Finally Free: Skinner and Piana's First Free Ascent of the Salathé Wall

Recently, I happened upon a short video clip of Mayan Gobat-Smith climbing the tricky finish to the Salathé headwall. As I watched and reminisced, she popped off and hurtled upside-down and backwards. Holy cow! I did the exact same thing the first time I tried leading those moves. For an instant that fall was mine, and I yelped out loud.

Thirty years ago, on June 15, 1988, Todd Skinner and I topped out on the first free ascent of the Salathé Wall. Reaching this summit free was a longstanding dream, born of inspiration from the bold ascents of Royal Robbins, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt. Todd and I sought our grails in Frost’s black-and-white images of the flaring cracks and soaring corners of the Salathé. What really kick-started us was a Mountain magazine article (May/June 1981). In “Long, Hard and Free” Mark Hudon and Max Jones described their free-climbing efforts on the big walls of Yosemite. We marveled at their skills and audacity.

Todd and I were really lucky to have the stalwart support of Bill Hatcher and “Scottish John” Christie. Bill is an old friend from our Laramie/Vedauwoo days, and John was looking for a partner for the Salathé just as we were searching for a strong climber who didn’t mind participating in what could be its slowest ascent ever.

Todd and I rendezvoused in Laramie in the beginning of May, traveled to the Valley, and immediately began cursing the rainy weather that delayed us many days and then weeks. We cursed waiting in Camp 4, cursed sitting in a bivy sack atop El Cap, and cursed from El Cap Meadow, shaking our fists at cliff-obscuring clouds. Eventually we went broke and lacked money to buy supplies. Todd had $12 and I had about 47 cents, so we held a yard sale in the Camp 4 parking lot. We auctioned anything we could live without: a brand-new pair of climbing shoes, a finger board, a few of the new syringe-like Gunks Friends made for shallow horizontals. We made a few bucks but remained desperately short on funds to purchase sufficient food. Our friend Gary Neptune took pity and gifted us a C-note in exchange for a future slide show at his climbing shop in Boulder. That hundred bucks solved our food problem and even funded extras of the finest big-wall morale booster ever: Unfrosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts!

Provisioned once again, we began with the 10-pitch Freeblast and climbed to a bivouac on Lung Ledge. Above were many classic pitches, such as the Ear, which I called “the scariest 5.7 in the world.” Just below El Cap Spire was my favorite 5.13 pitch—a thin and sequential gem of a crux that I helped decipher and Todd eventually climbed beautifully.

Guarding the famous Salathé Headwall is a huge 20-foot roof climbed by deadpointing to sloping holds with your feet swinging. Glancing down from the lip of the overhang, you are so exposed and so far off the deck it takes five minutes to see the ground. Above is the indescribably beautiful Headwall Crack, the essence of the Salathé. We needed a rest day, but Todd decided to give the first headwall pitch a try. At the time, the pro was poor (photos show numerous hold-filling bashies have since been removed and a bolt placed right where it was needed, making the section much safer and perhaps slightly easier.) A fall would be scary, with the climber falling directly onto the belayer and swinging below the lip of the Great Roof.
“Watch!” snapped Todd, right foot smearing in the flared crack and a toe crimping way out left, as he intentionally began to let the right-hand jam slide out of the flare to clip a sad tied-off piton.

Something slipped a hair too far, and Todd spat, “Naaah!” but, before fear could take over, he leaned out and deadpointed to the edge of what was the very bottom of the Headwall Crack. In a flurry he sank a deep TCU, which meant no fall beneath the roof. After that sequence, the 5.12+ climbing above seemed reasonable.

Of all the pitches on the Salathé, Todd wanted to make the first free lead of the 31st pitch, on the Headwall. Of all the cracks Todd had seen on his travels, he said, “This is the most beautiful crack I’ve ever seen,” and it was in the most impressive position either of us could imagine. Todd gave it his best, falling twice just a move away from the anchor. Watching in the last of the day’s light, I thought he had succeeded, until the instant a little flake snapped, his foot blew, and he rocketed 30 feet off. Too flamed even to curse, he hung a few moments, then I belayed him to his highest piece so he could unclip and down jump far enough to lower to the belay. Todd went up again, even though he was gassed. He was 90 feet up when I heard a dejected murmur in the gloom—and was yanked upward and into the wall as Todd hit the end of the rope.

