Remembering Todd Skinner: Tragic end to a brilliant life

Inspirational, visionary, hyper-enthusiastic, hilarious, controversial…just a few of the words used to describe the life of Todd Skinner. On Oct. 28 -- his 48th birthday -- over 500 people attended a memorial service for the fallen climber near his home in Lander, Wyo. Candles on two giant cakes were lit and the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to celebrate Skinner's life.
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Inspirational, visionary, hyper-enthusiastic, hilarious, controversial…just a few of the words used to describe the life of Todd Skinner. On Oct. 28 -- his 48th birthday -- over 500 people attended a memorial service for the fallen climber near his home in Lander, Wyo. Candles on two giant cakes were lit and the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to celebrate Skinner's life.

The news of Skinner's death reverberated around the climbing world on Oct. 23. He and his partner, Jim Hewitt, were rappelling on fixed lines down the west face of the Leaning Tower in Yosemite -- a 1,200-foot monolith on which they had been attempting to free climb an aid line called "Jesus Built My Hotrod." Skinner was in mid-air beneath an overhang when the belay loop on his harness broke, sending him 500 feet to his death.

Skinner was a true character in the climbing world, and was immensely popular with all who met him. His mirthful storytelling and cowboy antics were only rivaled by his exceptional climbing ability. Over the past 30 years, Skinner made some 300 first ascents in 26 countries, many of which were cutting edge in their day. He was largely responsible for making Hueco Tanks in Texas a world-famous destination for boulderers and sport climbers -- ironically, one of his routes is called "When Legends Die" (5.13b).

In 1988, when sport climbing was still in its infancy, Skinner and Paul Piana rocked the climbing world by making the first free ascent of El Capitan via the Salathé Wall (VI, 5.13b). At the time, this was considered a wildly controversial climb -- some even questioned their veracity -- due to the siege tactics and numerous falls, but it is now considered a milestone of the modern climbing era. To hear Skinner and Piana recount the tale, including the fortuitous clipping of an ancient piton that saved them from certain death, was a memorable experience for anyone.

Other notable achievements include the first free ascent of the "Direct Northwest Face" on Half Dome, the first free ascent of the North Face of Mount Hooker in Wyoming's Wind River Range, and the first free ascent of the East Face of Trango Tower (aka Nameless Tower) in Pakistan. In 1986, Skinner created such controversy over his tactics of rehearsing moves on climbs that locals tried to thwart his ascent of "City Park" on the Index Town Walls, Wash., by greasing the holds…Skinner used a blow torch to burn off the grease and made the first free ascent anyhow.

Skinner also created controversy, and jealousy, by becoming one of the first successful professional climbers. Rather than climbing for sponsors, he became a popular motivational speaker for major corporations such as Intel, Dell, Covad, Apple and PaineWebber. His book, "Beyond the Summit: Setting and Surpassing Extraordinary Business Goals," published in 2003, is based upon the lecture.

Many in the outdoor industry, even non-climbers, will recall Skinner since he attended numerous Outdoor Retailer trade shows and his boisterous presence there was always notable. Skinner also gave slide shows at countless stores around the country, inspiring many climbers and non-climbers to push beyond their limits. When Reebok made its ill-fated attempt to enter the outdoor market, Skinner was a lead designer of the company's rock shoes.

As the news of Skinner's death broke last week, an outpouring of shock and grief swept through Internet climbing forums. One in particular, Supertopo.com, became the repository of laments from the who's who of the climbing world as well as numerous other people that were impacted by Skinner. The thread has evolved into a collection of tales, photos and "Toddisms" that will someday educate his children. SNEWS® readers are encouraged to contribute.

Skinner is survived by his wife, Amy Whisler; their three children, Hannah, Jake and Sarah; his sister, Holly Skinner; his brother, Orion; and his father, Robert. His mother passed away just a few weeks before on Sept. 20.

A fund has been established to help his family:

Skinner Memorial Fund

Atlantic City Federal Credit Union

704 West Main Street

Lander, WY 82520

Aftermath

An investigation of the accident by the National Park Service is still ongoing. According to Hewitt, three days prior to the accident, the pair had discussed the worn condition of Skinner's harness and Skinner had already placed an order for a new one. When Hewitt descended the static rope after Skinner fell, he found a Petzl Gri-Gri with the locking carabiner attached and locked. The next day, NPS personnel found the broken belay loop at the base of the rock and stated, "It was very worn at the spot where the break had occurred."

