From the Archive: Jason Torlano, Yosemite’s Golden Boy

This article was originally published in the September 2013 issue. We bring it back to celebrate Jason Torlano’s birthday yesterday, June 16.  

Jason Torlano on top of Cloud's Rest in Yosemite. [Photo] Jon Blair

Jason Torlano on top of Cloud’s Rest in Yosemite. [Photo] Jon Blair

In the winter of 1996, Jason Torlano was the guy most of us in the Yosemite Valley knew of for having been knocked out cold at the outdoor ice rink and taken to the medical clinic by ambulance not once, but three times.

He was a ranger then, dressed in his park service greens replete with a holstered sidearm. When he wasn’t skating he was a dedicated rock climber lesser known for his first descents down Yosemite gullies which he first started ticking off at age 17. Fast-forward 20 years and he’s still at it. Last January, he completed his 18th and most committing first descent—Cloud’s Rest, a 5,500-foot granite face.

As a baby, Jason moved with his mother from Los Banos to Yosemite. In kindergarten he began learning how snow stuck to glacier-polished granite. As early as he can remember, he looked up toward the rolling granite of Cloud’s Rest and wanted to ski it.

Jason finished high school in the park and became a ranger. In 1992, he made his first ski descent, Phantom of the Opera, with longtime valley climbing guide and big wall climber Bill Russell, and Tim Messik, author of Cross Country Skiing in Yosemite. He remembers his mother called Bill to ask that Jason wear a bicycle helmet.

At 24 Jason joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade and was deployed to Afghanistan. But he longed to come back to the place he regarded as his home. To Jason, Yosemite is the most beautiful place on earth. “I love every nook and cranny from backpacking to skiing to rock climbing,” he tells me at his home in Yosemite.

Back home at the age of 28, Jason became a ranger again. At 32, he became manager of the Badger Pass ski resort.

Today, at 38, he’s a father of two boys, Hunter, 2, and River, 4. He lives with his girlfriend, Kyle Chappell, on 40 acres where they can see Half Dome and El Capitan from their backyard. Jason works as a rope access technician on oil refineries now, and his workload has him away from home half the time—one month on, one month off. Currently, he’s stationed in Bay Town, Texas, but he hopes to save enough to stay in the park next winter.

“The hardest parts about Yosemite are the California winters,” Torlano says. The valley floor is around 4,000 feet and most summits are 8,000 feet or lower, while many of the gullies are made of slick granite slabs. “Day to day, the snow just changes,” he says. “It’s there and then it’s gone.”

Jason originally invited pro skier JT Holmes to ski Cloud’s Rest with him. JT wanted in, but it didn’t jive with his schedule. Still, JT says there are many reasons Cloud’s Rest hadn’t been skied until Jason’s descent. It has an eleven-mile, full-day approach, for one, and the descent “funnels down into a box canyon; a certifiable death trap,” JT says. Plus, it’s avalanche prone.

So Jason called John Blair, a fellow member of Yosemite Search and Rescue. They’d only skied together once—inbounds—but John agreed because of what he calls Jason’s “vision, motivation, determination and skill.”

John recalls when Jason first called him. “He asked in a low-key way,” John says. “At first, I thought he was kidding.” But he wasn’t, and the next day, John found himself in Jason’s dining room sorting bolts, pitons and other anchor-building materials for their descent.

The approach to the top of Cloud’s Rest took 11 ½ hours of cramponing and skinning. That night, it dropped to fifteen below, and to save weight, the pair had only packed three-season bags. Morning came and conditions were hard and cold. “We thought about bailing because it looked horrendous,” Jason says. “We were both really nervous. We were really scared of the unknown down there.”

And while their line wandered a bit from the direct route, they skied all but 500 feet, most of which was ice that required rappelling. Jason trashed the new pair of skis he brought for the descent. He recalls “a lot of side stepping and sharp turns over big cliffs. We hit a bunch of rocks coming down and I rapped over some granite with them on.”

“The most technical part was getting out of there,” he says. “That’s when conditions became a checkerboard of ice and rock and unfavorable snow.” John says Jason was “elated and exhausted.”

John has no plans to repeat Cloud’s Rest, but he doesn’t put a second descent past Jason. A few weeks after completing the route, Jason ticked off another first descent, a 4,000-foot gully between Cloud’s Rest and Half Dome.

As for the future, Jason says both his kids have started skiing, and River, his four-year-old, helps him pack for ski adventures. But, if Jason keeps knocking off first descents, there may not be any left for his kids when they grow up.

To find more articles on Torlano’s Yosemite descents, visit

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