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Todd Richard Skinner, 1957-2006

Todd Richard Skinner 1957-2006

Todd is gone, fallen from life. My greatest friend, my chosen brother, a part of my heart and world for 30 years. We have lost a contagious source of energy, which fueled the lives and dreams of countless people.

Todd was born in Sun Valley Idaho on October 28, 1958 and lived life to the fullest right up to the moment he died in a climbing accident in Yosemite on October 21, 2006—just a week before his 48th birthday. The accident occurred while working on a new free climb (of the direct aid route “Jesus Built My Hot Rod”) on the Leaning Tower. As Todd and his partner (Jim Hewitt) were rappelling, Todd's terribly worn belay loop broke and he was gone. Jim told me that he had pointed out that Todd’s harness was very worn and that Todd told him he had one on order and that his harness “would do” until the new one arrived. When Jim told me that Todds belay loop had broken, I thought he might be mistaken, as I had never heard of a belay loop failing. However, Jim was correct about the belay loop. This makes Todd’s loss even more tragic because this accident could have been prevented.

From his earliest days, Todd joined his family at the Skinner Brothers Wilderness School, based in Pinedale, Wyoming. On the short crags near Burnt Lake, Todd, his older brother Orion and younger sister Holly were taken top-roping. Todd’s Dad, Bob Skinner, along with uncles Monte, Court, and Oly taught the kids how to thrive in an alpine environment. Bob and Court inspired Todd to read the exploits of Shackleton, Herzog, Shipton and Tilman, and especially Mawson, and his incredible story of survival in the Antarctic.

Todd climbed Wyoming’s highest point, Gannett Peak, when he was 11 years old. Seven years later, with his Dad and Uncle Court, he made the first winter ascent of the 13,804-foot mountain. This bitterly cold winter expedition to Gannett Peak would serve as perhaps the most seminal learning experience of his life.

In the closing days of 1978,1 met Todd at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and we began our higher education to a lesser extent within the halls of academe, and to a larger extent by making dozens of first ascents at nearby Vedauwoo, in the Black Hills, Needles, and in the thin corners of Devils Tower. We quickly discovered that we shared an unquenchable desire to explore yet-to-be-free-climbed routes. We began searching for potential in travel books, geology texts, and rumors shared by other climbers.

In the early 1980s, after graduation with a degree in finance, Todd began his life of climbing and exploration. Naturally talented and driven, Todd had the ability to free climb the most difficult routes—and he became one of the climbers who were nudging the difficulty ratings ever higher. For years, he traveled the country to test himself on the hardest climbs and often contributed new routes of even greater difficulty at the areas he visited. Soon the magazines took note. In postcards and letters from that era, he wrote not so much about the climbing, but about new friends he had met. The colorful characters he was climbing with were a source of inspiration. These formed the basis of a variety of slide presentations, which were performed at climbing shops, college adventure clubs, and youth group meetings—and supplemented his meager annual income. Eventually, his skills as a raconteur evolved into a career. Todd, in association with Extreme Connection, became a sought-after motivational speaker.

Members of the AAC may remember the 1988 annual banquet in Atlanta. There, the club honored Todd and me with the Underhill Award for Lifetime Achievement. Up to that point Todd and I (but especially Todd) had climbed many, many, new routes across the country However, the award was certainly given due to our free climb of the Salathé Wall a few months earlier. During that ascent, Todd and I employed many of the techniques we had been using for years, the most controversial at the time being “hang-dogging.” Neither of us would hesitate to hang at a given point of difficulty on a pitch of climbing in order to “hang dog the moves”—meaning, we would take numerous short falls to rehearse crux sections. When we had choreographed the difficulties, we would lead the pitch without falling. Friends who were serious detractors, believing we were cheating, would watch from El Cap meadow and entertain us by shouting “Haaaaang-dogs!” Both sides of the argument were sincerely convinced that their approach was the best; however, with the passage of nearly 20 years, hang-dogging seems de rigueur. Todd and I both felt that our willingness (read: stubbornness) to spend nearly 40 days and nights learning to live and free climb on El Cap was our greatest attribute.

Prior to success on the Salathé, Todd was principally known as the author of some of the most difficult short free climbs in North America. The Gunfighter at Hueco Tanks, City Park at Index, and Throwin’ The Houlihan at Wild Iris are but a few of the hundreds of 5.13 and harder climbs Todd established. For us, the Salathé was proof of concept, demonstrating that our dreams of free climbing other big walls were reasonable. Together and with numerous talented friends, we shared in the free ascents of Mt. Hooker in the Wind River Range; The Great Canadian Knife in The Cirque of the Unclimbables; The Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome; Harmattan Rodeo on The Hand of Fatima in Mali; War & Poetry on Ulamertorsuaq in Greenland; and True At First Light, on Poi, in the Northern Frontier District in Kenya.

Many consider Todd’s finest hour to be a free ascent of the 20,500-foot Trango Tower with Steve and Jeff Bechtel, Bobby Model, Mike Lilygren, and Bill Hatcher. This climb summoned everything Todd ever learned about climbing and keeping team members motivated and working in order to grow together in strength, resolve, and perseverance. When the climbers succeeded in free-climbing Trango Tower, they had lived on the wall for 60 days through the deadliest season in Karakoram history and established the world’s first Grade VII free climb.

But simply to write about the climbs would be to ignore the most personal stories—the glorious days of tipi life at Devils Tower and in the Needles, where I watched Todd and Amy climb together and fall in love. I wish everyone could have seen his enraptured face when Hannah was born. After the twins, Jake and Sarah, came along, the three kids would flop over Todd like blankets, insisting he tell (for the millionth time) about when “Finger-biter the Piranha” bit me in the Amazon, or “The Legend of Stumpy Model,” or of “Gypsy Dave,” or “Tennessee Jim,” and the many other friends who had become characters in the stories he told his kids as they drifted off to sleep.

Some might say that Todd experienced and achieved more in his short life than almost everyone. Todd lived, loved, climbed, and thought more passionately than anyone I’ve ever known. Still, I believe his greatest achievements were still ahead.

How would Todd finish this remembrance? I think he would leave us with inspiration. He might say: “The next time you stand below a route that you have only dreamed of climbing, begin it with all of your heart and soul.

“The next time you find yourself with your toes against a blank spot on the map, take another step.

“The next time you are too tired to go on, think of a team high on Trango Tower after 59 freezing days of climbing—and persevere.

“The next time you don’t know where to turn, think about where you want to be in 20 years, and start moving, not worrying if your goal is straight ahead, and never, never give up.”

Todd is survived by wife Amy Whistler Skinner, son Jake, daughters Hannah and Sarah, brother Orion, and sister Holly. Sadly, a month before Todd’s death, his mother, Doris Skinner, passed. Todd’s father, Bob Skinner, passed a month after his son. A memorial fund has been established for Todd’s family. To donate please send contributions to: Todd Skinner Memorial Fund c/o Atlantic City Federal Credit Union, 704 W. Main Street, Lander, Wyoming, 82520.

Paul Piana