Todd Skinner summit climber, circa 1988
Credit: Lyn Alweis / Denver Post / Getty Images

In the beginning Skinner wasn't supposed to be a climber but a skier, and not just any skier, an Olympic medalist. His father Bob was one of six sons of Clem Skinner, who'd moved from Wisconsin to Wyoming in 1925. One of the brothers was on the U.S. Olympic biathlon training team in the 1960s, while two others started a ski racing foundation at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Bob, the third son, taught survival skills in the air force after World War II and was a competitive downhill skier. In 1956 Bob and his brothers opened a wilderness survival school, called Skinner Brothers, in their native Pinedale, Wyoming; they ran the school for almost five decades.

Todd, born in 1958, was the middle of three children; he joined his older brother and younger sister as regulars at the school and completed the survival course multiple times. His father Bob recalled seeing a Wild West show in Jackson with Todd, then eight years old. A rough-looking "bad guy" who had just performed in a shoot-out leaned over Todd and growled, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Todd did not blink. "A giant!" he declared.

Climbing got an early hold on Skinner. At 11 he became one of the youngest people ever to summit Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming, a 13,804-foot mountain that took him 14 hours to climb. He also devoured stories about famous explorers such as Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen – obsessed, he later wrote, with understanding "what people are capable of enduring."

He didn't have to wait long to get his own first "glimpse at how far you can really go," as he later wrote in his memoir/primer Beyond the Summit. At 19 he got in way over his head on a winter mountaineering trip. Out in the backcountry with an uncle and some others in late 1978 for a winter ascent of Gannett Peak, they blundered onto the wrong trail and found themselves stranded without water, tents, or food in subzero temperatures. They eventually made it back to camp after several days. "Even at the time," Skinner wrote, "I sensed it was a worthy investment into my future capacity."

In 1977 he enrolled at the University of Wyoming, where he studied business and finance and joined the ski team. "He got a lot of – I won't say family pressure – but family incentive to be a skier," says Brad Werntz, who had befriended Skinner when he attended Skinner Brothers. But Skinner soon met fellow undergrad Paul Piana, who had grown up in Wyoming near the Black Hills of South Dakota and who had been rock climbing since childhood.

Piana would practice on a decorative sandstone wall in the school's cafeteria, using the wall's shallow finger- and toeholds to traverse back and forth. Under Piana's wing Skinner learned climbing quickly; by his senior year he had decided to abandon skiing and devote his life to climbing.

In 1979 the two took their first road trip to Yosemite, where they were surprised to discover the ease with which they could master some of the most famously difficult routes.

"We had imagined it to be so impossibly difficult that we had trained correspondingly hard in preparation...and we ended up much stronger than we had to be," Skinner recalled in his memoir. "We were shocked by our success." Though the pair were still unknown, they were ambitious, and they saw lots of room to make their mark.