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Todd Skinner dies in rappelling accident

Although I never knew Todd well enough to call him a friend, I did talk to him regularly on dozens of occasions - at Hueco, El Paso Climbers' Club Meetings, and over the phone in 2004 and 2005. He was always friendly, polite and enthusiastic, even during the period in the mid to late 1980's when most locals (myself included) were irritated with him as a result of the bolting, gluing and chipping incidents that contributed to the TPW closures in 1988.

As the years went by I came to realize that many land managers will always be enemies of climbers, regardless of how carefully climbers follow every arbitrary rule the managers concoct. A few bolts and glued holds are trivial compared to the environmental destruction caused by sanctioned commercial enterprises such as roads, dams, cattle grazing, etc. I no longer blame Todd for any of the restrictions currently in place at Hueco, and I respect him for his moral stance that resulted in him selling his training camp (now the Rock Ranch) and kissing Hueco goodbye after the stupid PURP was implemented in 1998. We had several long phone conversations in 2004 and 2005 where I let him know how I felt. He was gracious as always and we had a good laugh about the our silly (in retrospect) disagreements "back in the day"

Todd's friends and family are maintaining his website,

NPS Morning Report for October 30, 2006

Yosemite National Park (CA)
Follow-up On Fatal Climbing Fall

On the afternoon of October 23rd, dispatch received a telephone call reporting a fatal climbing fall. Jim Hewitt reported that he and his partner, well-known climber Todd Skinner, had been working on a first free ascent of the "Jesus Built My Hotrod" route on the overhanging west face of the Leaning Tower. Skinner's fall occurred when he was rappelling. Hewitt told investigators that he had been above Skinner when he fell. As he was rappelling on the low-stretch ropes that they had fixed on the route, Hewitt came to Skinner's Grigri descent device on the rope at the point where he had fallen. The Grigri had a still-locked carabiner attached which had been connected to Skinner's harness. When Skinner's body was recovered, the belay loop on his harness was missing. The next day, rangers recovered a broken harness belay loop in vegetation at the base of the wall. It was very worn at the spot where the break had occurred. Hewitt later told investigators that Skinner was aware that the belay loop on his harness was in a weakened condition prior to the climb, and that they had talked about its poor condition three days earlier. For further details, click on "More Information" below. [Submitted by Keith Lober, Emergency Services Coordinator]

San Francisco Chronicle

Fatal fall at Yosemite shocks climbing world

Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Todd Skinner's hands were cut up and he was tired after a hard day of climbing, but he was a happy man standing high above Yosemite Valley on what is known as Leaning Tower.

He and his partner, Jim Hewett of Fairfax, had spent two weeks practicing what would be the first free climb up this route, one of the hardest they had ever attempted.

"We'd probably been up and down it 100 times," Hewett said Wednesday. "We were working out the route, figuring out moves. He was the same super happy person he had always been."

They talked about their plans for the next day, then Skinner began rappelling down from a ledge part way up the 2,000-foot face. Five minutes later, he was dead.

Skinner, a 47-year-old former rodeo cowboy and world-renowned rock climber, fell more than 500 feet to his death Monday after the nylon loop used to attach the climbing rope to his harness broke. The accident has sent shock waves through the climbing community, where Skinner's outgoing nature was almost as legendary as his courage and skill on some of the world's most dangerous rock faces.

"There is just general disbelief that this could happen to him, because he was such a safe climber," said Ann Krcik, a longtime friend who also employed him as a motivational speaker. "He was the pioneer of big wall free-climbing, but he also affected every climber he ever met because he was so personable."

Skinner, who lived with his wife and three children in Lander, Wyo., was a specialist in free climbing, a style in which ropes and other equipment are used only as backup in case of a fall. He is credited with more than 300 first ascents in 26 countries, and his adventures have been documented on film and in magazines in 12 languages.

Among the highlights was the first free ascent of the Salathe Wall on Yosemite's El Capitan in 1988. The route, which is considered by many climbers as the best and most intimidating rock climb in the world, is steeper even than the famous Nose route, also on El Cap.

Skinner's other first ascents include the north face of Mount Hooker in Wyoming's Wind River Range, the Great Canadian Knife in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Yukon Territory, the Northwest Direct Route on Yosemite's Half Dome and the East Face of Trango Tower in Pakistan's Karakoram Range.

He also led mountain and jungle expeditions to Pakistan, Vietnam, Mali, Greenland and Kenya.

Through it all, he gained a reputation as one of the world's great storytellers. With a mirthful cowboy twang, Skinner would describe in colorful detail his bull-riding experiences on the professional rodeo circuit or his jungle adventures with National Geographic, often with an emphasis on shocking detail.

"He was a character," said speed climbing record holder Hans Florine, who often ran into Skinner climbing the big walls. "He told me once that during an expedition in South America, their food drop didn't happen, so he had to eat monkeys. He said the meat smelled like burned hair because the monkeys weren't skinned before they were barbequed."

Skinner, whose stories were generally regarded as 85 percent true, parlayed his gift for gab into a money-making venture as a motivational speaker, inspiring audiences at 30 events a year.

Steve Schneider, 46, of Oakland, said he met Skinner on the rock climbing competition circuit 20 years ago and was captivated immediately.

