I just got off the phone with my good buddy Jeff Olson, former executive director of Camp Confidence in Minnesota, a year-round outdoor education center for people with cognitive and developmental disabilities. He called to let me know that he recently retired and he was going through his collection of Paul Petzoldt memorabilia and wondered what he should do with it.
I, too, have an extensive collection of similar memorabilia of the famous mountaineer. Everything from autographed copies of books to personal correspondence. We discussed some ideas of what to do with it all and then got to the important stuff — reminiscing about Paul.
I’ve known Jeff since 1977, when he drove Paul for his first visit to Saranac Lake. Paul spoke to many groups during his visit and his message was very consistent. He had a long list of trip planning considerations, but a few stood out. No matter the audience, he reminded people of the importance of trip planning, particularly getting the weather forecast, and the importance of low impact camping now more commonly known as Leave No Trace. He said, “The success or failure of an expedition is determined in your living room before you leave.”
Paul was amazed at how weather forecasting improved during his lifetime. Although the science of weather was well understood when he was growing up in the 1920s, forecasting was in its infancy. Outdoor adventurers were lucky to get an accurate one-day forecast much less a two-week forecast. With the advent of satellites and computers in the meteorologist’s arsenal, weather forecasting has become much more of a science than an art.
Paul marveled at the sophisticated mathematical simulations of the atmosphere allowing meteorologists to produce excellent forecasts. For example, a seven-day forecast can accurately predict the weather about 80% of the time and a five-day forecast can accurately predict the weather approximately 90% of the time. No wonder Paul was impressed and felt that it was pure negligence not to consult the weather forecast and make plans accordingly.
A classic example of not utilizing the weather forecast was on trip up Mount Marcy in March of 2015. Because it’s only 5,344 feet in elevation, some may wonder, “How bad can it get on such a small Eastern mountain?” The forecast for the weekend was for winds up to 40 mph with gusts to 50 mph. In addition, temperatures would be -10 degrees, with a wind chill of -30 to -40, which can force you to crawl rather than walk, and cause instant frostbite should you take your mittens off. Yet it was with this weather forecast that a mother from far northern New York decided to take her 7- and 11-year-old children up Mount Marcy.
The incident triggered one of the largest Adirondack rescues in recent years, involving 26 forest rangers; four Environmental Conservation Officers; the State Police Special Operations Response Team, and supervisory staff. Luckily a helicopter was able to pluck them off the shoulder of the mountain after a frigid night and take them to the hospital where they were treated for cold-related injuries.
Checking the weather forecast and postponing the trip would have saved a lot of pain and anguish as well as not putting the rescuers at risk.
The concept of Leave No Trace has come a long way since Paul’s early days. I remember Paul lecturing us on what he called practical conservation. He wasn’t a big fan of the term Leave No Trace. Practical conservation was his way of saying, “You can’t leave ‘no trace’ so let’s find a commonsense way to protect the environment while we’re traveling in the wild outdoors.”
Paul pointed out he was a pioneer of Leave No Trace, although he didn’t start that way: “Hell, I thought I was a low impact camper when I tossed my empty baked-bean cans into the bushes rather than leaving them out in the open.” His practices evolved into burning the cans in the fire to increase their oxidation then throwing them in the bushes. Eventually he decided it was best to pack the cans out, and finally decided that best practice was to not use cans at all.
And then there was leadership. He believed that all trips needed a designated leader with the requisite skills. Paul had a great eye for good leaders, and he found them in the strangest of places.
A great example is the night he was watching the local TV news near Portland, Maine and saw a story of a group of inner-city boys who’d stolen a car and robbed a convenience store. The story featured a young man who had coordinated both the theft of the car, and the subsequent robbery. Paul said of the boy, “That kid is a natural leader. I want him on one of my wilderness courses.”
He wasn’t just making a hollow offer. Paul tracked him down, offered him a scholarship, and the boy joined Paul for a month-long wilderness leadership experience. Where everyone else saw only trouble in this kid, Paul saw potential.
Paul was as human as the rest of us, but his ability to find good leaders is one of the things that made Paul a great leader himself.