All morning on October 23, 2006, the two men worked out moves on Leaning Tower, a jagged tooth of gold and yellow stone that rises about 3,000 feet from the valley floor of Yosemite National Park. Todd Skinner and his climbing partner Jim Hewett, friends since 2001, were mapping out a first free ascent on the gigantic wall. Plenty of others had spidered to the top of Leaning Tower by popular routes such as the West Face and Wet Denim Daydream, but Skinner, typically, had his sights on an unclimbed route, branching off to the left of Wet Denim, that he and Hewett could claim as their own.
The project was ambitious, requiring weeks of preparation, one stolen week at a time, to spend hour after hour finding new hand- and toeholds, clearing the rock of plants and loose stones, "choreographing" the upward movements, before Skinner and Hewett would finally attempt the whole feat, perhaps a year later, in a single sustained push from the bottom to the top. Such slow and painstaking work isn't for everyone. "It's surprisingly hard to find people who are willing to do that," says Hewett. "But that's what we loved."
That morning Skinner and Hewett got plenty of what they loved. The weather was perfect – windless, cool, and cloudless – and the partners tackled the most challenging parts of the face, the "crux" pitch of the climb. Even so, by two in the afternoon it was too hot to continue, and they called it quits for the day. They descended to a narrow ledge about halfway up the wall, ate the sandwiches they'd brought in their backpacks, then began to rappel down to the bottom. Skinner went first. He had neared the end of his second rappel when Hewett, a hundred feet above, heard a snap-slap sound.
"I looked down really quickly and just saw him falling," Hewett says. He heard no cry – just eerie silence as Skinner dropped 500 feet to the ground below. "On the way down I saw him bounce once and then land," Hewett says. "And I knew he was dead."
News of Todd Skinner's death, at age 47, first broke on supertopo.com, the popular climbers' website. "WHAT?" read one post. "I hope this is a troll."
Within minutes more posts brought confirmation of Skinner's death, followed rapidly by scores of tributes to him. The posts attested to his tenacity, his generosity with other climbers, and, above all, how psyched he always was. "Todd was one of the funniest, most...upbeat guys I've ever encountered in the sport," read one entry. "The energy man...it was all about the energy, and he had it."
"Todd was a couple of decades ahead of his time," says Bobby Model. "But more important than any of his innovations, he exuded this force field of energy that made you feel like you could basically do anything." Model, 34, a photojournalist based in Kenya, joined Skinner on several committing climbs. "Todd was unusually generous," Model adds. "When climbers reach a certain level, they're usually a little impatient with people who are just starting out, but not Todd. He'd take an interest in you if you were climbing 5.6" – on the scale of climbing technical difficulty – "or 5.14. He didn't care, he just wanted people to exceed their level." Skinner's death, Model says, came as a shock. "He was very safe, always double-checking, always communicating....He never took unnecessary risks."
Even as friends and acquaintances expressed their grief – and his death was not only a terrible loss for rock climbing, but for his wife and three grade-school children – no one with any knowledge of the sport could accept how the accident had happened. According to authorities in Yosemite, Skinner's belay loop – a small but extremely rugged nylon ring on a belt harness to which climbers attach their ropes – had simply given out, shorn right through. This suggested either an unfathomable equipment failure (few could even recall a precedent in the history of the sport) or an equally unfathomable lapse in judgment. The great Todd Skinner, dead from an old, frayed harness? No way. Must be some mistake. Or there must be something we don't know.
The disbelief was understandable. Until that October afternoon, Skinner had cheated death for more than a quarter century, willing himself up sheer rock faces and peaks in some 30 countries, including Vietnam, Pakistan, Venezuela, and Mali. He once took 80 days, almost three solid months, to complete a single, stunning first ascent, and he was famous for his "mono" – lifting his entire body weight on a single finger. He really did seem invincible. Irrepressible, too: Unlike his fellow climbers, many of whom thumb their noses at fame, Skinner was a shameless self-promoter who made no secret of wanting to get paid to travel and climb full-time.
He succeeded, becoming among the first to do so. Eager to popularize rock climbing, Skinner grew with the sport throughout the 1980s and early '90s, and while he may not have dominated climbing as Michael Jordan did basketball, Skinner was, like MJ, the face of his sport. "Rock climbing up to the late '80s wasn't a mainstream sport," says Jonathan Thesenga, the former editor of 'Climbing' magazine. "It was a full-on death-defying sport. People didn't get it, and that was part of the allure. It was fringe. Todd was trying to bring it into the mainstream, and people were saying, 'No, this isn't a mainstream activity.' And he's like, 'Yes, it can be.'"
At the same time, Skinner was intensely controversial, and not just for his notoriety. In the '80s Skinner championed an approach to the sport known as "free-climbing," in which climbers rely upon ropes, rope ladders, bolts, pitons, or other aids only for safety – in case of a fall – but not to advance up the rock. Because elevation gain was derived from the problem-solving skills and physical effort of the climber, Skinner argued free-climbing was purer than conventional "aid" climbing. But critics, some of whom went to the trouble of spying on him through telescopes as he climbed, charged that Skinner relied on external aids plenty to "rehearse" his free-climbs, exaggerated his achievements, and made up the rules as he went along in order to claim more firsts for his climbing résumé.
Beneath all the froth about climbing purity, though, Skinner was engaged in a project he took quite seriously: discovering his ultimate "capacity," as he put it, as a human being. To reach beyond what any of us believe ourselves capable of – this was Skinner's dangerous, addictive, and inspiring game. It drove him to nearly unimaginable feats, but it appears to have been his undoing as well.