REMEMBERING TODD SKINNER
By Steve Bechtel
We had been walking in the rain and dark for hours. We'd failed again on a weekend trip to climb a wilderness wall, and were heading out of the Wind Rivers late Sunday night. My headlamp was starting to fail and Todd's was so weak he had to hold it in his hand to see the ground. We stopped briefly under a somewhat dry group of trees, and Todd said, "Well, we're lucky men."
"I don't feel very lucky right now."
"At least we're not accountants."
Todd Skinner, 47, was raised in Pinedale, Wyoming, and gained the adventurer's spirit early in the Wind River Mountains. It was here, where his father and four uncles ran the Skinner Brothers Wilderness Camps, that he was introduced to the sport. However, he didn't taken an interest in hard rock climbing until he entered the University of Wyoming, where he met longtime partner Paul Piana, who showed him how to really climb.
Todd graduated college with a degree in finance then planned to "take a little while off to climb" before settling into a real job. Those few years turned into the rest of his life. He began his travels in the United States and Europe, mastering the hardest routes of the day including Supercrack (5.12d), Chouca (5.13c), Grand Illusion (5.13b), and adding several of his own, including 5.13 cracks like The Gunfighter at Hueco Tanks and Yosemite's The Stigma. He was the first American to flash a 5.13 (Fallen Arches, in Utah), and established Throwin' the Houlihan (5.14a) at Wild Iris, Wyoming, in 1991 - the first 5.14a put up by an American actually to hold the grade.
In 1988, after three years of effort, Todd and Piana made their groundbreaking free ascent of Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b) of El Capitan, ushering in a change in attitude toward what could be done on the walls of the world. Famously, the pair survived - after their epic, nine-day free push - an accident on the summit on June 16, 1988, when a block to which they were anchored slid over the lip, nearly taking them with it and breaking Piana's foot and several of Todd's ribs.
Todd later went on to score such big-wall coups as the razor-cut arête of the Great Canadian Knife (VI 5.13b; 1992) on Mount Proboscis, Canada, again with Piana; and the Cowboy Direct to the Swiss-Polish route on the east face of Nameless Tower (20,623 feet) in Pakistan - checking in at VII 5.13a all free, in 1995.
I was fortunate enough to have accompanied Todd on four of his big trips. His phone call to me from Yosemite in 1993, while he was working the Direct Northwest Face (VI 5.13d) of Half Dome, forever changed the direction of my life. "Hey, Steve, Todd here. This is the call," Todd said, rallying me for the charge. His enthusiasm for this big new free line led me to quit my job on the spot and head to California. From the heinous 5.13 slab pitches at the bottom of the climb, to the soaring dihedrals of the upper wall, to topping out among some dozen bikini-clad coeds, this climb showed me the great ups and downs of hard big-wall free climbing.
As much an explorer as a climber, Todd traveled extensively, expanding the boundaries of the climbing world by discovering and establishing countless first ascents in places like Africa, Greenland, and even the backcountry walls of the Wind Rivers. He was one of the first Americans to climb the hard sport routes of Europe, visiting the hotspots of the Frankenjura, the Verdon, and Buoux in the 1980s, then moving on to help establish climbing in many countries of southeast Asia, including Thailand, Hong Kong, and China.
In 1990, Todd found what he considered the ultimate training ground, the dolomite cliffs of Lander, Wyoming, and decided to make his home there. It wasn't just excellent rock and high-quality routes that put Wild Iris and Lander on the climbing-world map, however; Todd's infectious enthusiasm became the foundation for a vibrant climbing community in this small Wyoming town. He encouraged climbers to visit, opened a climbing shop (Wild Iris), and opened his home to all number of travelers and friends. Todd developed easier routes with the same care and attention as project-level routes, and treated rookie climbers with the same respect as seasoned pros. The result was a community of strong, confident, friendly, and competent climbers.
In 1994 at Hueco Tanks, Todd opened his Hacienda del Fuerza training camp, a wintering ground for the world's strongest, most motivated boulderers. Continuing a love of the park that went back to 1982, Todd had merely shifted his focus into the next decade. In 1984, in fact, he'd made the first ascent of The Gunfighter (5.13b) in yo-yo style after 13 days of effort spread over six weeks, including camping alone at the base of the climb and coaxing locals (in one case, two kids ditching high school) to belay him. Such was Todd's dedication.
Entering his 40s, Todd continued to climb at a very high level, even with an increased workload (his successful career turn as a motivational speaker) and family. He climbed frequently on the dolomite, and in more recent years had returned to granite. His primary focus was Sweetwater Rocks, a little-known area 60 miles east of Lander that Todd hoped would someday hold 10,000 routes. Here he established dozens of new, hard routes, declaring some of them the toughest he'd ever climbed. He had also rekindled an interest in the Wind River Mountains, both for the abundant unclimbed cracks and its proximity to his family.
Todd was attempting a new free climb on Yosemite's Leaning Tower with partner Jim Hewett when he died. He had told me, "After this route I'm done with Yosemite." My last phone message from Todd recalled one of our recent trips together. He said only: "Stuck on ice slope ... crampons failing ... send Pop Tarts." I will miss his voice on the other end of the phone.
The Todd Skinner Foundation has been created as a nonprofit organization supporting an expedition and cultural grant. Our mission is to provide funding for audacious expeditions to the far corners of the globe, carried out in the finest style, with respect for local customs and cultures. Any donations can be sent to:
Todd Skinner Foundation
PO Box 1304
Lander WY 82520