The next time you are too tired to go on, think of Todd and his team high on Trango Tower after 59 freezing days—and persevere. A memoir by Paul Piana, half of a legendary partnership with Todd Skinner, who died in a fall in Yosemite on October 23. He was 47.
We are on top of El Cap. I hear the groaning sounds of a big, big stone sliding. A rope snaps. Todd drops over the rim into the void. The rock topples onto my left side and grinds me over the rounded edge. Brief seconds are eternity, bones pop, and I feel terror.
A few nights before Todd’s death, I had that dream again.
Todd is gone, fallen from life. My greatest friend, my chosen brother, a part of my heart and world for nearly 30 years. From within a kicked-in-the-guts fog, in surreal disbelief, I keep thinking maybe I’ll awaken again.
Most of my memories are about how much fun Todd and I had—on epic adventures or simply in long conversations. Those continued until just a few weeks ago, among the spires in the Black Hills, where, after all these years, we were still on the quest to climb new routes. We laughed and hatched plans for trips.
In 1979, recently discharged from the Marine Corps to return home to Wyoming, I took one of the first sunny days of the Vedauwoo season to climb a potential new route I’d gazed at years before. Belayed by a friend, I tiptoed upward, tapping in quarter-inch bolts. As I reached the top of what I called Spider God (5.11b), a younger climber charged up to the base.
I had actually met him before, buildering on the walls of the University of Wyoming cafeteria. He had thrown himself at my boulder problems. Now, although dramatically inexperienced, Todd Skinner presented the same determination. He tied into his recently acquired, prized Whillans harness. Wearing blue-suede Royal Robbins boots, way too big, and musically hula-skirted with three styles of figure-eights, several Moac chockstones, a carabiner full of soft-iron pitons and a locking Marwa carabiner, he began clanking up the rock face.
Todd appeared to enjoy every second of his effort on Spider God. Although he fell many times between all of the bolts, he never gave up. After lowering to the ground, he was hyper-animated and ready to come back again and again, until he could climb it without falling.
At first, Todd’s inexperience with “modern” techniques blessed me with a perfect belay slave, but soon he traded his comfy RRs for painfully tight EBs, and began learning to use his feet. We rarely passed up an opportunity to try increasingly improbable new routes, and since neither of us knew the meaning of “quit,” we began to succeed on some. Three that come to mind are 11 Cent Moon (5.11d), Fourth of July Crack (5.12a), and Mr. Chimp (5.12c). We realized early on that the rewards of our climbs were proportional to the amount of effort we put into them.
Todd already had a long history in general mountaineering. During summers, the Skinner Brothers’ Wilderness School taught young folks the skills necessary to survive in, care for and enjoy the Wind River Mountain Range, in the back yard of their home of Pinedale, Wyoming. As a little kid, Todd, with his older brother, Orion, and later their younger sister, Holly, was taken climbing by their dad, Bob, and Uncle Court on toproping trips to the short crags near Burnt Lake. During the fall and early winter, the Skinner Brothers guided elk hunters.
Todd climbed Wyoming’s highest point, Gannett Peak, when he was 11 years old. Seven years later, he managed the first winter ascent of the 13,804-foot mountain in one of the most seminal learning experiences of his life. The Skinner Brothers climbing team spent three days and nights in the open, with high temperatures reaching only minus 30 F. Suffering through days and nights in a blizzard, Todd summoned the strength he had read about in the adventures of the great Antarctic explorers Shackleton and Mawson. In his own book, Beyond the Summit: Setting and Surpassing Extraordinary Business Goals, Todd would write:
“I might have been a little worried then, but because of Shackleton, and because of Mawson, I thought not about how bad it was, but how much worse it could be. That winter ascent of Gannett Peak pushed my tolerance for snow and cold out to a point I have never again reached.
“The experience has helped me during other difficult situations by giving me perspective, and it has helped my teammates. When they see me shrug at conditions they think are extreme, it pushes their own boundaries out to refine the frontier. … But don’t forget that while you are a product of the mountains you have climbed in the past, and the mountains you are climbing now, most important, you are a product of the mountains you dream about climbing in the future.”
Todd and I were usually of one mind. At my house in Laramie, or in Todd’s dorm room, we spent countless hours discussing philosophy (read: climbing). New equipment (Friends and especially RPs) allowed us to place reasonable pro as we began trying to free-climb the striking flared cracks at Vedauwoo, and features at other regional climbing arenas.
