Todd Skinner, Free-Climbing Pioneer

Rock climber Todd Skinner fell to his death Monday in Yosemite Park. He found fame in 1988 after scaling the 3,600-foot Salathe Wall on Yosemite's El Capitan. Paul Piana, who joined Skinner on the 1988 climb, tells Scott Simon about his friend.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

One of the world's great rock climbers died this week. Todd Skinner has just tried a new route up Leaning Tower in Yosemite National Park and was repelling down when he fell several hundred feet to his death. Mr. Skinner was renowned for his climbing exploits around the world and his early embrace of free-climbing. That's a technique in which ropes and hardware are used only for protection, not to assist in the climb. Todd Skinner and his longtime climbing partner, Paul Piana, stunned other climbers in 1988 when they free-climbed the Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite. Paul Piana joins us now from his home in New Castle, Wyoming. Mr. Piana, thanks for being with us at this time.

Mr. PAUL PIANA (Rock Climber): You're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here and visit about Todd.

SIMON: First, I have to ask, do you have any idea what went wrong on Leaning Tower?

Mr. PIANA: Yes, I have a pretty good idea. They were repelling many rope lengths to get down from this big wall, and a belay loop broke. And what that is, it's the loop that connects a climber's climbing harness, the leg loops, to the waist belt. And that, when you're repelling, is the point of contact, the point of attachment to your harness. And apparently that broke, and it was quite worn, and I'm sad to say that it was equipment failure, but I have to say it was also Todd's failure in continuing to use it.

SIMON: Remind us about the impact of your free ascent on the Salathe Wall, what that meant at the time.

Mr. PIANA: Well, it made a big splash in the climbing world, actually. It was something that the climbing world hadn't considered as possible. And in some ways, parts of our minds didn't consider it possible either, but we believed it just enough to continue trying. And we tried and we tried and we tried. And most of those tries we failed. We only succeeded on one of the tries. And I can remember being a rope length from the summit with Todd, when we knew we really had it done, we'd succeeded, and how much fun that was. I can't imagine giving so much physical and mental effort to succeed on something as ridiculous as climbing a big rock wall with anybody but Todd.

SIMON: What was he like to climb with on a tough climb? You were in so many places over the years.

Mr. PIANA: Oh, we had a wonderful time together. I mean, for almost 30 years of climbing together all, over the country, all over the world, it was always a pleasure to climb with Todd, because in some ways we were very much alike. He was the brother I never had, the brother I always wanted, and somehow got. You gain so much more strength being around him, because his energy level was so high. And the joy for climbing is something we both shared, and that exuberance came through. It just bubbled through the rope as you were climbing; it made you climb harder and you could hang on longer. And he was just as happy to see somebody do even better than he would have done on that day, for example, delighted with that person's achievement.

SIMON: Paul Piana, remembering his friend and fellow rock climber, Todd Skinner, who died this week. Mr. Skinner would have turned 48 today.

Mr. Piana, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. PIANA: You're welcome. It's a pleasure.

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