The Historic Ski Descent of Half Dome

Half Dome isn’t a ski objective. The gentlest slope off the iconic 8,839-foot summit in Yosemite National Park is a 45-to-60-degree granite wall—usually hiked over the course of a long, summer day via the 800-foot Cables Route—and it rarely has enough snow on it to set a ski edge.

“It’s steep and exposed,” says professional skier and BASE jumper JT Holmes. “There’s nothing for the snow to bond to except for itself and granite. It’s pretty hardcore. It comes down to your motivation to steep-ski and to understand when the snow is right.”

On Sunday, February 21, Yosemite locals Jason Torlano and Zach Milligan took advantage of “here today, gone tomorrow” conditions to become the first people to ski the iconic feature from its summit to the Valley floor, a 4,640-foot descent. (In 1981, using ropes and a belay, filmmaker Eric Perlman and skier Bob Bellman descended the Cables Route. On March 13, 2000, big-mountain snowboarding pioneer Jim Zellers rode the line to make the first un-roped solo descent. But none of them continued on to the Valley floor.)

On the day of the feat, the line consisted of half an inch of névé bonded to blue ice. “I’m sure it’s melted out already,” Torlano said Monday.

Early last week, Torlano scouted the line from a Cessna 182 with a few friends. As they buzzed the northeast face of Half Dome, Torlano’s eyes zeroed in on the ski line. High on the face, a swath of golden stone poked through the snow. Aside from this obvious crux—bare rock and clear ice—it was as close to “in” as he’d ever seen. 

When Torlano returned to his home in Sugar Pine, California, a small community near the park’s south entrance, he called Zellers for beta, gleaning what he could. Torlano also called Milligan in nearby El Portal. The two had climbed together for years but had only skied together once. 

“I had no business being on Half Dome,” Milligan says. “I’m not a real skier.” 

Milligan packed an ultralight ski-mountaineering setup. Torlano used skis that were nearly a decade old and were mounted with heavy, outdated alpine-touring bindings. 

On Saturday morning, they pulled into Yosemite’s Curry Village and hiked the John Muir Trail for nine miles to a bivy site on Half Dome’s shoulder. At 6 A.M. they strapped crampons to their ski boots and kicked their way up Sub Dome, a mini version of Half Dome scattered with a few Jeffrey pines, and then the Cables Route. 

Near the top, Milligan climbed past the section of bare ice Torlano had spotted from the plane. “It was spooky because it was so thin and blue ice was showing,” Milligan says. “Some of the downed cables were just barely sticking out of the snow, and it was steep enough that if an avalanche cut, there would be nothing you could do.” He decided that it was too dangerous and he wasn’t up for the risk.

Once on top, though, he instinctively clicked into his bindings and started down. Torlano followed. 

“I did one jump turn and then sideslipped most everything,” Milligan says. “I thought I would be able to ski across the cables, but when my ski edges hit the first one, I fell.”

He stabbed the wall with the ice picks on his Whippet poles. “Luckily, the tools were holding—barely,” he says. “I wasn’t in a survivable situation. Then I found the cable and lunged for it. Using my Whippet as a stick and pole, I leveraged the cable out and grabbed it.” Now past the crux, Milligan continued on his skis. 

Torlano successfully negotiated the icy section and led past Milligan to reach a 60-degree section covered with quarter-inch névé, the steepest section of the line. It was coated in “the finest of powder snow,” Milligan says. The névé was hard as concrete. Torlano took a total of five turns down the face.

After finishing the Cables Route, the snow quality improved. The men wrapped around the shoulder to reach the base of the imposing 2,000-foot northwest face of Half Dome, where they connected to a climber’s trail. Linking ribbons of snow, they side-skied over thick manzanita. At small sections of cliff, they rappelled from trees with four-millimeter tech cord. In total, they rappelled less than 300 feet. Just after noon, they bushwhacked to Mirror Lake. 

“Since I was a kid, I dreamed of one day skiing from the summit of Half Dome to Mirror Lake,” Torlano says. “Yesterday a dream came true.”

Lead Photo: Courtesy Jason Torlano

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