Upon graduation, Todd left on the first of his many wanderings. I soon began receiving postcards from diverse European locales. “Well done, Slardo Bartfast!” read one postcard, sent from the Norwegian fjords. From France arrived the story of Todd Guyn and the Canadian contingent shocking the fashion-sensitive French by substituting baby tights for toques and wearing them like rabbit ears on their heads. From Greece, Todd wrote about how he and Danny Rosen, broke and starving, picked oranges in Greece both to earn money and to eat. Just before Todd stumbled across wonderful granite in the Sinai, Danny decided to stay in Israel. Todd wrote that he hoped to find another partner, but more realistically concluded, “I doubt I’ll find a Bedouin” who climbed.
Todd returned to America, but never stopped traveling. His white Volkswagen camper became a fixture at areas all over North America. You knew a visit from Todd was imminent when photographic transparencies began arriving in the mail. Sometimes it was hunting season, and he was coming to Wyoming to help his family guide hunters. Often, this work provided the frugal Todd with an entire year’s income.
Those packages of slides formed the basis of Todd’s next source of income. He had always reveled in the stories he heard while sitting around a Skinner Brothers campfire. Under brilliant alpine stars, Bob and Uncle Court stood up to circle the flames, their gestures and Churchillian speaking rhythms heightened by light and shadow as they talked about exploring the Bella Coola Range, wintering in Antarctica and the third ascent of Ship Rock. Spinning a yarn was in his blood, and Todd was a natural at the hundreds of presentations he eventually made at colleges, climbing clubs and gear shops.
“When legends die, the dreams end and there is no more greatness.” Both Todd and I have employed this Tecumseh quote within our philosophy of how to give a presentation. The San Francisco Chronicle has noted that climbers considered 85 percent of Todd’s stories to be true. Occasionally, some audience members believed 110 percent. During a showing of the film, which chronicles the great struggle of Todd and his team in free-climbing Trango Tower, Todd narrated footage of Bobby Model struggling desperately to free a beautiful 5.12 crack at nearly 20,000 feet, his hands blue and gray from the cold and badly cut, though too cold to bleed. Todd described Bobby launching upward:
“[H]is lungs were bursting from altitude and a hacking cough. His hands, as frozen and lifeless as clubs, were slipping and not flexing properly, and then, at the very end, his feet came off! And, for a moment, he just barely held on by one poor jam! [He got] another jam and pull[ed] the last few feet to the end.”
After the presentation, a woman approached Todd and asked whether Bobby had been fitted with prostheses and how he was getting along without feet, since they “came off.”
Todd tried to schedule the appearances to coincide with seasonal climbing weather. The scheduling was rarely perfect. One such dash occurred when Todd, Beth Wald and Bill Hatcher made an evening presentation in Dallas, to be followed by one the next night in Flagstaff. Major automotive troubles with the Volkswagen van complicated the vast distance already involved, teaching them that just because the map of Texas is printed on the same-sized atlas page as Rhode Island, all is not equal.
When you tied into the rope belayed by Todd, you felt his energy flowing up the line. Those conditions provided a high-voltage current of confidence, a heightened belief in my ability, and previously unknown reserves of endurance and power to create a bold one-move-at-a-time, go-for-it resolve. Even if I failed, I knew that because of Todd, I had tried far, far harder than I would have dreamed possible.
Climbers of all skill levels were drawn in by Todd’s engaging Pied Piper personality, and he formed alliances of friends to undertake diverse and unusual adventures. In 1987, Todd gathered a group to travel through the Eastern Bloc countries to Moscow and then to the crags above the Black Sea to compete in the World Speed-Climbing Championships (his team gained the podium, placing third). Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, Todd did whatever he could to sponsor individuals, help arrange visas and even fund visits by numerous climbers from these countries.
Todd and I always admired those who discovered new ways: explorers, musicians, and creative thinkers and doers. I recall sitting in Todd’s dorm room, looking at black-and-white photos of the headwall that Tom Frost took during the first ascent of the Salathé Wall. We talked about how great it would be to try to free-climb so far above the ground. We found photos of the incredible Trango Tower. A magazine cigarette ad showed an alluring pinnacled massif somewhere near Timbuktu. We searched through the university archives to find walls hidden within Wyoming’s mountain ranges. We wrote objectives down on lists.