John and Bill were always racing ahead, leaving fixed lines in place. The next day, while Todd rested, John headed down the East Ledges to spare our precious water. Bill rapped back down the wall to continue shooting photos.

Days blurred into each other, and though we were often very tired, it seemed natural to be so far above the ground. Todd’s rest day was to jug up Bill’s line and belay me as I worked the short exit pitch to Long Ledge. The following day, he headed up the middle of the Headwall. To warm up and chase away the jitters, he climbed 20 feet above a piece and jumped, dramatically hurling himself into the void. He repeated this “warm-up” a half-dozen times, until it became more fun than scary. The next go saw Todd flow through the difficulties to win the beauty.

After laboriously repairing the flappers and cuts in my fingers with Super Glue, I was able to free the last pitch of the Headwall—a short 5.13 pitch onto Long Ledge, where I stood laughing and waving my arms like a lunatic. We spent the rest of the day rappelling back to the camp under the Great Roof to pack up. Bill jumared to the top of El Cap to head down for another photographic assignment.

From under the roof below the Headwall, we slowly hauled our gear to Long Ledge. It was late, but we yearned for the prize, so, leaving our gear, we climbed the last three pitches (5.10-5.11). We then rapped back to Long Ledge and spent the most satisfying bivy of our lives eating the extra Pop-Tarts, drinking lots of water, and discussing the finer quotes from Louis L’Amour.

The boulder-problem finish (5.13b), pitch 32, to the Headwall. Piana recalls spending an hour “cleaning my fingers with alcohol, Super Gluing the rents in them, and then taping over the glue.” He then made the crux dyno “to a home-free knob.” Photo: Bill Hatcher.

The next morning we started hauling our freight to the rim. First over the rim, I threw a loop over the top of a colossal 7-foot block. We had already used the block for the top belay, as had decades of other Salathé climbers. About 15 feet off to the left and at foot level was a rusty fixed piton, a standard angle driven sideways into a 1-inch groove. Nearly the entire piton was exposed, and I could only clip it with the skinniest carabiner I had. I also plugged in a Number 1 Friend in the crack along the base of the block and attached Todd’s line to both of those.

While Todd ascended, I used the block as the hauling anchor as well as my tie-in. Being paranoid, I also clipped into the rope tied to the lousy piton. As the two haulbags, connected end to end, arrived at the rim, I waited for Todd. When he was standing next to me, I clipped him into my tether loop, removed the #1 Friend, and lifted the haulbags, and Todd reached down and grabbed the trailing haulbag to bring it over the edge.

We heard a terrible basso profundo grinding noise. Glancing over our shoulders, we saw the giant block moving toward the edge, only two feet away. I’m not exactly clear about what happened next. Todd remembered me putting my hands out and yelling, “No!” I remember Todd trying to get rightwards away from the block, but he was stopped by our tether.

I remember the two of us being battered together, and the horror of seeing my best friend knocked wildly off the edge, and then the block toppled onto my left leg and squeegeed me off the rim. There was a loud crack like a rifle shot. Trying to stop my slide by palming the cliff, I was pulled over the rounded edge, saw the incredible drop, and felt bones breaking.

As I slid over, I thought, This is really going to hurt … and that my folks would believe I had wasted my life by climbing, when it was exactly the opposite. Then everything stopped spinning, and I was dangling just below the edge.

Everything was in tatters, ropes pinched off and fused—it appeared that they had all been cut. I was afraid to touch anything, and sick to know Todd had probably just hit the talus.

A startling gasp sounded below me, followed by a desperate, “Get the rope!”

As gingerly as possible, I hauled myself over the top using the rope clipped to the old piton, and soon a bloody hand on a crushed ascender slid over the rim. The giant rock had cut all of the ropes tied to the big rock but, somehow, not the line to the rusty piton from which we both dangled. I helped Todd up, and we lay there hurting for a long time. Now that we weren’t falling, all I wanted was for the pain to stop. We were terrified because Todd was having trouble breathing, and his pelvis hurt badly. My leg, broken and gouged, approached a crescendo of pain.

When we did get up, we discovered that Todd had been held by one of his ascenders. Apparently, the rock had scraped over the ascender, and that small and now gouged and bent piece of metal had kept Todd’s rope from cutting. We coiled the remaining rope (the haul line) and started down the East Ledges. Todd could only walk by grabbing a handful of his pants to help lift his leg and swing it forward. We would later learn that the part of his pelvis that was broken held the ligament needed to lift the leg. I couldn’t weight my left leg, so mostly sat and scooted along. A descent that usually took us just under two hours required almost seven.

