Todd Skinner summit climber, circa 1988
Credit: Lyn Alweis / Denver Post / Getty Images
Among nonclimbers climbers are often confused with mountaineers, guys like Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner, or Ed Viesturs, who have taken on the world's tallest peaks. Skinner made a few expeditions at high altitude, but he was a rock climber, not a mountaineer, and thus a member of a diverse community of athletes who scale near-vertical faces of varying sizes by various means – and who debate those means vigorously. Because their sport requires great devotion, even privation, climbers tend to eschew material comforts and take pride in living poor (Dumpster-diving, if need be); they take even more pride in self-reliance (real climbers don't call rangers for help).

For the sake of argument, the rock and ice climber Will Gadd has divided rock climbers into distinct "tribes." There were the unruly, unwashed big-wall climbers who laid siege to the 3,000-foot granite monoliths with all manner of devices and spent weeks hanging off rock from pitons they'd hammered in; sport climbers who scaled lower (about 100-foot) faces, many with bolts for ropes looped to a belay partner on the ground; and trad – traditional – climbers who, as Gadd notes, "[believe] that the bolts common to sport climbing are sacrilegious" and climbed with the use of removable cams and chocks instead of hammered pitons and bolts in order to leave the rocks as they found them.

Skinner didn't care much for the semantics of these tribes, and he'd piss off the guardians of each discipline in due course, but he was unmistakably one of them, too, committed to the dirtbag, nomadic, monklike existence of climbing's answer to the ski or surf bum. In his 20s, in the 1980s, he met many of his girlfriends in campgrounds or on rock faces; if they stuck with him it was because they shared the romance of the mountains – even if it meant living out of their boyfriend's VW van.

"That was just how we lived then," says Beth Wald, a photojournalist who was Skinner's girlfriend for a few years in the mid-'80s. Skinner, she says, "didn't really care if people agreed with what he was doing... He was just focused on 'sending' his next project." She saw him act impatiently only with people "who lacked passion" in their lives. About the only thing he was touchy about, she laughs, with affection, was his hair, which had started thinning at an early age, leading him to cover his hairline with a (soon ever-present) bandanna.

For years after college Skinner and Piana held real jobs only long enough to save gas money for another trip to, say, Hueco Tanks, Texas, now a popular spot for bouldering (climbing low to the ground without ropes but using pads below). Eventually, the two hit on an MO that borrowed from several climbing tribes. They took the approach of sport climbing – bolts and other protection placed at intervals, with a partner on belay to break a fall – and applied it to really big walls, in sections. Then, once they'd scouted out a new route putting these sections together, they'd "free" it – without aid – in one sustained push.

One of the great advantages of the duo's commitment to free-climbing was that it allowed them to claim first ascents of walls that had been climbed previously, but by conventional means. The two rarely missed a chance to make such a claim; by the time of his death Skinner counted no fewer than 300 first ascents.

As if all their claims to true firsts weren't enough to raise some hackles (and was it really free-climbing, asked doubters, if they used bolts to scout the route?), Skinner tossed in a still more divisive innovation.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the unwritten rules of free-climbing stated that if you slipped, fell, and were caught by your safety ropes, you returned to the bottom and started over. But Skinner used a different approach: If you fall, you hang from your ropes, recover, then practice the move repeatedly until you master it. The technique is known as hangdogging, and when Skinner pioneered it in Yosemite, he loosed a shitstorm, gaining the nickname "Turd Skimmer."

Skinner never let the abuse get to him. Some years later, when park rangers at Hueco decided that drilling new bolts into rocks was vandalism and targeted Skinner as an outsider with a big reputation, Skinner took to carrying around a waffle iron and other heavy metal objects in his climbing pack to make enemies think he was going to drill and bolt a sacred bit of rock. They would call the authorities, who would ask to see his stuff and find...a waffle iron. Even the most righteous scolds had to laugh.