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How 2 Skiers Conquered Yosemite's Half Dome

At the end of last month, two skiers achieved an unprecedented feat: descending the summit of Yosemite National Park's iconic Half Dome into the valley below.

In 1865, a report declared that the rock formation — at more than 8,800 feet above sea level — was a path that "never will be trodden by human foot."

Since then, Half Dome has become a popular, but challenging, hike.

But on Feb. 21, Jason Torlano and Zach Milligan made the nearly 5,000-foot trek down on skis.

Skiers and snowboarders have descended Half Dome in the past. But some were assisted by ropes, and none of them made it all the way down to Mirror Lake in the valley, an extra 4,000 vertical feet.

For Torlano, who's lived in Yosemite since he was 5, the journey fulfilled a childhood dream.

"I remember walking down the cables going 'Wow, I bet this thing's ski-able,' " he says, referring to the two metal cables that hikers use during the last 400 feet of the climb to Half Dome's summit. "I remember these old guys just laughing at me at the time."

The day before Torlano and Milligan made their descent, they scouted for a location, camping out at the base of a tree well for hours in subfreezing temperatures.

Once the two arrived at the summit, they were greeted with what Torlano describes as "perfect conditions" — an inch layer of ice with 3-4 inches of snow. Unsuitable snow conditions had thwarted Torlano's previous three attempts to ski down Half Dome.

In addition to navigating the thin layer of snow, what also made their five-hour descent so perilous are the several sections of bare rock known as the "death slabs."

"We rappelled a total three times, a total of about 300 feet," Torlano tells All Things Considered. "So you have a section of snow, and then you'll have a big cliff, and you rappel and you connect the snow to the next rappelling."

The two also had to watch out for another threat.

""It's a slab with no anchors, so avalanches occur all the time," Torlano says. "And if you fall or get caught in an avalanche, on the cable section, you're gonna fall off the south face, a thousand-foot cliff."

Though he's achieved a lifelong dream, Torlano says he's still eyeing other slopes in Yosemite to conquer.

"Every time we go into Yosemite, I just look up into the mountains," he says. "There's so much I want to do there still."

Farah Eltohamy is NPR's Digital News intern.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.