…Let me tell you of the days of high adventure.
Last weekend, my friend Micah Rush did a new climb at the Sweetwater Rocks. The thing is this: the climb is one of the best routes around. It’s a hard face climb to a hard roof crack, probably checking in around mid 5.13 and three plus stars. When Micah first walked up to the climb last year, the face had already been bolted. There were anchors on top. It was a ready-to-climb classic. Like many of the other hard and great yet-to-be-climbed projects, someone had tried it before. That someone was Todd Skinner.
If it seems like you hear about someone doing an “old Skinner project” about every six months, you’re right. You’d better get used to it. Todd was not just a climber, but an explorer, and I’d argue he leaned more toward the latter. Climbing in Thailand. In Vietnam. China. South Africa. The free climbing of big walls. Hueco bouldering. The canyons of Mexico. Our adventure destinations of today were blank spots on the map when he showed up.
In the time I knew Todd, he spent very few days just climbing; a climbing day consisted of recon and route preparation with an occasional redpoint. For every route he climbed, he scoped fifty more. He did so many new routes that he quit naming them. The pioneering was everything to him. A first ascent was worth a thousand times as much as a repeat. It reminds me of the comment his good friend Paul Piana made when a then-famous female climber claimed that she didn’t have time to do new routes. Paul said, “Well, I don’t have time not to.”
Below is a list of a few of the most significant Skinner projects still awaiting first ascents. This is by no means exhaustive. It doesn’t include the ones that have been freed since he first explored them, such as “The McCoy”, the route Micah just did. Some have names, some don’t, but all of them will be great routes when they are done.
Broken Field Beauty – The Coke Bottle, Vedauwoo, Wyoming
This climb takes a major water groove on the biggest formation right in the middle of Vedauwoo. It’s a second pitch to his route “Panther of the Weak.” This is a desperate technical face climb, probably falling into the 5.13 range somewhere with massive exposure. Broken Field Beauty refers to a sports headline from the football career of Todd’s friend Steve Petro. Panther of the Weak is also named for Petro. Steve’s football team were the Panthers and another old newspaper clipping named Petro the “Panther of the Week.” It’s the second pitch of #6 in Skip’s photo below.
The Deadly Bulb – The Egg, Sweetwater Rocks, Wyoming
The Egg is as nondescript a formation as you can find. It’s a large boulder, no bigger in circumference than the average house, but its sandblasted faces hold half a dozen great mixed face and crack climbs. Sitting about 3 miles north of Jeffrey City, Wyoming, it’s as close to roadside cragging as you can get in the Sweetwater. The established routes range from a 5.10 slab to the 5.13 “Cracked Egg” fingertip crack. The Deadly Bulb is a bolted arete / prow (identified by the huge bulb hold about 15 feet off the ground) on the east side of the boulder. It looks deceptively like it could be 5.10, but is much harder.
Jesus Built My Hotrod – Leaning Tower, Yosemite, California
This was “THE route” on Leaning Tower. It takes the strong line from Ahwanee Ledge to the top, with multiple 5.13 and harder pitches. In fall 2012, Alex Honnold freed the line leading from the ground to Ahwanee Ledge. The business is up above, however. Terrifyingly steep, it’s one of the most exposed routes in the valley. This is the route Todd fell from in October 2006. It’s #2 in the photo below.
Lawyers, Guns, and Money – East Spur, Hueco Tanks, Texas
Adjacent to Todd’s route “Calling All the Heroes” in the East Spur. Undoubtedly, this will be the hardest route at Hueco, and possibly one of the hardest in the country.
The Wave Wall Route – The Wave Wall, Crazy Woman, Wyoming
Todd bolted this route on his way to Lander during the trip when he first decided that Wild Iris was the place to be. The route is on the best of the Crazy Woman Canyon walls. Todd said it wouldn’t be all that hard. Maybe 5.13 of some kind? Just another route he didn’t go back for.
The 5.14 Crack – Cranner Rock, Sweetwater Rocks, Wyoming
Todd wasn’t the first to try this climb, but he spent a great deal of time attempting the free ascent. If you were to walk along the south side of Cranner Rock in the Sweetwater Rocks, it would be the crack you walked up to and said, “So, this must be the 5.14 crack.” Steep and bouldery face climbing leads to hard jams, and then the thing eases off to 5.12+ for the last 50 feet or so. This one has seen lots of action and should see an ascent soon.
