SAN FRANCISCO
01/27/2013 05:39 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2013

Clouds Rest In Yosemite National Park: Extreme Skiers Test The Limits

Extreme skiing can be defined in five simple, morbid words:

If you fall, you die.

The terrain these expert skiers seek out is so steep that any slip or stumble almost certainly would send them hurtling toward rocks, cliffs, crevasses ... you name it.

In other words, something way beyond your typical black diamond run.

Clouds Rest isn't a ski slope, either. It's an enormous expanse of high-angle granite, nearly a mile high and a mile wide, that sits just northeast of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Few people would even entertain the idea that skiing down Clouds Rest was possible. Jason Torlano is an exception.

Torlano, 37, grew up in Yosemite -- his mom worked at the park medical clinic -- and was introduced to its wilder ski terrain as a teenager.

Extreme skiers mark their accomplishments with first descents. Torlano has 28 of those in Yosemite, but Clouds Rest was the one he wanted most.

"From our school playground I could always see Clouds Rest," said Torlano, who lives in Foresta, a community of private cabins within the park. "And skiing it was my dream."

On Jan. 16, that dream became a reality. Taking advantage of ideal conditions, Torlano and Jonathan Blair of South Lake Tahoe became the first people to carve ski turns down Clouds Rest's massive northwest face.

"This was definitely the most committing line I've ever done," Torlano said. "Five thousand feet of no-fall zone? I've never skied anything like that."

The two-day effort required not only skill, stamina and planning but also a great deal of nerve because of the severe avalanche risk. The descent also involved 500 feet of rappelling -- necessary to negotiate cliffs too steep to hold snow.

"Your reaction is, 'You can't ski that. It's vertical. It's cliffs,' " said Tim Messick, a Yosemite ski pioneer who introduced a teenaged Torlano to the park's steepest terrain.

"But, yeah. Jason's doing it."

The right conditions

It has been quite a winter in Yosemite. December storms covered the Valley and its surroundings with a thick blanket of snow, and cold temperatures kept much of it from melting while consolidating the snowpack.

Compared to rock climbing, ski mountaineering and ice climbing don't draw much attention. But when conditions are prime, like they were this month, possibilities exist for both.

On Jan. 3, Torlano and Greg Loniewski climbed Widow's Tears -- a rarely formed frozen waterfall on the Valley's South rim. (Four recorded parties climbed Widow's Tears this month.) The following week, Torlano traded his ice axes and crampons for skis and made a first descent of Quarter Domes.

It was during the first descent of Quarter Domes, granite formations located between Half Dome and Clouds Rest, that his longtime dream came into focus.

"I was looking at Clouds Rest the whole time thinking, 'Man, if the snow's good here it must be good up there,' " said Torlano, a former U.S. Army paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last summer, Torlano climbed Clouds Rest -- not an easy feat in itself -- and scoped out a potential ski route that avoided most of the cliffs and other hazards. Now he needed perfect conditions. Too much snow, and the avalanche danger would only increase. Too little, and it wouldn't be skiable.

Torlano also needed a partner, and his friend Blair was itching for some action after missing out on the Quarter Domes descent. (The two met while working for Yosemite Search and Rescue in the mid-1990s but never really had climbed or skied together.)

"My first thought was, 'Really? Clouds Rest?' " Blair said. "I was kind of blown away. But Jason was filled with confidence and said he had checked it out quite thoroughly."

Torlano and Blair started up the Mist Trail on Jan. 15 at dawn and were skiing once they reached the top of Nevada Fall. It took 121/2 hours to gain the airy 9,926-summit of Clouds Rest, where they pitched a tent and hunkered down.

All night, howling winds battered the tent as Torlano and Blair sat around and discussed whether the snow load would make the route even more prone to avalanches. But they awoke to blue skies and wind-blown crust. It was a go.

Long way down

Both carried 30-pound packs, enough gear for three nights, and in some spots the slope angle exceeded 55 degrees. (A typical advanced ski run is 35 degrees.) This was survival skiing, not schussing through thigh-deep powder.

"It looks like powder up there, but it's not," Torlano said. "Lots of side slipping and jump turns while picking our way through rocks and ice."

About halfway down the face, they came to a 300-foot cliff. So out came the climbing rope, pitons and ice screws to make three separate rappels.

Once off the cliff, they skied another 1,000 feet or so of extremely steep terrain before making the decision to traverse across the face. While this route avoided more cliffs, it put them right smack in an avalanche zone. Both carried beacons -- a faint hope considering the acres of ice above them -- and stayed several hundred feet apart.

"It made us very nervous," Torlano said. "Everything we were taught about safe skiing, we had to ignore in order to get through there."

Messick, author of "Cross Country Skiing in Yosemite," can appreciate the danger.

"When Clouds Rest is loaded with snow you never know what it's going to do," he said. "I've seen avalanches come ripping off that face, hit Tenaya Canyon, explode and create a rainbow."

At the end of the traverse, two more short rappels brought them into Tenaya Canyon. With 5,000 feet of descending behind them, they had to negotiate another 1,100 feet of notoriously tricky terrain before reaching the Valley floor.

By the time they got to Mirror Lake, it was nearly dark. The danger behind them, the two men could practically smell the pizza at Curry Village.

"It definitely feels like an accomplishment," said Blair, 38. "But it's one and done. I'm not going to ski down Clouds Rest again."

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The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6218 or marekw@fresnobee.com. ___

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