How 2 Skiers Conquered Yosemite's Half Dome

Mar 3, 2021
Originally published on April 15, 2021 2:03 pm

At the end of last month, two skiers achieved an unprecedented feat: descending the summit of Yosemite National Park's iconic Half Dome into the valley below.

In 1865, a report declared that the rock formation — at more than 8,800 feet above sea level — was a path that "never will be trodden by human foot."

Since then, Half Dome has become a popular, but challenging, hike.

But on Feb. 21, Jason Torlano and Zach Milligan made the nearly 5,000-foot trek down on skis.

Skiers and snowboarders have descended Half Dome in the past. But some were assisted by ropes, and none of them made it all the way down to Mirror Lake in the valley, an extra 4,000 vertical feet.

For Torlano, who's lived in Yosemite since he was 5, the journey fulfilled a childhood dream.

"I remember walking down the cables going 'Wow, I bet this thing's ski-able,' " he says, referring to the two metal cables that hikers use during the last 400 feet of the climb to Half Dome's summit. "I remember these old guys just laughing at me at the time."

The day before Torlano and Milligan made their descent, they scouted for a location, camping out at the base of a tree well for hours in subfreezing temperatures.

Once the two arrived at the summit, they were greeted with what Torlano describes as "perfect conditions" — an inch layer of ice with 3-4 inches of snow. Unsuitable snow conditions had thwarted Torlano's previous three attempts to ski down Half Dome.

In addition to navigating the thin layer of snow, what also made their five-hour descent so perilous are the several sections of bare rock known as the "death slabs."

"We rappelled a total three times, a total of about 300 feet," Torlano tells All Things Considered. "So you have a section of snow, and then you'll have a big cliff, and you rappel and you connect the snow to the next rappelling."

The two also had to watch out for another threat.

""It's a slab with no anchors, so avalanches occur all the time," Torlano says. "And if you fall or get caught in an avalanche, on the cable section, you're gonna fall off the south face, a thousand-foot cliff."

Though he's achieved a lifelong dream, Torlano says he's still eyeing other slopes in Yosemite to conquer.

"Every time we go into Yosemite, I just look up into the mountains," he says. "There's so much I want to do there still."

Farah Eltohamy is NPR's Digital News intern.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, 8,800 feet above sea level is a rock formation called Half Dome. In the 19th century, a report said the granite landmark was so perilous that it, quote, "never will be trodden by human foot."

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Well, today, Half Dome is a popular hike for thrill-seeking climbers. Yosemite resident Jason Torlano has always looked at the massive rock with a feeling of wonder.

JASON TORLANO: I went to school right in Yosemite Valley next to Yosemite Falls. And you look up at Yosemite from the playground as a little kid, that's where the big thunderstorms come from. And when it snows, it just gets packed with snow and - man, I just always been attracted to have them.

KELLY: But Torlano's attraction to Half Dome has always been tied to another interest of his - skiing - since the very first time he clicked into skis.

TORLANO: From that moment on, I just looked around, and I kept seeing chutes that were skiable to this age.

SHAPIRO: When he was 17, Torlano went climbing with a friend on Half Dome.

TORLANO: I remember walking down the cables going, wow, I bet you this thing's skiable.

SHAPIRO: And it turns out he was right. This year, Jason Torlano and his friend Zach Milligan finally descended Half Dome on skis.

KELLY: I mean, climbing Half Dome is dangerous enough - descending on skis.

TORLANO: It's a slab with no anchors, so avalanches occur all the time off that. And if you fall or get caught in an avalanche, you're going to fall off the south face, thousand-foot cliff.

KELLY: So they scouted the location a day early.

TORLANO: We walked up there the day before, and we slept at the base in a tree well. We started a little fire and kept warm for a few hours. So we were so cold at 3 in the morning, we're like, OK, we might as well go to the top. We got it in perfect conditions this time. It was, like, an inch layer of ice with about three to four inches of snow.

SHAPIRO: Torlano and Milligan weren't the first to descend Half Dome in the snow. It's been done on skis and on snowboard, but their trip was special.

TORLANO: What made our ascent (ph) a little different is we skied the cables with no ropes, but then we get skied all the way down to Mirror Lake - so another 4,000-plus vertical feet.

KELLY: Achieving this lifelong dream has not stopped Torlano from eyeing other slopes in the park.

TORLANO: Every time I go to Yosemite, I look up into the mountains, and just there's so much I want to do there still.

SHAPIRO: That's Jason Torlano, who skied down Half Dome into the Yosemite Valley last month.

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