Samurai Of Yosemite
Men's Journal|November - December 2021
To be the first to ski down Half Dome’s most dangerous line, it helps to be a warrior—and a little bit nuts.
By Chris Van Leuven

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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM MEN'S JOURNALView All

The End of California?

The American Dream never gleamed any brighter than in the Golden State. But these days, that warm glow might just be a dumpster fire.

10 mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

Samurai Of Yosemite

To be the first to ski down Half Dome’s most dangerous line, it helps to be a warrior—and a little bit nuts.

10 mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

Hart's Afire

After a brush with death, the hottest comic in the world is finding happiness on new stages and new boardrooms. But will he ever return to the stadium?

10+ mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

Kumail Nanjiani – Becoming Immortal

Kumail Nanjiani broke the internet when he posted this shirtless pic of his Eternals transformation. Here’s his Marvel metamorphosis.

5 mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

WE'RE WITH HER HEIDI GARDNER

SNL’s ‘middle child’ and Kansas City kid is a rabid Chiefs fan who lets kids watch R-rated movies. While rolling out more hot-mess characters this season, she’s sharper than ever.

3 mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

DOWN WITH FEAR

The baddest new mountain biking trail in the country, Colorado’s Palisade Plunge gives you plenty of opportunities to walk and ride. Don’t be afraid.

2 mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

WHAT WORKS FOR ME: WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella functions in a daily pressure cooker of high stakes. Here’s how he finds balance amid the ever-evolving environment of big tech. as told to CHARLES THORP

2 mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

GRASSROOTS RACING TAKES HOLD

After a victorious first season,Superstar Racing Experience refuels for another lap.

7 mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

PORSCHE'S TOP SECRET SUPERCAR

The GT3 Touring is an absolute monster—in 911 clothing.

2 mins read
Men's Journal
November - December 2021

Hellcat's High-Power Heaven

Cashing in another of its lives, Dodge’s smash hit returns for a red-eyed victory lap.

2 mins read
Men's Journal
September - October 2021