In great pain from his harness, Todd had a horrible time rappelling the East Ledges. With only our one 150-foot rope, we had to make several extra raps, swinging into off-route anchors from tat around shrubs. We arrived at the base of Manure Pile Buttress late in the day. Wanting to avoid extra fees, we waited until morning to enter the local clinic, where we found that Todd had suffered several broken ribs, and a piece of bone was broken off his hip. My left leg was broken in five places and severely gouged. We were lucky.

***

Piana and Skinner were a powerhouse team, making the first-ever free ascent of El Capitan, and going on to first free ascents of the North Face of Mount Hooker in Wyoming and Mount Proboscis in the Yukon. Photo: Bill Hatcher.

In the following years, Todd and I continued to climb on both short routes and some of the grandest walls imaginable, with tremendous friends. The last adventure we shared was when we worked on free climbing the Dihedral Wall. We enjoyed the help of Dave Doll and John Gogas and had great laugh fests when Randy Leavitt and Kevin Worrall would drop by and jug up to some of the pitches we were trying to climb. On rest days we would get out Todd’s Celestron telescope and gaze at the walls near Bridalveil Falls. Man, were there cool lines and features to climb.

In time my parents became ill, and I stayed in Wyoming. It was always exciting when Todd would call, talk about the wild free-climbing lines, and holler: “Get out here!” Todd spoke with Tommy Caldwell, who was very interested in freeing the Dihedral. Todd called to ask me what I thought, and I said Tommy should jump on it! Todd gave him our topo, and, as usual, Tommy did a terrific job and freed the Dihedral Wall.

One night 12 years ago, our friend Steve Bechtel and Todd’s wife, Amy Skinner, called and gave me the news: Todd had died, falling from one of the walls we had gazed at through his Celestron. He had trusted a badly worn belay loop on his harness “for a few more days” until a new one arrived. I recalled how during college days in about 1979 I’d phoned Todd’s dad, Bob, just before Christmas break and told him Todd needed a new harness for Christmas because his was so shredded. When Todd arrived home to Pinedale, Bob asked to see what a climbing harness looked like. Todd handed over his Whillans, and Bob whipped out his razor-sharp Randall knife and cut it to ribbons, then handed him 50 bucks and said, “Merry Christmas!”

I still feel the blow of that phone call saying Todd was gone. I still crawl into myself and try to remember just the great days of exploring with Todd and conjuring up new tests, whether they had anything to do with climbing or not. The most grievous loss is that young Hannah, Jake and Sarah Skinner won’t get to hear the tall tales in which Todd created worlds where anything is possible if you try hard enough. I know Amy is continuing to motivate them to believe in their dreams.

***

I was amazed at the number of supporters who gathered in El Cap Meadow to cheer Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson onward and upward on the FFA of the Dawn Wall in 2015. While Todd and I were on the Free Salathé, we were heckled by people hollering up: “Hang dogs! Haaaang dogs!” One major reason some of the climbers who came before us never tried the Salathé was that they didn’t want to dog it. It is funny that hangdogging, now common, was once considered so objectionable ethically. Even in that era I watched many non-hangdoggers hoist back up after a fall and try the moves before lowering. It never mattered to me.

When we topped out, there was not a soul in sight. Instead, a giant rock crushed us, and Todd and I were accused by Search and Rescue and Yosemite Park of pushing off that 16,000-pound rock to “disguise throwing [our] haulbags off the top.” (In those days some climbers rolled heavy piton-rack-loaded “pigs” off the top.) Our bags held valuables: borrowed porta-ledges (one of them loaned to us by Kim Schmitz, who had used it all over the world), a borrowed $2,000 walkie-talkie, extra climbing gear, sleeping bags and Gore-Tex jackets.

I’d bet almost any amount of money Todd would have been one of the supporters on the summit of El Cap to shake the hands of Tommy and Kevin as they pulled over. From the meadow, the Dawn Wall team was cheered by family, friends and strangers. In Washington, D.C., the President saluted them. From my couch in Wyoming, I saluted them as well.


Paul Piana has been climbing since 1966. He lives in Newcastle, Wyoming, and pioneers climbs in the Black Hills Needles.





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