A star of rock climbing, Todd Skinner left behind a long list of first ascents, including the world’s first free ascent of a Grade 7 climb. But this is the story of something else he left behind: “The Woody,” an artificial climbing wall.
I recently moved from the crowded Front Range to the middle-of-nowhere, Colorado, to be with a man named Doom. An obsessive rock climber, I lived in that sunny climbing mecca for two decades, frequenting the Diamond on Longs Peak, Lumpy Ridge, Eldorado, Boulder Canyons, and more. I’ve never moved for a relationship before—only for climbing.
“Doom who? Mancos where? Is there any climbing there?” friends asked.
Yes, his nickname is really Doom. And no, there’s no climbing. We see more deer and horses than people or rocks. This rural town of Mancos, Colo., has a population of not quite 1,400, and extensive plains of sagebrush. But nearby Durango has great sandstone, and a thousand desert cracks are less than two hours away in Utah.
And, much to my surprise, a legendary woody lives in the garage of my new home.
An Obsessive Climber’s Dream Come True
I moved into my sunny apartment on 25+ horse-ranch acres on a cloudy, cold day in mid-December. Doom was bike/pack/climbing through Spain for three weeks, and so he recruited two of his friends to help me move furniture.
“Did you know there’s a climbing wall under your apartment?” these same two friends, Thor and Sarah Tingey, asked me over drinks at the Mancos Brewery a few days later.
“Hell yeah!” I hollered as I opened the garage door later that night. Tucked at the back of the room and hanging at a 50-degree angle was a plywood wall. Hand-crafted wooden, composite and natural rock holds and hueco-like cut outs covered the woody. Names inked the wood—Oprah, True Grit, Berg, Thuggish, Chimp, Huey, Zeus, Horrible Morkel, and many more.
It turns out the “Amy Skinner” into whose house I had moved is the widow of Todd Skinner, the legendary climber. He and dozens of friends, many of them famous climbers, built and equipped this wall more than 20 years ago.
I posted a photo on social media and immediately received dozens of comments by people who slept under the wall, trained on it with Todd, or otherwise had stories to tell about it. I decided I needed to share the tale.
Todd Skinner: A Legendary Climber
Throughout my early 20s I read about Todd’s exploits. He loomed large on the climbing scene, and had made history long before I ever set foot on rock. He did the first free ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan (via the Salathe), was the first American to flash 5.13, and ultimately, in 2006, he died in a tragic accident when his belay loop failed as he rappelled down the Leaning Tower.
A pioneer in big wall free climbing and an avid first ascensionist of some of the world’s hardest traditional and sport lines, Todd also formalized training techniques now emulated by thousands of rock climbers. I never trained back then, and so I didn’t understand the depth of his influence until I really dug in and started interviewing his former partners and friends.
Todd, Training, & The Birth Of The Woody
“He was so incredibly strong,” said Steve Bechtel, longtime climber and friend of the Skinners. “People were like, ‘What is that guy doing that’s making him so awesome?’ He really pushed that focus on power and finger strength that we see in so many climbers now.”
At a time—the 1980s and early 1990s—when people typically just climbed to get stronger, Todd focused on training hard, often for really difficult moves that he couldn’t yet do.
He and his friends built small training contraptions, the most notable of which was “The Woody,” currently standing in the garage under my apartment. One of the first private climbing walls built in the United States, various visitors contributed to its construction.
Built in 1993 on Lucky Lane, Lander, Wyo., The Woody, as it is still simply known, became the focal point for a budding climbing community in that small town. But it became an influence for a much wider audience.
“He Had The Vision”
Todd came off the European competition climbing tour in the 1980s hating the fact that all the holds on the comp walls got packed up, put into a box, and the routes disappeared forever.
Whether it was on the Salathe, a sport climb at his beloved Wild Iris, or his Woody, Todd wanted to work routes over time, Amy told me.
“He loved the training close to as much as climbing, and he loved the improbability of doing something that was way over his head,” she explained. “Plus, he had the ability to see that a route could be done. People over the last 10 years have done projects that Todd saw 20 years ago that he was never able to do. But he had the vision.”
Thus, added Bechtel, Todd decided that, with a few exceptions, he wanted the holds on the Lucky Lane Woody to never be moved or even rotated.
“These fixed boulder problems were an important contribution to training,” Bechtel said. “We built this thing so we could have a three-year project, so we could gauge our strength on how we performed on them the previous year.”
Woody With A Guidebook
Subsequently, people began to name the holds, and then write sequences of holds as graffiti on the wall of the garage in which it was built.
“It’s probably the only woody in the world with its own guidebook,” Amy said. “It was just phrases of holds put in order so that you could continue to work on really hard projects over the years.”
