When looking through the photos of Jason Torlano and Zach Milligan, the duo who just made a rare ski descent of Yosemite’s Half Dome on Feb. 21, it’s clear they were not exactly equipped to the nines. Torlano is wearing a crusty, old Black Diamond Alpine Bod climbing harness with the leg loops cut off to save weight. The sleeve on Milligan’s jacket is 80 percent wrapped in Gorilla Tape, a rush patch job he did after tearing it on his truck.
“The jackets in the picture are almost as much hole as they are jacket,” Milligan said. “My ski pants double as my ice climbing pants, so they’re filled with crampon holes. All my gear is like that.”
Clearly, the results prove that it’s not always about the latest and greatest equipment—sometimes gear that is merely ‘reliable-enough,’ is just enough to pull off what’s become an instant classic feat. Torlano and Milligan notched the first complete ski descent of the iconic, 8,839-foot monolith from summit to Mirror Lake on the Yosemite Valley floor, some 4,640 feet below (including a handful of short, necessary rappels down sections too steep to hold snow). Local and national media outlets pounced on the news, deserving a deeper look into the specifics of essential items that these unsponsored, Yosemite-regular Half Dome heroes brought along to survive the strike mission, and make history.
To start, Torlano’s eight-year-old skis were hand-me-downs from pro skier/BASE jumper JT Holmes. Since then, Torlano has used them for helicopter ski guiding in Nepal and for first ski descents in Yosemite Valley. “I never had a really good ski kit. But what I have gets me down everything I do,” he told me during a lunch break from a roofing job in Oakhurst (as a fellow, longtime Yosemite resident, I’ve known and climbed with both for decades).
Over Torlano’s decades spent living in the park, he’s nabbed some two-dozen first descents, including skiing from Taft Point to the Valley floor a week before skiing Half Dome. In addition to making the second unroped ski descent of Half Dome (Jim Zellers was first in 2000), in 2013 Torlano made the first descent of Clouds Rest, 5,000 feet of rolling granite slabs.
Milligan is a world-class rock climber—and the last to admit it, as he prefers to remain in the shadows. He has lapped the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome twice in the same day. That’s 4,000 feet of vertical rock climbing, right up the center of the shear wall. His free solos are impressive in both difficulty and quantity. This includes the 1,600-foot 5.10 Steck Salathé route on Sentinel Rock, which he has down to 40 minutes. “I’ve probably soloed that route 275 times,” he says. For comparison, in ‘The Ascent of Alex Honnold‘ episode on 60 Minutes, Honnold free solos Sentinel Rock.
Today, Milligan resides in Bozeman, MT, where he installs flooring. Before moving there in 2020, “Yosemite had been my home my whole adult life,” he says.
This is not the duo’s first rodeo together, either. A decade ago, in winter and on skis, they tried crossing from Mammoth to Yosemite. They attempted the 50-mile traverse in a 36-hour continuous push but retreated due to navigation issues.
For Half Dome, where Torlano used full-size alpine-touring ski gear, Milligan went on to the opposite end of the spectrum, carrying lightweight ski mountaineering gear. “I had Dynafit Nanga Parbat skis that were 65cm underfoot and 172cm in length. Pretty short, pretty thin, and they have very sharp edges. I also had one [ice pick-like pole attachment] Whippet and one ice ax taped to the other pole.”
To climb the Half Dome Cables route, Milligan continues, “I used Kahtoola running crampons with no front points; they’re just stubby microspikes and they’re awesome. Torlano had out-of-production crampons that have two horizontal front points. He doesn’t know who makes them and he thinks he stole them from me. We don’t know where they came from.”
Before leaving the car toward Half Dome, the two shuffled through the floor of Milligan’s girlfriend’s car to find a few discarded 1.5-liter Crystal Geyser plastic water bottles. They refilled these with river water during the hike.
They didn’t pack sleeping bags to save weight, opting instead to shiver out the night in puffy pants and jackets while sitting on insulating pads. They built a small fire and stoked it throughout that night and passed the time by sharing stories.
“At first I was super nervous to be out there with Milligan as he doesn’t really ski,” Torlano says. “But I noticed he was always smiling and having a good time. And I realized I would rather be there with him than anyone else.”
As for the severity of skiing Half Dome compared to his other ski descents, Torlano says, “This was scary, man. If you fall or something messes up, you go over the south face or northwest face (and die).”
As for what’s next for Torlano and Milligan. Torlano says, “I’m talking with Milligan to see if he can stay and ski after this upcoming storm cycle. The storm is due in a few days.”
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