Paul Petzoldt was born in Creston, Iowa. The youngest of nine children, he was raised on a farm in southern Idaho. From 1929 to 1932, Petzoldt attended the University of Idaho, the University of Wyoming, and the University of Utah but did not earn a degree.
He made his first ascent of the Grand Teton in 1924 at the age of 16. He had a hand in creating the first guide service in the Tetons. In 1938 he was a member of the first American team to attempt a climb on K2. For the climb he did not use assisted oxygen; he learned to use rhythmic breathing. He and Dan Bryant, from New Zealand, were the first climbers ever to traverse the Matterhorn twice in one day.
During World War II Petzoldt served in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, fighting on the Italian Front.
Petzoldt's other accomplishments in the outdoors are also considered major advances among wilderness enthusiasts.
From 1963 to 1965, Petzoldt was the chief instructor for Outward Bound Colorado prior to establishing NOLS, theNational Outdoor Leadership School. Noted in his introduction toThe New Wilderness Handbook, his experience in NOLS, Outward Bound, and love of the wilderness evolved into the Wilderness Education Association.