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Daring skiers complete first descent of Half Dome to Yosemite Valley

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 2/27/2021 By Gregory Thomas

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At first light on Sunday, in subfreezing temperatures, two men crested the top of Half Dome, clicked into their skis and started down the northeast face. They slowly scraped along the icy crust at terrifyingly steep gradients toward their destination: Yosemite Valley, 4,000 feet below.

“If you fall to your left or right, you’re definitely dead,” said JT Holmes, a professional freeskier from Reno who is a friend of one of the skiers. “If you fall down the middle, you have a small chance of not falling to your death — but it’s a maybe.”

The two skiers were Jason Torlano, 45, a rope access technician from Sugar Pine (Madera County), and his friend Zach Milligan, 40, a floor installer from Montana who is a Yosemite rock-climbing regular. Clad in puffy jackets and headlamps, the two spiked their way up the snowy peak the night before.

Huffing and puffing up the granite cliff when the cables are up in the summer is hard enough. But climbing it unaided in winter and then skiing back down? Unheard of.

Half Dome isn’t on any big-mountain freeskier’s bucket list. Gutsy snowboarder Jim Zellers descended the 800-foot section from summit to subdome in 2000. But no one is known to have attempted the entire 4,000-foot descent from peak to valley.

“This is a first, and I’m not sure it’ll happen again,” said Holmes, Torlano’s friend.

It had been a childhood dream of Torlano’s. While Half Dome’s smooth visage is recognized around the world, Torlano’s relationship to the mountain is personal. His mother worked as a receptionist at Yosemite Valley’s medical clinic. They lived in park staff housing for a time, and Torlano grew up with a view of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Sentinel Dome from his window.

“It’s just always been there,” Torlano said. “I’ve been attracted to Half Dome for as long as I can remember.”

Climbing the cables is an early boyhood memory. As a budding rock climber at age 17, Torlano’s first route was Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face, a 2,200-foot endeavor up sheer granite that took him three days. After high school, he worked as a ranger in the park, sometimes going on search-and-rescue missions. He estimates he has climbed the cables more than 40 times and scaled the big rock with ropes at least a dozen more.

But the idea of skiing Half Dome has compelled him since he was a boy. Given its extreme convex gradient and exposure, the cliff is rarely suitable for skiing.

“It’s like skiing off the top of an egg, where it just gets steeper and steeper, no matter which way you go,” Holmes said. There’s just not much for snow to bond to, and the peak is often bare or masked in a thin layer of ice.

But if you study it closely, as Torlano has, you can spot tiny windows of opportunity.

“It’ll snow one day and be gone the next, so you have to be ready to go instantly,” Torlano said. But if there’s too much snow, “you’re taking huge risks for an avalanche.”

In the past decade, Torlano has become something of a winter oddity in Yosemite, putting down first ski descents on the park’s major cliffs: Glacier Point, Taft Point, Dewey Point, Crocker Point, Sentinel Dome. He has attempted to ski Half Dome once in each of the past three years, but called it off each time after finding that the snow wasn’t perfect.

Then the storm system that hit Northern California in early February filled Yosemite Valley’s chutes and gullies with fresh powder.

On Feb. 19, he rented a friend’s Cessna for a reconnaissance flight above Half Dome to scope the snow and identify a possible route down to the valley. The peak was white with a dusting of about 2 to 3 inches.

Torlano started calling friends to find a partner and landed on Milligan, an old climbing buddy, though one with little extreme ski experience.

You’re asking me to ski that thing? Milligan replied to the invitation.

“I was like, no, you’ll probably die,” Torlano said.

The idea was for Milligan to skin up with Torlano for the 10 miles to subdome then accompany him through the highly technical steeps below the face of Half Dome, known as the “death slabs.”

On Saturday afternoon, the two men set out from the valley along the John Muir Trail — hard-packed with snow this time of year — and made camp near subdome, bivouacking beneath an old fir tree. With no sleeping bags, they passed the night in puffy jackets and pants, eating Clif bars and catching up.

“We mostly just froze and told stories all night long,” Torlano said.

Somewhere along the way, Milligan had decided to go with Torlano to the top — as well as for the ride back down.

At 3 a.m., they strapped on crampons and pushed for the summit with ice axes, skis strapped to their backs. They needed to begin their descent before the sun warmed the peak and increased the chance of avalanche.

“Within 20 minutes, the conditions can go from good to really bad,” Torlano said.

At the top, they snapped selfies but didn’t even break long enough to slam snacks or sip water. Torlano charged down, carving elegant turns in the snow. Milligan was more tentative, carefully side-slipping.

“I was just trying to stay in control and stay alive,” Milligan said. “You’re on that spine and you don’t have a lot of room for error.”

Milligan even duct-taped his ice axe to a ski pole as a precaution.

“When I saw that, it made the nervousness stop because I was just laughing at Zach,” Torlano said. “It made the trip even more worthwhile.”

Back at subdome, the pair still had to navigate the remaining 3,200 feet through the death slabs to the valley floor. That was more slow-going. Twice, they unhooked their skis and rope-rappelled through sections of bare rock.

“We’d ski a few hundred feet, then run out of snow, do a rappel, then ski some more,” Torlano said.

The route never opened up or relented.

“All of a sudden, you’re just in the valley,” Torlano said. They ended up at Mirror Lake. “It’s surreal because we walked straight into, like 200 tourists.”

The descent took about five hours.

Back at home, Torlano said he felt a weight off his shoulders.

“It’s been a complete addiction,” he said. “I think my wife is happy I finished it, too.”

What’s next, now that Half Dome is done?

Midway through the descent, Torlano spotted a chute into the valley he hadn’t seen before. He thinks it might be skiable. He’ll start scouting it soon.

“I call these classic Yosemite shenanigans,” Torlano said. “We’re not professional skiers. We’re just out here for the pure joy.”

Gregory Thomas is The Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle & outdoors. Email: gthomas@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @GregRThomas

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