Climber Todd Skinner, a Big Wall Pacesetter in the 1980s and 1990s

Twenty-seven years before the Dawn Wall captured the attention of millions and five years before Lynn Hill freed The Nose, Yosemite’s biggest, baddest mega-project free ascent was Todd Skinner and Paul Piana’s 1988 free ascent of the Salathe Wall on El Capitan, a 35-pitch, 38-day effort with climbing up to 5.13b, which almost killed them minutes after they topped out, on the last day of a seven-day push from the base to the top.

At the top of Pitch 35, Piana had built an anchor on a large boulder that Skinner would later estimate to be four tons. Piana started to pull up the duo’s haul bags with Skinner pulling on the haul rope to help the bags up. As the first haul bag cleared the lip at the top of the climb, the men started laughing, seeing an end to their weeks of effort.

Then, the boulder broke off its base and shifted, rolling over Piana’s legs and crushing them. Skinner tried to jump out of the way and the boulder caught a loop of slack and pulled him backward before slicing through the rope. Three of the men’s ropes were cut, and Piana watched Skinner plummet over the edge, thinking he was dead. Piana had scrambled to safety when he heard Skinner’s voice faintly gasp, “Grab the rope,” and Skinner’s bloody hand grabbing for purchase over the lip.

People at the base saw Piana and Skinner’s haul bag fall from the summit and had assumed it was the climbers. As they launched a rescue, the men crawled and rappelled the descent route. It took them seven hours. Piana’s leg was broken in four places, and Skinner had two broken ribs and had pulled a hip muscle off his hip and couldn’t raise his leg.

The men survived and they would seem in the long term unhampered by their injuries: In 1992, they traveled to Canada’s Mt. Proboscis with Galen Rowell to put up the first ascent of the 20-pitch 5.13b Great Canadian Knife, a route with an 800-foot section of continuous 5.12 and 5.13 terrain that Skinner said was “the most continuously difficult stretch I’ve ever heard of on any big wall, alpine or not, without a move of direct aid.”

In 1993, Skinner freed the Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome, at 5.13d, going through several partners (including Piana), but eventually finishing the route with Chris Oates and Steve Bechtel. In 1995, Skinner’s team of “Wyoming Cowboys” headed to Pakistan’s 20,320-foot Trango Tower and toughed out 60 days on the wall in horrific conditions, putting up the world’s first Grade VII free climb, the 5.13a Cowboy Direct.

Skinner later called the Cowboy Direct his “last next,” realizing he could imagine nothing as monumental after it. His last big project was a free attempt on Yosemite’s Leaning Tower in 2006, more than a decade later, and he died in a rappelling accident on the face that October. He was 47, and he had more than left his mark on the climbing world, being nicknamed by some the Michael Jordan of climbing.

todd skinner bill hatcher photo

Skinner had unparalleled enthusiasm and dedication, and vision for routes and a career. Born in Wyoming in 1958, the middle of three children, Skinner made his way into the mountains at an early age, summiting Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s 13,804-foot high point, at age 11. His father, Bob, ran a survival school in Pinedale for nearly 50 years, and Todd helped, gaining a sense of respect for the mountains and even having some early epics, including one on the first winter ascent of Gannett Peak when he was 19.

At the University of Wyoming, Skinner met Paul Piana, who had been climbing for years already and took Skinner under his wing. The two trained obsessively, and made their first trip to Yosemite in 1979, pleasantly surprised at how well their training paid off. In the years following college, Skinner and Piana worked minimally, Skinner sometimes as a hunting guide, and they spent the rest of their year climbing, with months at Devils Tower and Hueco Tanks, pushing their limits.

In the 1980s, a few Americans started to embrace what were then European sport climbing techniques such as hang-dogging, or working out individual moves on a route and taking repeated falls, hanging on the rope in between, until gaining the confidence to lower to the base and fire the whole route bottom to top. Skinner and Piana applied this technique to big walls and traditional climbs, two venues that had up until that point only been climbed ground-up, without rehearsing moves. Their ideas, at the time groundbreaking, weren’t always embraced. On one particular route, someone got wind of Skinner’s hangdogging and coated a hard crack with axle grease. Skinner blowtorched the crack dry and sent the route. Skinner and Piana’s approach enabled them to break down the Salathe Wall into sections, figuring out how to climb each pitch in weeks on the wall, then lowering off to attempt the whole route over a week in 1988.

Skinner also was one of the first American climbers to make a living climbing, seeking out first lucrative sponsorships from gear companies from the North Face to Reebok, and later speaking opportunities to corporate audiences, starting in 1989 with a presentation to 3,000 employees of Apple. In 2003, he published Beyond the Summit: Setting and Surpassing Your Business Goals.

In 1989, a letter from his sister lured him to the limestone cliffs around Lander, Wyoming, where he and Piana worked to develop Wild Iris, which would become known as one of the best sport climbing areas in the United States. Skinner married and he and his wife, Amy, had three children. They started a gear shop, Wild Iris, and in 1993, organized the first-ever International Climbers Festival in Lander, now in its 22nd year.

Skinner’s legacy is his enthusiasm for climbing and exploration, on a grand scale or local scale, and love for a life lived passionately. Steve Bechtel remembered Skinner in a piece written after Skinner’s death, about a walk out of the Wind River Range after another weekend attempt on a climb. After hours of walking in the dark and rain, both their headlamps were starting to fail, and Skinner remarked that they were lucky.

Bechtel replied, “I don’t feel very lucky right now.”

Skinner answered, “At least we’re not accountants.”

Photos by Bill Hatcher



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