A new memoir chronicles the history of rock climbing as it changed in the 1970s and 80s, with Wyoming native and University of Wyoming graduate Todd Skinner among its main subjects.
“Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change and the Race for 5.14” was published by Mountaineers Books on April 1. Author Jeff Smoot is scheduled to give a talk and slide show at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Half Acre Recreation and Wellness Center.
Smoot grew up in the Seattle area and got a taste of mountaineering culture by reading magazines in his junior high school library. When his parents caught him rappelling out his bedroom window, they let him take a climbing class, and he soon was taking multiple road trips a year to rock climbing destinations.
“I went on my first road trip down to southern California and was really hooked on going down there and the culture down there,” he said.
During one such climbing trip, he met Todd Skinner, a Pinedale native who graduated from UW in 1982.
Skinner grew up exploring the Wind River Range before moving to southeast Wyoming, where he met longtime climbing partner Paul Piana, and where the granite walls of Vedauwoo became his playground. After graduating, he turned full-time to free climbing — climbing with the use of protective gear but without using equipment to aid the ascent. He found himself at the front of a style called sport climbing, wherein climbers practiced difficult moves while hanging from their protective gear, sometimes even placing the gear ahead of time.
The pejorative term for such was climbing was “hangdogging,” and traditionalists frowned upon the practice.
“If you fell off, you were supposed to lower down and start over from the bottom,” Smoot said of the traditional climbing approach. “If you hung there on the rope and figured out how to do some moves and then lowered off, that was considered cheating.”
But a new generation of climbers, attempting to push the boundaries of the sport into increasingly difficult realms, used their ropes and protective equipment as a means to access the hardest parts of a route for additional practice before attempting a clean ascent from the ground to the top.
“It turned out it was really the most practical way to approach climbing really hard routes,” Smoot said.
The conflict between the two styles of climbing grew so intense that fights broke out, bolts were chopped off rock faces and grease was smeared into cracks to render a route unclimbable.
“At the time, it seemed really contentious,” Smoot said.
But a decade or two later, attitudes softened. Today, taking issue with hangdogging would puzzle most climbers, as the practice has become standard.
“Nobody uses that term anymore,” he said. “It’s become such a widely accepted practice, that all the fun has gone out of calling somebody a hangdogger.”
Smoot met Skinner and Piana while climbing at Joshua Tree National Park and wound up on the receiving end of numerous letters from Skinner, who would write to friends while working on climbing projects. In 1985, at Skinner’s behest, he quit his job, packed up his belongings, broke up with his girlfriend and hit the road with Skinner.
The letter that was the catalyst for Smoot read in part: “I want to know if you can leave your wife, children, dog, home, lawn and job for this short period on a quest for glory?”
Smoot described his friend as one of the nicest guys he’d ever met. Skinner was unfailingly polite, had an infectious personality and was genuinely happy to meet everyone he interacted with.
“He asked them totally invasive questions about their lives, but in such a disarming way that everybody just answered them and everybody became Todd’s friend,” Smoot said.
Smoot said Skinner also pushed himself and others to find their limits with an undimming optimistic spirit.
“He inspired me to try harder and to keep trying when things weren’t going well, not just in climbing but in other aspects of my life,” Smoot said.
Skinner was on a mission to climb the hardest routes in every part of the country when Smoot joined him. When he found something that seemed promising, he would devote himself entirely to the project until succeeding, even in the face of doubters.
“He was really well remembered by almost everyone he came across — even people who disagreed with his style of climbing and some of the tactics he employed,” Smoot said.
In 1986, Smoot suggested a route to Skinner called City Park in a climbing area known as Lower Index Town Wall in Washington. Skinner was looking for a route rated 5.14, which was beyond the difficulty of anything yet climbed.
City Park had never been free climbed before, and Skinner dove in. After 12 days of working on it, the group took a break and went into town. When they returned, they found that someone had smeared axle grease into a crack high up on the route to prevent Skinner from reaching the top.
Smoot said the event is humorous now, but it didn’t seem that way at the time.
“At the time it was so outrageous I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Skinner used a butane torch to burn out the grease before successfully completing City Park, which is today rated 5.13b. At the time, it was one of the hardest routes anyone had climbed in the United States.
That same year, French climber Jean-Baptiste Tribout ascended To Bolt or Not to Be, rated 5.14a, at Smith Rocks in Oregon.
Skinner would go on to notch a number of notable first free climbs on big walls, among them the Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and Cowboy Direct on the 20,320-foot Trango Tower in Pakistan. Skinner died in 2006 at the age of 47 during a rappelling accident while working on a free climb on Yosemite’s Leaning Tower.
“Hangdog Days” also includes mention of climbers John Bachar, Alan Watts, Lynn Hill and others.