Todd Skinner

Free 'sport climber'


Todd Richard Skinner, rock climber: born Pinedale, Wyoming 28 October 1958; married Amy Whisler (one son, two daughters); died Yosemite, California 23 October 2006.

Todd Skinner was one of the leading US practitioners of "sport climbing". This new version of rock climbing gained ground across Europe and the United States in the mid-1980s and involved highly athletic ascents of very difficult rock faces without the use of artificial aids but protected by pre-placed bolt anchors.

Climbers were split into two antagonistic camps - the "traditional" climbers who carried removable pieces of equipment with which to safeguard their ascent, leaving behind no permanent trace of their passage, and a new wave of anarchic "sport climbers" whose garish Lycra tights, Bosch cordless drills and narcissistic delight in displaying their anorexically skinny upper torsos provoked furious reaction or delight depending on the climbing philosophy of the beholder.

One thing was undisputable, however: the relative security afforded by the bolted method of safeguarding a fall encouraged climbers to attempt far more technically difficult moves than previously contemplated. Todd Skinner's particular speciality became the "freeing" of "aid" routes on the spectacular granite big walls of theYosemite Valley in California.

A previous generation of rock climbers such as Warren Harding and Royal Robbins had proved the possibility of ascending these dauntingly vertiginous cliffs, many over 3,000ft high, but they had felt the need to use artificial aids such as pitons and bolts to pull on and hang from in order to overcome especially difficult sections. During the 1980s Skinner and his young peers, by dint of assiduous training, were determined to climb the routes their predecessors had sketched up the blank granite faces completely "free", using the pegs and bolts only as passive protection points to catch their ropes in the event of a fall.

Skinner's breakthrough climb occurred in 1988 when he and Paul Piana, also from Wyoming, scaled the renowned 3,600ft Salathé Wall of El Capitan, a peerless, soaring natural line up one of the most iconic American mountains. However, their historic free ascent, a much-sought-after goal which had been pursued by several top European as well as American climbers, almost ended in disaster just at the moment of triumph. Having reached the summit a giant boulder (Skinner described it as a "small planet") became dislodged while they were hauling equipment, cutting their ropes and sending all their gear 3,000ft to the ground. They were only saved from following it by a jumar clamp attached just above the point where their back-up rope was chopped. Skinner was lucky to get away with broken ribs and Piana a smashed leg.

Skinner, with characteristic humour, would later recall that, shortly before the boulder began to roll, he had thrown a piece of carrot off the summit - which had hit a woman climber walking near the base. Some time later when he was giving a slide show about the climb, the same woman turned up in the audience and indignantly asked Skinner if he had indeed thrown the piece of carrot that hit her. His disarmingly surreal response was, "You obviously haven't been climbing very long, since you don't understand common climbing signals: carrot comes before rock."

Todd Skinner was born in 1958 and grew up in Pinedale, Wyoming, where his parents ran an outdoor equipment shop and instructing business. His father, Bob, had been a survival instructor in the US Air Force in the 1950s and had pioneered new climbs in Yosemite and the Canadian Rockies. He passed on his experience to his son in a practical way, by taking the 11-year-old Todd up Wyoming's highest mountain, the 13,804ft Gannet Peak - the youngest climber to scale it. Skinner studied finance at the University of Wyoming, taking up climbing full-time after graduating.

Undeterred by the accident on Salathé in 1988, Skinner went on to make first free ascents of many prestigious big walls around the world, most often in the company of Paul Piana. In the Americas these included the North Face of Mount Hooker in the Wind Rivers Range in his home state; the Great Canadian Knife in the dauntingly but erroneously named Cirque of the Unclimbables in the Yukon; and the NorthWest Direct Route on Yosemite's Half Dome. Further afield, Skinner climbed Poi in the Ndoto Mountains of Kenya; a new route up Kaga Pamari ("the Hand of Fatima") in Mali; Ulamatorsuaq in the Kap Farvell region of Greenland; and the East Face of Trango Tower in the Pakistani Karakoram.

Nevertheless, the style of "free" ascent on many of these climbs, which sometimes involved the placing of hundreds of bolts, was perceived by many to be seriously flawed. Skinner's critics contended that he relied too much on siege tactics by hanging on ropes from bolts in order to practise moves and taking repeated "yo-yo" falls, before finally overcoming a difficult section. The practice of abseiling back to a camp before jumaring back up fixed ropes to continue "working" a recalcitrant pitch was also frowned on by many, who considered a continuous push to be a more sporting achievement.

But there was no doubting the toughness and determination that Skinner exhibited while undertaking these arduous expeditions, some of which took many dozens of continuous days of climbing effort. And, by deliberately targeting walls on famous and eye-catching mountains Skinner, who had been a typical penniless "climbing bum" before his climb of the Salathé, combined his exploits with an outgoing personality and gift of the gab to hone a lucrative career in motivational speaking. He became a favourite of the corporate lecture circuit and would regularly feature in prestigious blue-chip "outdoor" periodicals such as National Geographic and Outside magazine.

Despite the ethical criticism and occasional scepticism with which some of his exploits were received by some, Skinner remained very popular with his fellow climbers thanks to his affable nature and sense of humour. A good example occurred in 1987 while Skinner was new-route prospecting in Hueco Tanks, Texas. At the time the placing of bolts on cliffs was not just controversial among climbers; in America many national park authorities regarded the practice as tantamount to criminal damage and rangers accordingly strip-searched climbers they suspected of carrying cordless drills.

Skinner reacted to this approach with a devil-may-care humour. He took to carrying around a suspiciously heavy rucksack deliberately to attract attention from the authorities. When it was opened, a bemused official would find curious items such as "A waffle iron, two croquet balls and a year's supply of prophylactics". Such antics would endear Skinner to many climbers, including those opposed to his climbing philosophy.

Todd Skinner was respected for his professionalism and attention to safety; it was tragically ironic, therefore, that he should have met his end due to an extremely rare equipment failure when the part of his climbing harness securing him to an abseil device snapped while he was attempting yet another free climb of a Yosemite big wall.

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