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

On October 14 Skinner met Krcik to drive into Yosemite. On October 19 as he and Hewett got ready to climb, Skinner showed Hewett his climbing harness; it was badly worn. "He was so much about getting it done," Hewett reflects, "he wasn't going to let that stop us." Still, Skinner's harness, an Arc'Teryx model from 2002, "was the worst I'd seen him in ever. If it had been my wife, I would have made her tie a backup loop or change the harness for sure. I probably wouldn't have let her go up in it. That being said, he and I both understand that this stuff is over engineered, and also he's alive after doing it this long. You've got to think, 'Okay, he knows what he's doing.'" When he told Skinner the harness looked worn, Hewett recalls, "he was, 'Yeah, yeah, I've got a new one coming.' That was the last we spoke of it."

They climbed without incident for three days, but on the fourth afternoon Hewett heard the snap, and Skinner plummeted. There was a party of climbers on a route up to the right, about 500 yards away. Hewett yelled up to them, telling them what had happened. Two of them were members of Yosemite search-and-rescue and said they would call in Skinner's fall. Hewett began to descend.

Two rappels later he was on the ledge where Skinner's smashed body lay. "I didn't – didn't really go over and look," he says. "I just saw his foot sticking up and some other stuff. I yelled, and he didn't answer."

Amy's decision about what to do with Skinner's body had been made a couple of months earlier, when Skinner had been enlisted by the local search-and-rescue to look for a lost climber. Skinner had found the man, dead after a 500-foot fall. "That poor man's body was beat to pieces," says Amy, "and Todd said, 'I don't want the family to deal with that.' Todd and the pilot made the call that the body should go into town, not to where the family was. Todd said, 'You need to remember the person he was, not the horrible mess,'" says Amy. "So when it was my turn to make those decisions, it was a no-brainer. He was cremated."

Although the harness did break, Amy says she had no intention of seeking damages. "Todd used all of his gear harder and longer than he should have... If there's any blame in the accident, it's Todd's." Amy has spoken to Arc'teryx, and believes "there's no fault at all, in terms of the company that made it." Even so, "It shouldn't have happened. It was an accident." (Arc'teryx president and CEO Tyler Jordan confirmed that his company made the harness and said Arc'teryx had cooperated with the National Park Service's investigation.)

Suggestions that Skinner was too impatient to wait for a new harness, was pushing to fit the climb in before his twins' birthdays, or that he was distracted by his mother's recent death – these don't go over well in Lander. Nor will anyone concede that Skinner might have died because he continued to attack walls that were beyond his capacity, now, to climb. No one wishes to believe that age, injury, or grief over a dead mother and dying father might have contributed to his fall.

Of course, Skinner did not die on the actual climb, but climbs as demanding as the one on Leaning Tower require total investment from a climber – whether he is on the ascent or simply returning to base camp. "I happen to know," says climber Hill, "that when people are emotionally stressed or distracted like that, they don't make the best decisions."

Werntz is convinced that his friend's fatal decision to climb with a frayed harness did not stem from his emotional state. "Oh, absolutely not," he says. Hewett takes the same line, but admits some doubt. "He was pretty good at blocking things out so he could climb."

The reluctance to see Skinner as fallible makes sense. For so long he had embodied an optimistic, positive ethos: the refusal to succumb to limitations. Yet age makes its inevitable claims. Despite all of Todd Skinner's hard-won wisdom, this was a lesson the mountains could not teach him.