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

After his and piana's painful success on El Cap, Skinner, now 29, got his first taste of life as a yuppie instead of a dirtbag. Ann Krcik, then working at the North Face, helped complete a deal that made him only the second athlete to be put on the company's retainer. "He had a charisma unmatched by anyone else," says Krcik, who went on to become director of marketing operations before founding a corporate speaking agency, Extreme Connection, with Skinner as her main client. "He was a natural-born storyteller."

Certainly Skinner gave good quote. Mountains, he said, "are powerful narcotics. They can wreck lives and end marriages. And they never diminish in importance." Because free-climbing required avoiding devices, it was "a ballet where you are both the choreographer and the dancer." More than happy to shock his audience, he would tell them about how he and his team once resorted to eating monkeys in the jungles of South America because an airdrop of food hadn't landed. "They tasted like burned hair," he said, "because we didn't know how to skin them."

Skinner appeared in magazine ads for clothing and gear, dangling from rock formations or with his ripped forearms crossed, his wind-whittled features in a trademark grin. He also hustled for exposure on TV adventure shows to help underwrite his expensive expeditions.

Even climbers who respected Skinner sometimes balked at his willingness to airbrush the realities of climbing in the interest of winning a mass audience for the sport. Lynn Hill is a world-renowned climber who counts herself as one of Skinner's friends and professional peers. (Skinner visited her in Boulder after the birth of her son in 2003, when he was passing through the area.) At the same time, she understands why Skinner drew fire.

"He did posture in certain ways," she says, "and some people have negative personal stories." But Hill says the closest thing she has to a negative story occurred on a climbing trip with Skinner and a few others in Vietnam in 1996. A cameraman came along to film a documentary, but Skinner told him not to film team members placing bolts in the rock as protection. "When people see bolts they say, 'Oh, that's no good,'" Hill says. "He wanted to present our experience in Vietnam in a certain way. He was definitely a showman."

Such PR-savvy tactics paid off for Skinner. In 1989 Apple Computer invited him speak at one of its sales meetings. Before 3,000 people at San Francisco's Civic Center, he told the story of free-climbing the Salathé. He got a standing ovation. Soon he was doing as many as 30 talks a year, all over the country, earning up to $20,000 a speech. Once a penniless nomad, Skinner became wealthy, buying homes in several of his favorite climbing areas: Hueco Tanks; Groveland, California, near Yosemite; and Lander, Wyoming, which became his permanent home.