Backcountry skiing in Yosemite Valley with expert Jason Torlano

It’s a little known fact that visiting California’s Yosemite National Park in snow season — when it’s not only cold, but dark and a little lonely — is one of the best times to see one of most beautiful places in the world.

In the early morning hours, after pulling back the blinds in your warm cabin in Half Dome Village to gaze up toward Glacier Point Apron, you’ll be rewarded with views of the nearly 1-mile-wide, 3,000-foot-tall swath of black granite coated in white.

The tips of Eric Rasmussen's skis and Jason Torlano backcountry skiing in Yosemite Valley. The 3,000 foot face of El Capitan is in the distance. Photo courtesy of Eric Rasmussen
The tips of Eric Rasmussen’s skis and Jason Torlano backcountry skiing in Yosemite Valley on a first descent called Line of Fire. The 3,000-foot-face of El Capitan is in the distance. Photo: Courtesy of Eric Rasmussen

A few hours later, when the sun is high in the sky and glimmering down on the face, the snow melts and then it slides.

When small chunks of ice rattle down the wall, it sounds like a shaking crystal chandelier. When ice blocks or rocks tumble down, the boom echoes throughout the Valley.

To longtime Yosemite local Jason Torlano, these golden hours, when the walls are coated in bonded snow — albeit at times loosely — are the moment he waits for all year so he can go skiing.

Now 41, Torlano’s called the park home for 40 years. “I learned playing around the boulders when I was 5 or 6 how snow stuck to [them] and that you could ski it,” Torlano told GrindTV from his home in Sugar Pine, California, about 35 minutes from the park’s south entrance.

“It became a passion since I was a little kid. Looking up at these nooks and crannies, I ended up wanting to climb or ski them.”

Torlano rappelling between sections of snow on Line of Fire, on the Leaning Tower descent. Photo: Courtesy of Eric Rasmussen

Since age 17, Torlano’s completed 32 first ski descents, including LeConte Gully, Taft Point, Crocker Point, Clouds Rest and Dewey Point.

From some of these descents you can see El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome.

Staying alive

Torlano traversing a steep slope on Line of Fire, near Dewey Point. Photo: Courtesy of Eric Rasmussen

Safely descending gullies in Yosemite Valley requires great patience and precise timing. “You have to make sure it’s cold enough so there isn’t rock and stuff falling,” Torlano says.

“You [also] have be off the ski descent by the time the sun is hitting the walls. Once it does, it all starts crumbling. It’s really dangerous — wet slides and everything.”

Perfect powder and 3,000-foot runs

One of the challenges of backcountry skiing in Yosemite Valley is the almost constantly changing snow conditions. However, it is possible to ride fresh powder from the rim of the Valley to the floor.

This was the case in 2011, when JT Holmes and Torlano descended the narrow chute called LeConte Gully, located a quarter mile west of Half Dome Village.

LeConte Gully is horrendously exposed at times, and a wrong turn or misstep will lead to certain death from falling off the cliff.

That day, “it was top to bottom perfect powder,” Holmes told GrindTV from his home in Squaw Valley, California.

When and where to ski

Torlano dropping into Line of Fire. Photo: Courtesy of Eric Rasmussen

Though conditions vary year to year, the best time to visit Yosemite to backcountry ski is typically in March.

Take the steep and winding Highway 41 up to the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area, then skin 5 to 10 miles into the backcountry.

“Then you camp or ski the same day,” Torlano says.

What you need to know

Torlano and Aaron Smith traversing above a thousand-foot cliff (this is a no-fall zone) on Line of Fire. Photo: Courtesy of Eric Rasmussen

Skiers and split-boarders need to carry traditional avalanche gear (beacon, probe, shovel) and be equally strong in both ski mountaineering and rock climbing.

“You need to know how to make natural anchors, hammer in pitons, place ice screws and use self-arrest poles,” Torlano says.

“And you need to be familiar with Yosemite.”

Ride Half Dome

Though Torlano’s skied 32 descents in the park and even repeated many of them, there is one prize he has not completed. This is the 400-vertical-foot Half Dome Cables Route.

It sports a “3-inch veneer of snow and ice … [on a] 47-plus-degree pitch,” Outside has reported.

Jim Zeller rode the line on his snowboard back in March 2000.

“I’ve gone up to try it, but conditions weren’t right,” Torlano says.

To learn more about backcountry skiing in Yosemite, pick up POWDER’s 142-page coffee-table book, Monumental: Skiing Our National Parks, and check out the film by the same name.

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