Seemed like a swell idea at the time. This past March, an intrepid trio of veteran backcountry trekkers gazed upon Half Dome, the granite monolith that rises majestically from California’s Yosemite National Park, and decided to ski down a steep, icy furrow that runs near its famously sheer northwest face. Never mind that their chosen route, dubbed Bushido Gully after the moral code of the samurai, is seldom used even for summer climbing ascents, and never for descents in inclement weather—too rugged, too exposed, too damn easy to slip to certain death. That’s just the sort of wintertime fun they crave.
Shortly after a frigid-but-glorious sunrise, the trio’s deputized photographer, Eric Rasmussen, balances shakily on a precipitous slope with Half Dome’s lookout spot, known as the Diving Board, looming over his shoulder. Immediately below, snow funnels into a wave of rock cliffs that drop 3,500 feet to the valley floor. Moments ago, his companions, seasoned climbers Jason Torlano and Zack Milligan, squeaked through this section ahead of Rasmussen. Now it’s his go. Inching forward on his skis, scraping close to the void, he jabs ski poles fastened with ice axes at the frozen ground. They skitter and slide. “You scraped off all the snow!” he hollers down, but his hoarse recrimination is lost in the wind.
THIS IS SKI MOUNTAINEERING, a mix of skiing, rappelling and climbing required to challenge such imposing terrain. “It’s never pretty,” says Rasmussen. “It’s just a matter of getting down alive.”
One of the key assets in attempting such a feat is trust. These guys, no newbies to mainlining the rush of risk, have forged that asset over decades. Team leader Torlano, 47, is a shaggy-haired father of four and volunteer medic in Middle East war zones. But he’s called Yosemite home since he was a toddler. His mother, a receptionist in a local clinic, supported his zeal for skiing and climbing—his earliest memories are of riding kiddie-size skis over powder-blanketed boulders. As a teen, he learned rock climbing from Mike Corbett, who once held the record for most ascents of Yosemite’s other climbing mecca, El Capitan. At 24, Torlano became a U.S. Army paratrooper. He’s also worked as a heli-ski guide in Nepal and as a law-enforcement ranger in Yosemite, which is somewhat ironic since he doesn’t mind skirting park approval when plotting a new wilderness challenge.
Rasmussen, 53, also worked for Search and Rescue in his younger days, specializing in big-wall climbing. After that, he was consumed by downhill mountain-bike racing, and typically either crashed or won. Dirt bike racing followed. During a Baja 1000 training run in 2006, he hit a rock going 60 mph and slammed into the desert so hard he was knocked out cold. The following year he nabbed eighth place.
Milligan, 41, with blue eyes and a brutally direct way of communicating, believes his “only gift is staying cool under pressure.” Fresh out of high school in 1999, he moved to Yosemite and lived among its boulder fields for 13 years, despite describing them as “haunted as fuck, like pull-the-sleeping-bag-off-you haunted. Deeply unsettling.” As camping in such wilderness areas without a permit is strictly prohibited, he played cat-and-mouse with park rangers, moving nightly from cave to cave, never leaving any trace of his presence. For income, he washed windows at Yosemite Lodge and installed carpets at the park’s luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel. He worked nights so he could climb by day, preferring free solo and on sight (no ropes, no preinspection), in which every move must be decided on the fly and executed perfectly. He scaled Sentinel Rock, a 1,600-foot tower of fissured stone, at least 275 times.
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