Todd Skinner, a Pioneer of Free Climbing, Dies at 47
Skinner in 1995 in Pakistan.
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By JASON STALLMAN
Published: October 27, 2006
Todd Skinner, an internationally renowned rock climber who made first ascents on dozens of the world’s most treacherous routes and shared those adventures as a motivational speaker, died Monday after falling several hundred feet during a climb in Yosemite National Park in California. He was 47.
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Todd Skinner, in 1998, climbing War and Poetry on Ulamertorsuaq in Greenland, a location of one of his first free ascents of a new route.
Park officials and his family announced his death. Mr. Skinner and his climbing partner, Jim Hewitt, had completed a first ascent of a route on Leaning Tower in the Yosemite Valley and were descending when the accident occurred. Yosemite officials were conducting an investigation yesterday.
Mr. Skinner emerged as a pioneering climber in the 1980s, espousing “free climbing” methods, in which no artificial instruments are used to advance on a climb; ropes and other equipment are used only as safety devices in case of a fall.
“The whole idea of bringing free climbing to big walls — nobody believed it could be done or that anyone would even try it,” said Steve Bechtel, a climber who accompanied Mr. Skinner on many expeditions. “He brought free climbing to the great ranges.”
Some of Mr. Skinner’s methods were controversial in the climbing community. The traditional protocol for climbing a route was to do it from the bottom to the peak without falling; if a climber fell and his ropes supported him, he was expected to return to the bottom and start over. But Mr. Skinner defied this approach. If he failed to execute a maneuver during a climb and fell, he would hang from his ropes before practicing the move several times and continuing the ascent, a tactic known as hangdogging.
“Todd would hangdog and retry the move until he learned it,” said Bobby Model, who joined Mr. Skinner on several international expeditions. “Lots of tactics he used in the ’80s now are accepted.”
In 1988, using only their hands and feet to move upward, Mr. Skinner and his longtime climbing partner, Paul Piana, completed the first free ascent of the 3,600-foot Salathé Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite, a seminal achievement in American climbing.
“He proved that it was possible to free climb El Capitan,” Mr. Model said. “Now it’s common.”
Perhaps Mr. Skinner’s most renowned feat was his team’s free ascent, in 1995, of the East face of Trango Tower, also known as Nameless Tower, a 4,700-foot rock face in the Karakoram Range of the Himalayas in Pakistan. No one had tried to free climb it before.
Mr. Skinner and three climbing partners from Wyoming — Mr. Model, Jeff Bechtel and Mike Lilygren — spent 60 days at more than 18,000 feet and reached the peak of about 20,500 feet. Mr. Skinner described the expedition in a cover story for National Geographic in 1996.
“We faced serious objective dangers — avalanches, rock falls, we were trapped in hanging tents for days at a time,” Mr. Model said.
Todd Richard Skinner grew up in Pinedale, Wyo., where his parents owned a hunting and outdoor guide camp. His father, Robert, was an avid climber.
Mr. Skinner gravitated to technical rock climbing while attending the University of Wyoming, where he earned a degree in finance. After leaving college, Mr. Skinner immediately began his life as a professional climber.
He lived in a tepee for months at a time during his early years of climbing. It allowed him to save money, and it enabled him to travel the world and live close to the rocks that he was trying to conquer.
“I realized that you had to live with the rock,” he told Outside Magazine in 2002. “That was the only way to fully comprehend and then test the boundaries. After awhile, I began to see the limits of possibility in different places and started searching. I didn’t have an apartment for seven years. I was looking for rock with a future.”
Mr. Skinner eventually made his home in Lander, Wyo., an international destination for climbers, and for several years he also lived part time near El Paso, near the entrance to Hueco Tanks State Historical Park, also a Mecca for climbers. His house at Hueco Tanks served as something of a commune for climbers from around the world.
Mr. Skinner claimed to have made 300 first ascents in nearly 30 countries, and he excelled in several styles of climbing, establishing a reputation as one of the most well-rounded climbers in the world.
In addition to giving motivational speeches, Mr. Skinner wrote “Beyond the Summit” (2003) and “Modern Rock Climbing” (1993), and appeared in several documentary films.
He is survived by his wife, Amy Whisler Skinner; their three children, Hannah, Jake and Sarah; his sister, Holly Skinner; his brother, Orion Skinner; and his father, Robert Skinner