In 17 years, Zach Rotzal has accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime.
He’s learned to fly fish and scuba dive, biked hundreds of miles and climbed Yosemite’s Half Dome, survived a lightning strike, a tornado and two floods, skied a black diamond on one of his first times out, hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, learned about mining and horses, animation and architecture … the list goes on and on.
Rotzal is an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Boy Scouts, reached by more than 2.4 million boys since the award was first presented in 1912. But Rotzal, a senior at LaSalle College High School in Glenside, recently joined an even more rarefied group when he earned all of scouting’s 139 merit badges. It’s a feat attained by 360 boys in the history of the organization, according to meritbadgeknot.com, an unofficial site that tracks the achievement.
Name a skill or subject, and the North Wales teen has probably dabbled in it: public speaking, sustainability, game design, pioneering, pottery, stamp collecting, water sports, chemistry, theater, inventing, journalism, moviemaking. Some took months and required an obsessive attention to detail and time management.
His father, Peter Rotzal, estimates that Rotzal spent 5,000 hours over seven years to reach his goal, working 10 to 20 hours a week, sacrificing weekends, and staying up late.
“Looking back, I’m amazed by how much I’ve learned,” said Rotzal, who looked neat and trim in his scout uniform during an interview at school. The uniform’s sash was cluttered with little circular badges – so many that they didn’t fit on one, so he had to buy two and sew them together. There’s no badge for sewing, but he tried to do it himself, and pricked his fingers so much that his mother got someone else to sew it. His mother, Susan, is a dentist — which came in handy in his earning the dentistry badge.
As he talked about his achievement in a small conference room, teachers and staff members kept barging in to congratulate him and to brag about Rotzal’s other accomplishment: He’s a great kid.
“He should get a badge for being awesome,” said athletic administrator Joe Parisi.
“One of the kindest young men in the school, and smiles at my corny jokes,” said Carol Haggerty, mission and ministry associate.
He did indeed smile through it all, remaining calm and poised while adults heaped on the praise.
Rotzal, who belongs to Troop 547 in North Wales, is vice president of the National Honor Society and the Lab Manager Program, plays squash and founded the school’s Outdoor Adventure Club.
His former scoutmaster, Joseph Joyce, said Rotzal has been a troop leader and an outstanding Boy Scout. “When you think of the stereotypical Boy Scout, Zach really exemplifies that,” he said.
The teen began his journey as a Tiger Scout in first grade, but it wasn’t until he became a Boy Scout in fifth grade that he could start earning badges. His first? First aid, which he learned at Boy Scout camp. Every summer at camp, he checked off more badges until the regular camps he attended didn’t have any more that he needed. He transferred to a camp at Hawk Mountain Scout Reservation in Schuylkill County so he could learn fly fishing.
“That was a tough one,” he said.
At 14, he had more than 70 badges and was already an Eagle Scout, which only requires 21. He and his dad, a merit badge counselor for hiking and biking, discussed what it would take to go for all 139.
He found there were merit badge conferences at which he could pick up four in a day. But not all were so easy. The hardest, he said, was scuba diving, for which he earned an open water certification at Dutch Springs, a quarry in Bethlehem.
“It’s something I never dreamed I’d be doing four years ago,” he said. “It was very scary. That was something I had to get over.” Maybe there should be a badge for facing your fears.
His favorite adventures were backpacking in Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks and cycling from Buffalo to Albany, N.Y.; and from Washington to Pittsburgh with his father, an avid cyclist. Rotzal had never done long-distance riding, but they averaged 60 to 80 miles a day.
He had never skied either, but earned the snow sport badge by learning the sport at Shawnee Mountain in Stroudsburg, Monroe County, where a friend took him down a black diamond run. “The trick is to take your time, because if you pick up speed you get in trouble,” he said.
Rotzal got a hair-raising lesson while earning the electricity badge. During a storm he put his foot on a metal bolt, which got hit by lightning that traveled up one leg and down the other, leaving him with two burned feet.
In Grand Island, Neb., where he was working on American labor, landscape architecture, programming, and animal science badges, a tornado ripped through camp. The scouts were hurried indoors, but water seeped into the building. Their tents were destroyed, so they had to sleep in their cars. But Rotzal was excited to get a Red Cross blanket, something he’d seen only on TV.
On a trip to Ohiopyle State Park in western Pennsylvania, tents were flooded by a downpour. It’s located next to a train track, and they heard train whistles all night, but didn’t realize that one whistle had been a flood siren warning people to move to higher ground.
“Some of the most interesting stories involve living through traumatic weather experiences,” he said. “I guess it’s just what scouts do.”
His all-time favorite experience was also one of his last — hiking Half Dome in Yosemite with eight other scouts and his dad. They started at 3 a.m. wearing headlamps and reached the summit as the sun rose above Clouds Rest, a mountain to the east that some of them had climbed the day before.
“The view from the top was spectacular, looking back into Yosemite Valley,” he said. “Hiking to the top of Half Dome was an amazing experience. I can’t wait to do it again sometime.”
On that same trip last summer, Rotzal fit in time for his final badge, exploration. The requirements allow latitude on what can be explored, so he focused on the city of San Francisco.
In January at a Boy Scouts court of honor ceremony, he gets one more badge – marking completion of all 139.
Now that he’s achieved his goal, the uber-Scout says he’s a little disappointed to have no more badges to go after, but it leaves him time to try to get into his dream school, University of Notre Dame, where he wants to study electrical engineering. The Air Force Academy is his second choice.
And good scout that he is, Rotzal said he always makes time to visit his 92-year-old grandmother, Rebecca Rotzal, who lives in Chalfont.
“She has taught me the ideals of faith, family, love and hard work,” he said, “which I strive to live every day of my life.”