During his widening travels through America, Todd compiled a list of striking and difficult-looking thin cracks. Some of these lines had previously seen direct-aid ascents, but none had been free-climbed. During the fall of 1982, on one of our first visits to Hueco Tanks, we spied a very thin fracture in a severely overhanging wall of the Eagle formation. Todd invested the season of 1983 to 1984 in trying to free The Gunfighter. While really a face climb, The Gunfighter was one that utilized the types of body English and power rarely seen until years later, when overhanging sport routes were discovered in other areas. This climb was a tremendous learning experience for Todd, and The Gunfighter (5.13b) became the first among probably hundreds of 5.13 first ascents.
In 1985, a noisy and contentious evolution was occurring in the climbing world. In Europe, at Smith Rocks, Oregon, and at other crags across America a relatively small group of climbers began actively utilizing what some believed to be unfair tactics. Some of these techniques, now quite common, were hangdogging, pre-protecting climbs, and spending numerous days spent “working” or rehearsing an ascent. Todd was at the forefront in using these new techniques, and as standards quickly rose, opponents began what at times became an acrimonious debate. Perhaps the most notorious of these new climbs was The Stigma, which Todd renamed The Renegade (5.13b), in Yosemite Valley. Located at the Cookie Cliff, the line resembles the perforations between postage stamps, and all of the hand and footholds were formed by climbers driving hundreds of pitons while practicing aid techniques. Rather than aid climbing the route in order to leave pitons in place, Todd rappelled down and placed four pitons to use as protection. Even more of a transgression for 1986, Todd unashamedly hangdogged out the free-climbing moves. An outcry occurred, but ultimately the ascent was a milestone in the acceptance of sport techniques.
Also on the tick list was Never-Never (5.12d), a 40-foot overhanging crack in Leavenworth, Washington, and the incredibly beautiful fissure City Park (5.13c) at the nearby Index Town Walls. One of the cruxes was finding it in dry conditions. From his base at Smith Rocks, Todd devised a clever way to track conditions: he paid a local kid to ride his bike once a week to Index, hike to the base of City Park and check it. The kid was then to ride to a local store and post a note that read “wet” or “dry” on the bulletin board. Todd would then phone and ask the clerk to read the note.
Whenever the crack was dry, Todd coaxed the VW camper over the 200 miles to Index. One day he discovered that an unknown climber, possibly annoyed at the controversial technique of hangdogging, had smeared axle grease into the crack. Undeterred, Todd took a propane torch and burned the grease from the crack, and eventually succeeded on what remains one of America’s most difficult thin-crack climbs.
In 1986, a friend of Todd’s remarked that if he could free-climb The Stigma, he could free-climb the Salathé Wall. My memories of the “Free Salathé” campaign are now 18 years old, and I have forgotten the monumental amount of work: the painful fingers and hands; the heavy, heavy burden of what, especially at the time, was an awfully tall stack of difficult pitches. I’m ignoring memories of being physically hungry, broke and selling gear in the parking lot to stay in the Valley … until Gary Neptune gave us a century note—not because he thought we had a prayer, but because he admired a good struggle. I remember the bivouacs, and laughing as we read aloud passages from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars Stories or the slumming-angel prose of Raymond Chandler, about tough guys winning against overwhelming odds.
I fondly recall pulling over the top, with our long, hard work nearly over: We were indescribably happy as we raced the sunset back down to Long Ledge. We spent the most satisfying bivy of our lives eating extra Pop Tarts, drinking lots of water, singing funny songs, and discussing the finer quotes of Louis L’Amour.
Morning was perfect. We breakfasted and started hauling freight up, joking about being extra careful, and how most car accidents occur close to home. I was first over the rim and selected the best anchor I could find. We had already used this huge block, as had years of other climbers.
Off to one side was a fixed piton to which I anchored Todd’s line, plugging in a #1 Friend to make sure. While Todd ascended the pitch I used the block for a hauling anchor as well as my tie-in. The haulbags stuck at the lip, and I waited for Todd, during the interim deciding that I might as well be embarrassingly paranoid and clip the fixed pin as well.
Todd reached the rim and I made him pose for pictures like Layton Kor at the top of the Salathé. Once he stepped over, I began taking out anchors. I removed the Friend, then turned and started lifting the haulbags. We heard a terrible grating noise. The block had come loose.
I’m not exactly clear about what happened next. Todd later remembered me putting my hands out at the block and yelling, “No!” I do remember the two of us being battered together, and the horror of seeing my best friend knocked wildly off the rim, and then a tremendous weight on my left leg as I was squeegied over. I recall a crack like a rifle shot, then more pummeling, and suddenly everything stopped spinning and I could just peek back up over the edge.