According to Kris Hampton, owner, trainer, and coach at Power Climbing Company, The Woody embodies the history of the onset of training for climbing hard. But, he added, it’s also significant in and of itself.
“In an age where the Moon Board has become the trend, I think Todd’s version of the ‘woody’ has even more relevance,” he explained. “It isn’t tainted by trying to match outdoor grades. You became intimate with the holds because they were all named, and it is so simple, effective, and fun that you can’t help but get stronger.”
The Roots, And Rise, Of The ‘Woody’
Today, climbing walls are common. But that wasn’t always the case, and Todd’s woody took shape at the leading-edge of indoor climbing walls. Backing up to before it was built, was on a quest to improve his training, and ultimately his climbing.
On his second trip to Europe in the mid-1980s, he realized the sport was heading in a new direction, with people attempting much more difficult moves than in years past, said long-time partner and mentor Paul Piana.
“He was trying to figure out how to train for things that you couldn’t just walk up and do,” Piana explained. So he first made the 5-inch-long, 3-foot-high “Skinner Box.”
“It was boring as hell to climb,” Piana said, because all you did was strap weights on your body, hang upside down and/or move hands around to stress the tendons.
“He carried that with him everywhere in his Volkswagen bus,” Amy added with a chuckle. “Then it ended up at the first house we rented in El Paso, Texas. There were always training devices in our living spaces.”
He and friends built the “Benny Podium” next. Named after one of their idols, weightlifter Benny Podda, it was an edge and pocket-covered 12-foot-long plywood face that could be rigged at different angles.
“The point was not to make it to the top, but to make desperate, shocking moves on your tendons so they would become more resilient,” Piana said. “It got damn boring and hard. And if it’s a misery, you’re not going to do it.”
But all that changed with the next contraption.
Enter The Legendary Indoor Climbing Wall
Todd had the original idea for the woody. But Brian Pederson and Brad Werntz, who built one of the earliest climbing walls in Madison, Wis., played a major roll in its construction.
The Skinners struggled financially to get their climbing store off the ground. But one day, as Todd headed off on a slideshow tour, a truckload of wood appeared in their driveway. He had given his credit card to the two climbers and told them to go to town.
“Three or four days later,” Piana added, “we walked into the garage and were like, ‘holy cow!’ Brian and Brad had built the wall.”
“It was the next step, from a hangboard to actual indoor climbing,” said Volker Schöffl, a friend and mentee of Todd’s. Though they used some of the earliest climbing holds, made by Tony Yaniro, most were made by visitors. Not only did Schöffl make 20, but he also helped construct the woody.
“Building it was a great experience, and seeing my hold—the Bavarian—on it after 30 years, still in place, makes me almost cry,” he said. “It was such an international thing. The locals, the South Africans, my brother and me worked our asses off and were so psyched.”
It was significantly more enjoyable and natural to use than the Skinner Box or Beny Podium. Piana described one route he will never forget.
“You had to use monos and the Yaniro holds to climb along the rim, and there were no feet,” he explained. “It was dynamic and desperate. I couldn’t figure out this one move, and then I watched Todd do it; it was poetically beautiful to see that move done!”
A Community Around A Woody
The Skinners fostered a community around the woody. Todd avidly encouraged people to train on the wall, to climb in Lander, and to be the best they could, no matter what grade they climbed. Amy not only climbed regularly and hard herself (she was one of the strongest female climbers at the time, sending 5.12s and occasional 5.13s), but also welcomed hundreds of people into her home, often poking her head in the morning to ask people sleeping under the woody, “Does anyone need coffee?”
“They created a community with that wall on Lucky Lane, and it became a legend,” said Hampton. “Todd made training fun, and he kept it common sense. Complicated training is hard to stick to, so the more common sense the better.”
“He came to Lander, said this limestone is going to get me strong, and then he and Amy built a climbing community,” explained Bechtel. “A lot of people can say, ‘I met my wife or started my business because of Amy and Todd.’”
Thus, Todd’s place was a point for climbers traveling by, sharing stories and training together.
“All the famous climbers of that time probably used the holds on the woody,” said Schöffl. “Consider if you touch one hold, how many legends of climbing have used it already.”
The Final Chapter
Amy recently put the word out that she’s moving back to Wyoming, and the woody needs a new home. As of now, no decisions are made, though it will likely make the move back to Lander. In the meantime, I’m inspired.
I’m also moving out soon and in with Doom. And we already have plans to build a similar woody. It will be fresh, born to give fingers strength, ready to accept chalk, skin, and sweat, and launch climber’s dreams anew.