"One of the things I remember him telling me was that his heroes were the Japanese left on the islands after World War II," Schneider said. "He said they found some of those guys 15 to 20 years later in the jungles still fighting the war. He emulated those guys in that nothing was going to deter him, and it didn't matter how long it was going to take. He had that dig-in-and-never-say-die attitude."

It was as much his attitude as his skill that made his death shocking to climbers, many of whom regarded Skinner as virtually invincible.

"It's really affecting the climbing community because harness failure is pretty unusual -- it is not supposed to happen," said Ken Yager, president and founder of Yosemite Climbing Association. "It's gotten people thinking about their old harnesses now. I know I'm going to go out and buy a new one."

The part that broke, called the belay loop, is designed to be the strongest part of the climbing harness, but Hewett, 34, said Skinner's harness was old.

"It was actually very worn," Hewett said. "I'd noted it a few days before, and he was aware it was something to be concerned about." Friends of Skinner said he had ordered several new harnesses but they hadn't yet arrived in the mail.

On Monday's climb, Hewett said the belay loop snapped while Skinner was hanging in midair underneath an overhanging ledge.

"I knew exactly what had happened right when it happened," he said. "It was just disbelief. It was too surreal."

Stunned and in shock after watching his friend fall, he checked his equipment.

"I wanted to make sure that what had caused the accident wasn't going to happen to me," he said. "I then went down as quick as I could."

Hewett said he knew there was no hope. A search-and-rescue team found Skinner's body, wearing the harness with the broken belay loop, about 4 p.m. Monday on the rocks near Bridalveil Fall. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Skinner had survived virtually unscathed on many harrowing climbs. His closest call, friends said, came when a huge block of granite broke off Salathe Wall just as he and his partner reached the top in 1988. The huge slab scraped by them as it fell, breaking their bones but not their rope, which saved them.

In a sport that is full of rivalries and increasingly driven by competition, Skinner was universally regarded as the most generous, helpful and encouraging of all the top climbers.

"It's a huge loss for the climbing community," Schneider said. "I pay him the greatest compliment by saying that I was really jealous of Todd. He turned climbing into dollars better than anyone in America, and by doing that he's broken ground for other climbers. I really looked up to him for that."

E-mail Peter Fimrite at

NPS Morning Report for October 26,2006

Yosemite National Park (CA)
Noted Climber Falls To His Death

An experienced rock climber fell to his death this past Monday while climbing near Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite Valley. Todd Skinner, 47, of Lander, Wyoming, was climbing a route on the Leaning Tower when he fell approximately 500 feet to his death. Skinner's climbing partner reported the fall at around 4 p.m.  Skinner was pronounced dead at the scene. He is survived by his wife and three children. The exact cause of death is under investigation. [Submitted by Adrienne Freeman, Public Affairs]

By Garance Burke
6:29 p.m. October 24, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO – A renowned rock climber and author who scaled peaks around the world fell 500 feet to his death in Yosemite National Park, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Todd Skinner was rappelling Monday after he and a partner worked on pioneering a new route near Bridalveil Fall, said Adrienne Freeman, a park spokeswoman.

It was not immediately clear why Skinner, who claimed on his Web site to have set climbing records in 26 countries, fell.

“We don't know whether it was a climbing harness failure or a problem with his equipment or an error,” said Steve Bechtel, Skinner's former climbing partner and friend. “He's a larger-than-life climbing hero and it's a great loss to the entire community of climbers across the world.”

Skinner, 47, of Lander, Wyo., was celebrated for having climbed hundreds of rock faces from Canada's Yukon Territory to the Himalayas using a technique called free climbing, in which climbers ascend upward using no artificial aid to climb – only a rope to protect against falls.

“He was the first person to think it was possible to free climb,” said Ann Krick, a friend who hired him as a motivational speaker. “He always said that the most dangerous thing was to pick was an easy mountain. As a climber he said he needed to pick hard enough climbs because those are the walls where you'll learn the most.”

In the world of rock climbing, those who successfully pioneer first ascents are admired for pushing the boundaries of their sport, said Hans Florine, one of the world's fastest rock climbers.

“Someone might have climbed a peak or a crag or a cliff before, but never the way Todd Skinner did,” said Florine. “His mission was to be the first person to free climb all the biggest faces in the world.”

The Mariposa County coroner's office will perform an autopsy and park officials will determine the cause of his fall. Bechtel, who was not present at the scene, said Skinner's climbing partner, Jim Hewitt, reported his death as soon as he reached the ground Monday afternoon.

Skinner is survived by his wife and three children.

While climbers have been scaling Yosemite's sheer walls for more than four decades, the most adventurous still seek out new ways to the top.

At the time of his death, Skinner was working on a new route up “Leaning Tower,” near the famous wispy waterfall that greets visitors entering Yosemite Valley by car.

Although Skinner gained fame in the climbing community for globe-trotting accomplishments, he also counted Yosemite among his records.

He was the first to free climb a now-famous route on El Capitan, the park's massive granite monolith that rises some 3,000 feet from the valley floor, according to his Web site. Skinner, who wrote “Beyond the Summit,” also claimed first ascents in Pakistan, Mali, Kenya and Greenland.