Everything was in tatters, ropes pinched off and fused—it appeared that they had all been cut. I was afraid to touch anything, and was sick with the knowledge that Todd had probably just hit the talus. Suddenly, a startling squeak sounded below me, followed by a desperate, “Grab the rope!”
I hauled myself over the top, and soon a bloody hand on a crushed ascender slid over the rim. I helped Todd up and we lay there for a long time. We were terrified because Todd was having trouble breathing and his pelvic area hurt badly. My leg was in a really weird position and reaching a crescendo of pain.
When we did stand we discovered that Todd’s line appeared to be OK. He had been held by one of his CMI ascenders. Apparently, the rock had scraped over the ascender and, miraculously, that small and now gouged and bent piece of metal had kept Todd’s rope from being cut. I had been held by the loop I’d clipped to the fixed pin. The 11mm rope with which I had tied into the block had cut like a cotton shoelace. The haulbags were gone.
We took the longest piece of remaining rope and slowly started down the East Ledges. A descent that usually took us just under two hours required more than seven. Todd suffered several broken ribs, and a piece of bone was broken off his hip. My left leg was severely gouged and was broken in five places.
Sometimes at night, I shudder at the remembrance of being dragged off the summit of El Cap and knowing that we really were going to die. I still can’t believe all the diverse thoughts that flashed through my mind as we were going over the edge. Among them was how terrible it would be for our families. And now that Todd has died in much the same way, I know that reality is worse than I ever imagined. The nightmares have come true.
The climb was the greatest breakthrough of our climbing lives. The Salathé experience proved to Todd and me that these walls could actually be free-climbed.
Though stove up, Todd hit the road, touring areas like the Black Hills and Vedauwoo with Amy Whisler (later to become Amy Skinner), happily relegated to belay slave.
In coming years Todd and I shared a whole bunch of once-in-a-lifetime adventures alongside great friends during free ascents of Mount Hooker, in Wyoming’s Wind River Range; The Great Canadian Knife (5.13b), in the Northwest Territories; and The Direct Northwest Face (5.13d) of Half Dome.
In between, we lived on the road, following the seasons in what for us was a nearly perfect existence. Amy Whisler, Heidi Badaracco, Dan Michael, Tim Toula, Jacob Valdez and the many others who came and went formed a happy alliance and a tremendously encouraging support group. Pitching a tipi in the Needles, wintering at Hueco Tanks, discovering the potential of and establishing the now-popular Wild Iris were climbers’ dreams come true.
I could recount so many adventures. One of the worst was absolutely one of the best. In early 1992 Rick Ridgeway invited Todd and me on an Amazon adventure. He wanted to travel for a week up Venezuela’s Rio Orinoco, and continue up rivers that had no name. Then, for another week, we were to machete our way through uncharted parts of the Amazon jungle toward Aratitiyope, a giant shark-fin-shaped granite mountain with a 2,700-foot wall.
Nearly everything that could have gone wrong went far beyond wrong. We lost 99 percent of our rations and 99 percent of our climbing gear. We were starving and then one night Todd shrieked and leapt up with such a powerful convulsion that I thought our portaledge had catastrophically failed. Todd was scrambling and fighting out of his sleeping bag.
“Something’s goddamn biting me!” he yelled. I eyed the darkness where the straining portaledge straps were attached to the wall, and held on.
He turned on his headlamp to examine a painful red spot on his right forefinger. The finger and hand quickly began to ache and swell. The bite hurt as if he was holding his finger in a flame. I could do nothing to help. At one point I had the stupid audacity to ask, “Stings, huh?” Todd’s quick glare slapped me silent.
For a week, Todd’s hand became a grotesque and painful claw. The mountainous swelling eventually subsided, but the rotting caldera grew to 5 millimeters across before finally scabbing over.
The climbing involved terrifying runouts protected by tied-off vegetables. We traveled through uncharted parts of the Amazon rainforest, encountered a pre-Stone-Age culture and survived by eating turtle eggs, piranha, insects and whatever we could gather. We learned that the peanut-sized white grubs surrounding a bunch of cherry-like fruits were also flavorful and juicy. Todd’s toughness and humor routinely saved the day. I still remember him pointing out that even though we were starving, he had reservations about dining on monkey: he could ignore the flavor (monkey meat tastes like a wet dog smells) but couldn’t get past the guilt of eating a climber with skills superior to ours.
