Todd Skinner summit climber, circa 1988
Credit: Lyn Alweis / Denver Post / Getty Images
Skinner first learned about Lander in 1989, when his sister Holly, a gold prospector, discovered in the nearby foothills a wall of limestone cliffs that reminded her of those that Skinner had loved to climb in France. She wrote to tell him to come check out the virgin faces, called Wild Iris. Sure enough, Skinner did love them and summoned Piana, who came with his then-girlfriend Heidi Badaracco, an expert climber. Skinner rented a small house with Amy Whisler, the woman who would become his wife.

Born and raised in Las Vegas, where her father had a job taking delinquent youths into the mountains on climbing and hiking expeditions, Amy had grown up much as Todd did: scrambling up rock faces and looking for adventure. She supported Skinner's lifestyle wholeheartedly and joined him on many of his quests. The two bought a place in Lander, and opened up a climbing and outdoor equipment store, named Wild Iris after the local walls, and married in 1999. In 1998 their first child Hannah was born, followed by twins Jake and Sarah two years later. Even then Amy did not stand in Skinner's way when he sought out distant climbs and traveled to give speeches.

"Amy sacrificed," says Skinner's friend and frequent climbing partner Steve Bechtel. "As driven as Todd was on his climbs, you needed someone just as dedicated back home. So he was very lucky he hooked up with her."

Skinner and Piana didn't have the cliffs of Wild Iris to themselves for long. "Word went out through climbing magazines that Todd Skinner was climbing in Wyoming," says Bechtel. Soon climbers flocked to Lander. Skinner welcomed the influx, and when he decamped to Texas's Hueco Tanks for the winter he invited his new friends along. Eventually he built a house there, one that could sleep 20 people. "Seven tiny bedrooms and a bunk room with eight bunks," says Amy. "Like a commune."

Skinner delighted in the company of veteran and novice climbers alike, but he also remained maniacally focused on his own personal climbing goals. After the Salathé he and Piana hatched a plan to climb the three other major walls in North America: Mount Hooker in Wyoming, Mount Proboscis in Canada, and the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite. He and Piana achieved the first two goals with relative ease, but on Half Dome's 2,400-foot northwest face, they stalled. After finishing the first two pitches, they hit a blank wall of smooth stone devoid of holds. They spent 20 days trying to find a way up; then Piana quit. Skinner went through three more partners and 30 more days of trying, to no avail. Fifty days into the ordeal he talked Steve Bechtel into coming to Yosemite. Bechtel brought Canadian climber Chris Oates with him, and the three finished the wall in 10 days. Bechtel was stunned by Skinner's commitment.

"It's so easy to get discouraged," he says, "because if you try something and you fail, your feedback loop is 'I'm not good enough to do that.' But this guy would fail 60 or 70 or 80 times – for 80 days – and still wake up in the morning ready to go."

Skinner's most extraordinary feat, however, was still ahead. In 1995, after two months of living in hanging tents and subsisting on rehydrated food and dodging ice storms that killed climbers on neighboring peaks, Skinner and a handful of "Wyoming cowboys" managed to free-climb the Trango Tower, a 3,000-foot spur of granite reaching 20,469 feet into the frigid air above northern Pakistan. The mountain presented challenges unlike any a free-climber had ever faced. But for Skinner, everything about Trango was pure joy.

"[T]here is a validation that comes with sheer terror," he later wrote, "because you know then that you are playing in an ultimate arena."

The problem was that after a lifetime of seeking out the next challenge, he was suddenly bereft of new goals equal to his last. "In a way," he wrote in 2003, almost 10 years after that ascent, in a rare admission of existential unease, "Trango was my 'last next.' I could imagine nothing beyond it."

When skinner decided to tackle Leaning Tower last fall, he knew he was aiming high, and he knew he wasn't as powerful as he had been. "We talked about it a little bit," says Bechtel. "It was something he was really struggling with. He was still climbing very, very well – and as well as anybody who is 47 anywhere in the world – but he could see that there's a horizon there. He was starting to get injured, and you could tell it bothered him."

Skinner's wife Amy agrees. "He just never had injuries," she says. "He had a shoulder injury a few years ago. It was the first really bad injury I'd ever seen him have. He was considering surgery." Even so, Amy did not tell him to back off. "The optimism was huge," she says, "and that was true to the very end of our life together. It was, Never settle. Just go for the most you can possibly be."

The issue wasn't merely whether Skinner was in shape, physically, to attempt such a climb; he also carried heavy emotional burdens. Weeks earlier, on September 20, his mother died after a long battle with cancer. Tragically, his father had also been diagnosed with the disease, and Bob Skinner, one of Todd's great heroes, was now at home in Lander, dying.

I met with Bob in mid-November, just weeks before he succumbed to cancer. In a tidy house that bore pictures of Todd on granite faces, Bob, who was hooked up to an IV drip, spoke with uncommon composure about his son. "I'm having a tough time believing it," he said. But like Amy, he had supported Todd in his continuing quest for climbing glory. "I was encouraging him to go for it," Bob told me. "To go for anything."

Skinner had warned Jim Hewett that he might have to abandon the Leaning Tower climb if his father's condition deteriorated. His father, however, was not his only family obligation; his twins' birthdays coincided with Skinner's time in Yosemite. He had made plans to fly back for a few days to celebrate their birthdays, then return to the tower.