The climbing world lost a visionary adventurer and buckaroo when Todd Skinner died on October 23 in Yosemite National Park, descending from the Leaning Tower.
Skinner, 47, was raised in and around the Wind River Mountains near Pinedale, Wyoming. He was introduced to climbing by his father and uncles, who ran the Skinner Brothers Wilderness Camps. Todd began serious pursuit of the sport as a student at the University of Wyoming, where he met Paul Piana and formed a legendary partnership.
After graduating, Skinner dedicated himself to a career in climbing. In the mid-1980s, he traveled the United States and Europe, repeating and establishing many of the hardest climbs in the world, and becoming the first American to flash 5.13 (Fallen Arches, in 1987). Highlight first ascents from this period included City Park (5.13), Index Wall, Washington; The Gunfighter (5.13), Hueco Tanks, Texas; and The Renegade/Stigma (5.13), Yosemite. In 1988, after three years of effort, Skinner and Paul Piana succeeded in free climbing El Capitan’s Salathe Wall (5.13). This groundbreaking ascent changed the way climbers look at big walls, and marked the beginning of a long string of pioneering big-wall free ascents around the globe. Todd’s other major Grade VI free routes include The Jaded Lady (5.12a), Mount Hooker, Wyoming; The Great Canadian Knife (5.13b), Mount Proboscis, Northwest Territories, Canada; Direct Northwest Face (5.13d), Half Dome, Yosemite; Cowboy Direct (VII 5.13a), Nameless Tower, Pakistan; War and Poetry (5.12c), Ulamertorsuaq, Greenland; Harmattan Rodeo (5.13c), Le Main de Fatima, Mali; True at First Light (5.13a), Milima Poi, Kenya; and, within the last year, Wet Lycra Nightmare (5.13d), Leaning Tower.
As much an explorer as a climber, Skinner expanded the boundaries of the climbing world by discovering new crags and boulder fields and achieving countless first ascents all around the world. Bandana firmly knotted around his head, Todd established climbs in Thailand, Vietnam, China, South Africa, Mexico, Venezuela, Egypt, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Lesotho, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and Russia.
In 1995, Todd and a team of four young climbers went to the Karakoram region of Pakistan to free-climb the Nameless Tower in what turned out to be one of the most brutal climbing seasons in the region’s history. The group expected to stay three weeks; 60 days later, they descended successfully from the route. Todd’s single-minded dedication and endless enthusiasm motivated the climbers to stay and eventually succeed long after all other climbers had left the region. He was able to see probability where others saw impossibility.
During the 1990s, Skinner fell in love with the endless dolomite cliffs around Lander, Wyoming, and made his home there. He began establishing routes at Wild Iris, where the savage, pocket-pulling testpiece Throwin’ the Houlihan was one of the first 5.14s established by an American.
But it wasn’t just excellent rock and high-quality routes that put Wild Iris and Lander on the climbing world map; Todd’s infectious enthusiasm became the foundation for a vibrant climbing community in the sleepy town. He encouraged climbers to come to the area, opened a climbing shop that provided local jobs, and opened his home to all number of travelers and friends. Skinner developed beginner routes with the same care and attention as project-level routes, and treated rookie climbers with the same respect as seasoned pros.
In 1999, Todd married his longtime girlfriend and climbing partner Amy Whisler. Their children, Hannah, Jake and Sarah, share Todd’s energy and love of the outdoors.
Skinner’s dynamic personality lent itself well to his second career, as a high-profile motivational speaker and author. He continued to travel, sharing his visions of team-building and goal-setting with business leaders worldwide. Using the metaphor of different approaches to mountain climbing, he encouraged leaders to eschew well-worn paths and dare to surpass their own expectations.
In more recent years, Todd’s interest returned to granite. His primary focus was in the Sweetwater Rocks, a little-known area 60 miles east of Lander that he hoped would someday hold 10,000 routes. He continued to travel to Yosemite as often as his schedule would allow, but was planning to turn his energy to exploring the possibilities of the Wind River Range.
Todd was attempting a new free climb on the Leaning Tower with Jim Hewitt when he died in a rappelling accident. (See Accident Report, page 30.)
A thread on Supertopo.com quickly grew to nearly 400 postings by climbers from all generations, including many who are themselves icons, yet in some ways the most touching tributes were from beginning or moderate climbers who said Todd had toured them around, as excited about their routes as his own.
The legacy Todd Skinner leaves in his home community and the international climbing community is one of possibility. In his kind, spirited way, he helped all those he encountered to attempt more than they had planned ± and accomplish more than they had hoped.
He will be celebrated as a leader, a hero, a mentor and a helluva friend.
Look for a feature on Todd Skinner in a future issue of Rock and Ice.