Layback Crack – Cranner Rock, Sweetwater Rocks, Wyoming
This crack is located between Geophysical and the Cranner Roof Crack. Tips laybacking to a bigger-than-usual dyno to a hard face finish. Probably in the 5.14 range.
Doomsayer – Cranner Rock, Sweetwater Rocks, Wyoming
This is the leaning face/crack on the ledge system above the 5.14 Crack. I think Frank Dusl was the first to try it, but Todd bolted and cleaned it. Another doozy.
The Slab Projects – Cranner Rock, Sweetwater Rocks, Wyoming
These are the bolted faces right of the Cranner Roof and aren’t slabs at all. Of all the routes on this list, these two (bolted and cleaned with Steve Babits) are probably the easiest.
The Groove – Great Stone Face, Sweetwater Rocks, Wyoming
OMFG…whatever that means. This is an overhanging water groove with a roof crack to start. I’m not a pessimist, but I can’t imagine this would ever go free. This is on the southeast facing wall above all the NOLS practice routes.
Fix It Up Chappie – Masada, Sweetwater Rocks, Wyoming
This climb starts Collapsible Frink (pictured below) and then exits to the arete right. Might only be 5.13.
The Strawberry Roan – Little Popo Agie, Wyoming
Strangely, this was one of the first limestone routes bolted in the Lander area, but was virtually forgotten due to its remote position. I think it was bolted in 1990 or 1991. The original draws were up so long that the wind wore them down, leaving single biners on the hangers and a pile of bentgates at the bottom of the wall. A long and sustained arete, it will probably go free in the mid to hard 5.13 range. [EDIT: Leif Gasch did the first ascent in July 2013 at 5.13d]
Fibonacci Shimmer – Fossil Hill, WY
This is sort-of the last of the original hard bolted projects on Lander limestone. Or should I say the last of the ones that BJ hasn’t done. Ironically, it was the first route I ever bolted in Lander (1990), and I quickly gave it up and handed it to Todd. He had some good goes on it, but found that doing both 5.14 cruxes was too much. He opted to do the prettier and maybe easier “When the Cubans Hit the Floor” to the left, saving Fibonacci for another season.
The Man They Couldn’t Hang – Moss Cave, Sinks Canyon, Wyoming
Todd’s original vision of the Moss Cave super route, this would start on Smoke Shapes and traverse left all the way to the bulge at the center of the cave. I’m not sure the route really exists, but if it goes free, it’s a safe bet BJ Tilden will be responsible for it.
The Joint Arete – The Joint, Sinks Canyon, Wyoming
This is a clean and slick arete above the Full Tilt Wall at the Joint. Anchors only – I don’t think any protection bolts were placed. [EDIT: BJ Tilden did the first ascent in August of 2013 at 5.13c]
Routes on The Falling Block- Silvertip, Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming
This thing is awesome. 75 feet high. The Bighorns are the true future of Wyoming limestone climbing. The really cool thing is that the great roadside areas of Tensleep, Crazy Woman, and the Sheridan area aren’t even close to the coolest of the climbing.
The 45 – Lost Cabin Wall, Wyoming
Imagine a 200-plus foot high wall that overhangs at 45 degrees. It’s the real deal and it’s at the Lost Cabin Wall near Lander. Todd bolted a route from the ground up, but stopped at a small break 60 feet up, declaring that it was at least mid 5.14 to that point. This route is just one of many great potential lines at a futuristic crag.
There are more. I can pull at least a dozen or more routes to mind near Lander, several in the eastern Bighorns, Vedauwoo, the Sweetwater. The one thing I am sure of is that the youth of today will have their hands full long after my generation have stopped trying these things. I have to admit I get a great jolt of excitement every time I hear another of these routes is done. It’s as if Todd knew he’d never finish them himself, but wanted to point the way.
“The magician Merlin had a strange laugh,
and it was heard when nobody else was laughing…
He laughed because he knew what was coming next.”
Robertson Davies, World of Wonders