Todd Skinner, 47, of Lander, Wyoming, and one of the leading pioneers in American rock climbing, died October 23 in a fall while rappelling from a new route he was attempting on the 1,200-foot Leaning Tower in Yosemite National Park. The exact cause of Skinner's death is under investigation by the National Park Service, but an article published in The San Francisco Chronicle on October 26 quotes Jim Hewett, Skinner's partner on Leaning Tower, as saying that Skinner's overly worn harness belay loop had failed.
Skinner's climbing career spanned three decades, six continents, and countless first ascents from short boulder problems in Hueco Tanks, Texas, to 50-foot sport climbs in his "backyard" of Wild Iris, Wyoming, to 1000-meter Grade VII free climbs on massive granite monoliths in remote places. He first came to prominence in the mid 1980s for pioneering the use of European free-climbing tactics in the U.S. and applying them to groundbreaking first ascents of 5.13 cracks including The Stigma in Yosemite and City Park at Index, Washington.
It was on the 3000-foot face of Yosemite's El Capitan, however, that Skinner truly made a name for himself. For years noted climbers including Ray Jardine, Mark Hudon, and Max Jones had attempted to free-climb one of El Cap's major aid climbs, but the first true breakthrough came in 1988, when Skinner and partner Paul Piana freed the classic Salathe Wall, establishing a Grade VI 5.13 route now considered to be the world's classic big-wall free-climb.
The Salathe Wall proved to be just the beginning of Skinner's quest to free routes on the world's big walls. In 1992, with Piana and the late Galen Rowell, he climbed The Great Canadian Knife, an amazing 2000-foot arete on Mount Proboscis in Canada's Cirque of the Unclimbables. He continued from there, freeing Half Dome's Direct Northwest Face, and establishing new routes on Pakistan's Nameless Tower, Mali's Hand of Fatima, and Greenland's Ulamertorsuaq. He also pioneered new sport-climbing areas both in North America and exotic locales such as Vietnam.
Skinner's career was not without controversy. Many critics assailed his groundbreaking Salathe Wall ascent, charging that his use of hanging on the rope and extensively rehearsing the free-climbing moves violated the ethics of the time. Those techniques are now commonplace and accepted for today's leading big-wall free climbers. Skinner himself never indulged in such armchair criticism, preferring instead to mentor many successful climbers of subsequent generations and fostering a sense of kinship in climbers the world over.
"Climbing with the guy was totally inspiring," said photographer Bobby Model, who pioneered new routes on Nameless Tower and Ulamertorsuaq with Skinner. "One thing all I'll always never forget was how Todd would work harder than anyone else on an expedition and would still have a smile on his face at the end of the day. He had a great way with people and really cared about them, whether they were a climber or not."
As passionate as he was about climbing, Skinner was also a dedicated husband and father, raising three children, Hannah, Jake, and Sarah, with Amy Whisler, his wife. While the rest of the world knew him as a climber, his neighbors knew him as an ardent advocate for the Lander community, both as a citizen and a local business owner.
At an age when most rock climbers are content to bask in past achievements, Skinner was continuing to push himself. He returned to Yosemite in 2001, hoping to free El Cap's Dihedral Wall. While he ultimately had to turn his back on the route, he laid the groundwork for Tommy Caldwell's standard-setting free-climb of tha route in 2004. Skinner himself turned to freeing Leaning Tower's classic aid route Wet Denim Daydream in 2005 and was near completing another free route on that formation at the time of his untimely passing. Just a few months prior, he shared a quote from Tecumseh with a friend that illustrates how he chose to live.
"When it comes time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home."
With his Wyoming cowboy charm, infectious enthusiasm, and warm smile, he was, in a sport all too adept at producing clones, an original.