What came next for Todd was a climb that many believe was his finest hour: a free ascent of the 20,500-foot Trango Tower. I had broken my leg again, so I was out of the running. Todd accused me of taking extreme measures just to get out of the trip! He made excellent choices for his team, asking Steve and Jeff Bechtel, Bobby Model, Mike Lilygren and Bill Hatcher to join. This climb summoned everything Todd had ever learned about climbing rock walls, and all the skills he had learned about keeping team members motivated and working their hardest in order to grow together in strength, resolve and perseverance. This climb demanded all he had learned about himself, and the old lessons he had taken from the first winter ascent of Gannett Peak were perhaps the most valuable.
The team stayed on the giant wall (with photographer Bill Hatcher and Jeff Bechtel jugging fixed lines to resupply the climbers), never returning to basecamp. While hanging in portaledges through murderous storms that killed many climbers on other peaks in the region, Todd told the team that the cold and wind weren’t so bad.
When the climbers succeeded in free-climbing Trango Tower, by a 5.13 route they named Cowboy Direct, they had lived on the wall for 60 straight days through the deadliest season in Karakoram history, and established the world’s first Grade VII free climb.
During the ascent, Todd thought a lot about why he sought out such challenges. He studied his past and present experiences and tried to understand what he knew and was learning. In Setting and Surpassing Extraordinary Business Goals, Todd wrote: “If I could finally distill the lessons that each mountain had taught me, I would have a guidebook to bring with me for all mountains. That guidebook wouldn’t be a compendium of answers, but a set of strategies to help find answers in unknown terrain. It would identify the hazards and obstacles in any ascent, and discover ways to navigate through those obstacles. It would list the essentials you need to carry in your backpack when venturing into the frontier, and, just as important, what you essentially need to leave behind.”
Todd came to realize that these never-ending lessons, coupled with his talents as a raconteur and teacher, could be used in a career as a motivational speaker. Working with Ann Krcik and the speakers’ bureau Extreme Connection, he embarked upon a very successful speaking career and was one of the most sought-after speakers in the nation. Among his many audiences were Silicon Graphics, ESPN International, Apple Computer, Nextel Communications, the U.S. Naval Academy, the National Geographic Society, AT&T, and his daughter Hannah’s second-grade class.
In the early 1990s, The Wild Iris region, with climbs like Todd’s 5.14 Throwin’ the Houlihan, was prominent in the climbing press. Todd and a small group of climbers in Lander began to envision a festival celebrating climbers, feeling that they were an “invisible population” who spent a lot of money during their visits. They formed the International Climbers’ Festival as an alliance between the non-climbing public and climbers. This past summer the ICF celebrated its 15th anniversary.
It is difficult for me to write this article. I could write on and on about my dear friend and never be satisfied that I have done him justice. It is easy to concentrate on just the climbing. Todd was, after all, a climber.
But simply to write about the climbs would be to ignore the most personal stories … the glorious days of tipi life at Devils Tower and in the Needles, where I watched Todd and Amy climb together and fall in love. I wish everyone could have seen his enraptured face when Hannah was born. After the twins, Jake and Sarah, came along, the three kids would flop over Todd like blankets, insisting he tell (for the millionth time) the story about when “Finger-biter the Piranha” bit me in the Amazon, or “The Legend of Stumpy Model,” or of “Gypsy Dave” or “Tennessee Jim” and the many other friends who had become characters in the stories he told his kids as they drifted off to sleep. In the mornings, Todd would regale them with tales about how his granddad Clem Skinner lived among the Natives and then, in another instant, herd them around in gathering energy bars and water bottles, and out the door to look for artifacts (and, coincidentally, new routes) among the rocks sticking out of blank spots on Wyoming maps.
Some might say that Todd experienced and achieved more in his short life than almost anyone. Todd lived, loved, climbed and thought more passionately than anyone I’ve ever known. Still, I believe his greatest achievements were still ahead.
How would Todd finish this article? I think he would leave us with inspiration. He might say:
The next time you stand below a route that you have only dreamed of climbing, begin it with all of your heart and soul.
The next time you find yourself with your toes against a blank spot on the map, take another step.
The next time you are too tired to go on, think of a team high on Trango Tower after 59 freezing days of climbing—and persevere.
The next time you don’t know where to turn, think about where you want to be in 20 years, start moving, not worrying if your goal is straight ahead, and never, never give up.
Paul Piana ,Todd Skinner’s primary partner for many years, lives in Newcastle, Wyoming.