There is an unwritten rule in the climbing world; when someone is working on a project you don’t touch it until they’ve finished. Climbers respectfully stay off a route while the finder cleans it, studies it, and sometimes makes countless failed attempts to figure out how to make it go.
But what happens when a route’s original pioneer dies before its finished? And what happens when the deceased climber left not just a single project, but dozens?
Todd Skinner was a visionary who spent most of his climbing career scouting new projects and notching first ascents. Skinner put up countless routes in the Lander, Wyoming, area and around the world. But he also left dozens of projects unfinished when he died on Oct. 23, 2006, when his worn out belay loop broke while he worked a new route on the Leaning Tower in Yosemite National Park.
Ten years later the next generation of climbers are finishing the projects he left behind.
Skinner came from a family of explorers and grew up hearing his uncle, Courtney Skinner, talk about his adventures at the South Pole, and his father, Bob Skinner, telling stories about his time in the mountains of British Columbia, according to Skinner’s former climbing partner Paul Piana.
Piana met Skinner in 1978 while at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Skinner was bouldering in a harness weighted with climbing and mountaineering gear from an era long past. He looked ridiculous, but Piana liked his enthusiasm and energy. He found a great belay partner in the young Skinner. But what really bonded the duo was their love of exploration. They called themselves first ascensionists. Being first was everything. It was a way they could leave their mark on the world.
“All the oceans have been crossed, the rivers explored, the mountain ranges have names,” Piana said. “Yet in rock climbing you have the opportunity to explore a new feature or a path up a cliff and that’s pretty compelling.”
Skinner arrived in Lander, Wyoming, in 1990 lured by tales of unclimbed limestone. It was a new frontier of untapped climbing possibilities. The bolts and chalk on the now renowned cliffs of Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon were years away. Popular routes like Throwin’ the Houlihan (5.14a) didn’t yet exist and, to the untrained eye, were invisible. Skinner saw the possibility.
“If you look around here and pick the best looking thing, inevitably Todd found it,” friend and climbing partner Steve Bechtel said.
Skinner spent more than half his climbing time on reconnaissance. He had an incredible eye for spotting new routes, but also a belief that nothing could be ruled out until it was tried, no matter how miserable the hike in, or how clean the wall looked once you got there.
No type of climbing was off limits. While some climbers specialize in cracks, or slabs, or pockets, Skinner climbed everything and did it well, remembers Bechtel. The only thing that mattered was that it hadn’t been climbed before.
He kept track of his prolific list of projects which included hundreds of potential routes around the world. He named everything, from the route, to the pitches to even some of the features.
“Todd always talked about the blank spot on the map and how all you have to do is take one more step and you are no longer on unexplored territory," said Piana. "And if you give it a name, you can tell others how to get there."
The names are a reminder of these gifts, as many climbers like Bechtel call them, that Skinner left behind.
Bechtel blogged a list of Skinner’s most notable unfinished projects a few years ago. Some are also noted in his guidebook, Lander Rock Climbs.
In the close knit climbing community word often spreads when someone has interest in a Skinner project, says Bechtel. Other climbers respect an attempt on a Skinner project the same way they do when someone is working on their own project. They leave it alone until its finished, or abandoned as too challenging.
In Wyoming, Skinner projects are often tackled by residents. It can take years to develop the finger strength needed for the pockets around Lander. And many climbers who seek out Skinner projects have a connection to him. They knew him, or his family, or idolized him as a climber.
Every year a few more projects are completed: Michah Rush finished The McCoy, with a technical face to a hard flaring roof crack at Wyoming’s Sweetwater Rocks. Leif Gash sent Strawberry Roan near Lander with its long and sustained arête. Both Gash and Rush completed the climbs in 2013. Both knew Skinner personally. Rush and Gash each had to find climbing partners willing to spend multiple days going to the remote sites, which deterred other climbers for years. That’s typical of a Skinner project.
Yet many remain. The 5.14 Crack on Cranner Rock in the Sweetwater Rocks area of Wyoming has stymied attempts for years. It’s so hard Bechtel says it’s become mythical.
“When that one goes it will be magical,” he said.
Alex Honnold completed part of Jesus Built My Hotrod, the route from which Skinner fell to his death on the Leaning Tower in Yosemite, naming it A Gift from Wyoming in honor of Skinner. The lower section with its massive slab section was hard, but as Bechtel writes on his blog “the real business is up above...terrifyingly steep, it’s one of the most exposed routes in the Valley.”
It, along with a list of other lines remain unfinished. Some, like Jesus Built My Hot Rod and The Crack, were so hard Skinner talked of them being for future generations. Others like The McCoy and Strawberry Roan are in obscure areas that will lure only the truly motivated.
“Eventually all these routes will be finished,” Bechtel said. “That will close a big book in history.”