outdoors.  I love the reality.  I love the change.  I love the oneness with nature: I'm hungry; I enjoy clear water.  I enjoy being warm at night when its cold outside.  All those simple things are extremely enjoyable because, gosh, you're feeling them, you're living them, you're senses are really feeling, I can't explain it."


"The Grand Teton has been a part of my life," Petzoldt said at his 90th birthday party held in the shadow of the mountain in 1998. "I was lucky to get out alive on my first trip in 1924. I learned I was a damn fool, and that if I was going to live around mountains and do these things, I had to get some horse sense." (MountainZone.com)


"The ability to laugh at oneself and recognize one's own human weaknesses is a desirable quality of leadership."


"A challenge...
to lead in stead of being led,
to participate instead of watching,
to act.. instead of waiting with idle hands."


"I had a definite reason for starting NOLS," Paul says adamantly. "I wasn't a way out person, I didn't think that we shouldn't cut a tree...but I was in favor of the wilderness bill. I testified before congress on the wilderness bill...At the same time, here we were at Outward Bound taking people out and...devastating the wilderness. Bad camping, crapping all over...I was dismayed at the ideas kids were getting about how to treat the wilderness."

"At Outward Bound we didn't try to teach them, we didn't go into any depth. That wasn't our purpose...but I thought gosh...we're passing this wilderness bill and they don't know any more in the Sierra Club than we know here....We've got to train people, got to train leaders who can go back and teach people in their community. And I was successful. NOLS has done more than all of the outdoor groups together."

- Molly Absolon, from The Leader, Fall 1995


Old Man of the Mountains Dies at 91
NOLS Press Release, 1999.

Last Mountain Man? Not if He Can Help It
Jane Howard. Life magazine, December 19, 1969.

Paul Tells His Story
Molly Absolon.The Leader, Fall 1995.

"This was a man to match our mountains"
Kerry Brophy. The Leader, Fall 1999.