Todd Skinner summit climber, circa 1988
Credit: Lyn Alweis / Denver Post / Getty Images
Skinner stunned the climbing world in 1985 by freeing a seemingly impossible Yosemite crack called the Stigma. He and Piana then set their sights on the project that is still considered their signature – and most disputed – achievement: a free-climb of the Salathé Wall of El Capitan, the 3,604-foot monolith in Yosemite.

Until then, the longest climb Skinner had done was six pitches; the Salathé has 36. In 1988, after months of planning, he and Piana traveled to Yosemite and spent a month choreographing moves. To free his mind of the fear of falling, Skinner took deliberate 30-foot falls, coming to bouncing stops at the end of his rope, a tactic Skinner called "getting velocitized."

After the month of preparation, they made their assault: a seven-day marathon that brought them to the summit. Yet no sooner had they reached the safety of horizontal ground than they were nearly crushed and swept to their deaths.

At the summit, Piana had anchored the ropes holding their heavy equipment (tents, packs, food, stove) to a huge stone block. Skinner posed for a quick picture. They were about to start down when they heard a crack. The stone block had broken off at its base and was grinding toward them at the cliff's edge.

Skinner tried to lunge out of the way, but a loop of slack rope caught him and, pulled by the falling rock, squeezed the breath out of his lungs. He feared being "cut in two" when suddenly the moving block severed the constricting rope, launching Skinner over the edge. "Miraculously caught by one uncut rope, I dangled below the rim," he recalled later, "and [I] watched the block slowly go over, just kissing my shoulder on the way down."

Piana's own published account describes the "horror of seeing my best friend knocked wildly off the edge"; he felt a punishing weight on his left leg and was himself "squeegeed off the rim," but he managed to scramble back onto solid ground. He assumed Skinner was a goner, when he heard a tiny, squeaky voice coming from below the edge of the precipice: "Grab the rope!" Seconds later he saw Skinner's bloodied hand grab the rim. Piana helped him up and the two lay panting in pain.

Skinner had two broken ribs and was coughing blood. He'd torn a muscle from his hip and could not lift his left leg. Piana's leg was crushed. They waited for rescuers, unaware that people on the ground had seen their packs and clothing fall from the mountain and thought it was the climbers themselves. The rescuers were searching for their bodies at the bottom of the cliff. Skinner and Piana were left to crawl with their broken bodies down the mountain as night fell. It took them almost seven hours.