YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Extreme skiing can be defined in five simple, morbid words: If you fall, you die.
The terrain these expert skiers seek out is so steep that any slip or stumble almost certainly would send them hurtling toward rocks, cliffs, crevasses, you name it.
Clouds Rest isn't a ski slope, either. It's an enormous expanse of high-angle granite, nearly a mile high and a mile wide, that sits northeast of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Few people would even entertain the idea that skiing down Clouds Rest is possible.
Jason Torlano is an exception.
Torlano, 37, grew up in Yosemite -- his mom worked at the park medical clinic -- and was introduced to its wilder ski terrain as a teenager.
Extreme skiers mark their accomplishments with first descents. Torlano has 28 of those in Yosemite, but Clouds Rest was the one he most wanted to accomplish.
"From our school playground I could always see Clouds Rest," said Torlano, who lives in Foresta, a community of private cabins within the park. "And skiing it was my dream."
On Jan. 16, that dream became a reality. Taking advantage of ideal conditions, Torlano and Jonathan Blair of South Lake Tahoe became the first people to carve ski turns down Clouds Rest's massive northwest face.
"This was definitely the most committing line I've ever done," Torlano said. "Five thousand feet of no-fall zone? I've never skied anything like that."
The two-day effort required not only skill, stamina and planning but also plenty of nerve because of the severe avalanche risk. The descent also involved 500 feet of rappelling, necessary to negotiate cliffs too steep to hold snow.
"Your reaction is, 'You can't ski that. It's vertical. It's cliffs,' " said Tim Messick, a Yosemite ski pioneer who introduced a teenaged Torlano to the park's steepest terrain.
On Jan. 3, Torlano and Greg Loniewski climbed Widow's Tears, a rarely formed frozen waterfall on the valley's south rim. The next week, Torlano traded his ice axes and crampons for skis and made a first descent of Quarter Domes, granite formations located between Half Dome and Clouds Rest.
It then that his longtime dream came into focus.
"I was looking at Clouds Rest the whole time thinking, 'Man, if the snow's good here it must be good up there,' " said Torlano, a former U.S. Army paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Torlano and Blair started up the Mist Trail on Jan. 15 at dawn and began skiing once they reached the top of Nevada Fall. It took 12 ½ hours to gain the airy 9,926-summit of Clouds Rest, where they pitched a tent and hunkered down.
They awoke to blue skies and wind-blown crust. It was a go.
Both carried 30-pound packs, enough gear for three nights.
In some spots the slope angle exceeded 55 degrees. (A typical advanced ski run is 35 degrees.) This was survival skiing, not schussing through thigh-deep powder.
"It looks like powder up there, but it's not," Torlano said. "Lots of side slipping and jump turns while picking our way through rocks and ice."
About halfway down the face, they came to a 300-foot cliff. So out came the climbing rope, pitons and ice screws to make three rappels.
"It definitely feels like an accomplishment," said Blair, 38. "But it's one and done. I'm not going to ski down Clouds Rest again."