IMAGE: Todd Skinner
Bill Hatcher  /  AP
Todd Skinner, shown here in an undated image, was killed Tuesday when he fell 500 feet while attempting a first ascent near Bridalveil Fall inside Yosemite National Park, Calif., a park spokeswoman said.
updated 10/24/2006 10:14:47 PM ET 2006-10-25T02:14:47

A renowned rock climber and author who scaled peaks around the world fell 500 feet to his death in Yosemite National Park, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Todd Skinner was rappelling Monday after he and a partner worked on pioneering a new route near Bridalveil Fall, said Adrienne Freeman, a park spokeswoman.

It was not immediately clear why Skinner, who claimed on his Web site to have set climbing records in 26 countries, fell.

"We don't know whether it was a climbing harness failure or a problem with his equipment or an error," said Steve Bechtel, Skinner's former climbing partner and friend. "He's a larger-than-life climbing hero and it's a great loss to the entire community of climbers across the world."

Skinner, 47, of Lander, Wyo., was celebrated for having climbed hundreds of rock faces from Canada's Yukon Territory to the Himalayas using a technique called free climbing, in which climbers ascend upward using no artificial aid to climb — only a rope to protect against falls.

"He was the first person to think it was possible to free climb," said Ann Krick, a friend who hired him as a motivational speaker. "He always said that the most dangerous thing was to pick an easy mountain. As a climber he said he needed to pick hard enough climbs because those are the walls where you'll learn the most."

Pushing the boundaries
In the world of rock climbing, those who successfully pioneer first ascents are admired for pushing the boundaries of their sport, said Hans Florine, one of the world's fastest rock climbers.

"Someone might have climbed a peak or a crag or a cliff before, but never the way Todd Skinner did," said Florine. "His mission was to be the first person to free climb all the biggest faces in the world."

The Mariposa County coroner's office will perform an autopsy, and park officials will determine the cause of his fall. Bechtel, who was not present at the scene, said Skinner's climbing partner, Jim Hewitt, reported his death as soon as he reached the ground Monday afternoon.

Skinner is survived by his wife and three children.

Seeking new ways to the top
While climbers have been scaling Yosemite's sheer walls for more than four decades, the most adventurous still seek out new ways to the top.

At the time of his death, Skinner was working on a new route up "Leaning Tower," near the famous wispy waterfall that greets visitors entering Yosemite Valley by car.

Although Skinner gained fame in the climbing community for globe-trotting accomplishments, he also counted Yosemite among his records.

He was the first to free climb a now-famous route on El Capitan, the park's massive granite monolith that rises some 3,000 feet from the valley floor, according to his Web site. Skinner, who wrote "Beyond the Summit," also claimed first ascents in Pakistan, Mali, Kenya and Greenland.

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