Although it has yet to be revealed the brand and model of the harness Skinner was wearing, this is likely to be irrelevant. As is well documented, the belay loops on all harnesses are rated to a minimum of 15 kN (3372 lbf -- lbf is a non-technical unit of force equal to the mass of 1 pound with an acceleration of free fall equal to 32 feet/sec/sec), and, in fact, they all test quite a bit stronger when new (5000-6000 lbf).

Kolin Powick, quality assurance manager at Black Diamond, recently tested a batch of belay loops that he had purposely damaged. A loop that was 75 percent cut still held almost 3000 lbf and one that was 90 percent cut broke at 777 lbf. Severe abrasion to the stitching only minimally weakened the loops as well. However, these were new belay loops that had not been subjected to countless falls, grit, UV degradation and general abrasion.

More will come of this in the next few weeks, but the early evidence suggests that any harness would have failed if it were in the same condition.

SNEWS® View: It's hard to believe a tragic accident like this happened to such an experienced climber like Todd Skinner. Yes, the belay loop broke. But these things are so ridiculously over-engineered that only extreme abuse can weaken them to the point of breaking under a relatively low load. Perhaps it was simply extreme wear and tear. Or perhaps battery acid somehow weakened the belay loop. Either way, this accident does not mean belay loops are risky. And that is important.

Even the use of a rappel backup is unlikely to have prevented this accident. Given the standard practice of using the ascender knot below the rappel device, if the belay loop or carabiner fails, the climber is left upside down hanging from a single leg loop.

Predictably, this accident has lead to a lot of speculation from climbers about the safety of belay loops. Some ill-informed climbers are advocating not using a belay loop for belaying or rappelling, despite that fact that it makes both of those activities safer (much reduced chance of cross-loading a carabiner, better hand position for belaying and less chance of getting clothes or hair caught). Others are advocating adding a second belay loop to the climbing harness, which increases the potential for user confusion and causes more wear on the rope tie-in point.

If there is any good coming from this tragedy, it has forced all climbers to take a closer look at the condition of their climbing harness. No longer will grizzled veterans look at their tattered harness and mumble, "It's good enough." Moreover, climbers will take a more careful look at the rappel setups with that little voice in the back of their mind saying, "Remember Todd," before they step into the void.

Without doubt, every harness manufacturer has also taken a closer look at individual product lines to determine what can be improved at critical wear points. Hopefully, we will see greater emphasis on visual indicators of wear, so it is easier to decide when to replace a harness.

A better system for attaching backup slings to a harness needs to be created. The practice of girth hitching daisy chains (themselves potentially dangerous) to the belay loop prevents it from rotating, concentrating the wear on a single spot; possibly a factor in this case. Metolius and Mammut are on the right track with their belay anchors (far better than daisies), but nobody has yet engineered a complete harness system that allows for backups at the belay and on rappel.

This is at least the second case of a belay loop breaking (details on the first are sketchy and nobody was injured), but there is still no one collecting information on climbing equipment failure. Perhaps the American Alpine Club or some other organization will finally create a reporting system and database so that future accidents can be prevented.

Retailers should take the opportunity to discuss with customers the importance of frequently inspecting their climbing gear, particularly nylon webbing. Of course, all consumers hate retiring gear and many suspect the motives of companies that suggest product lifetimes, but this accident will make replacing a harness more palatable. It's also important for retailers to emphasize the need for proper fit in a climbing harness, which can only be determined by hanging in them -- just trying them on is not good enough.

Todd was a friend to many of us in the outdoor industry and we all feel the terrible loss. None of us at SNEWS® will ever forget his smile -- one that would light up any room. We can best honor him by making sure that this type of accident never happens again.

*SNEWS® Live will broadcast a celebration of Todd Skinner's life, taped at the Oct. 28 memorial service, this week. If you subscribe to iTunes, be sure to activate a SNEWS® Live subscription by clicking here, and that way, the Todd Skinner story will download to your iTunes or iPod automatically. Otherwise, go to www.snewsnet.com/podcasts to access the story there.

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