Jason Torlano and Jonathan Blair are more than just extreme skiers who earlier this month made the first descent of Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
They're part of a long tradition of adventurers and explorers inspired by the Sierra Nevada.
The tale of two men schussing down 5,000 feet of high-angle, avalanche-prone granite, which I recounted in Sunday's paper, was met with a collective forehead slap by just about everyone who read it and saw the amazing photos.
Those guys are nuts.
Maybe so. Still, I bet folks were saying the same things about John Muir, Orland Bartholomew and Royal Robbins.
Each generation pushes the envelope, but the inspiration and motivation come from the same source.
Let's start with Muir, best known for his tireless conservation efforts and staunch belief of a divine affinity with nature.
But did you know Muir was also quite the thrill-seeker? He "rode" an avalanche down a side canyon in Yosemite Valley. He climbed trees during severe windstorms. And he was probably the first true Sierra mountaineer.
On Sept. 7, 1869, Muir made the first ascent of Cathedral Peak, the picturesque spire that towers over Tuolumne Meadows. The route Muir climbed is today rated Class 4, meaning there are short sections where the use of rope is recommended. Muir did not carry one.
"This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California," Muir wrote in "My First Summer in the Sierra."
Muir made several dozen first ascents, carrying no safety equipment except good judgment. In 1872, he nearly died while climbing Mount Ritter, the dominant peak of the San Joaquin River headwaters. (See Chapter 4 of "The Mountains of California.") The following year, he climbed Mount Whitney via a large gully on the north side of the east face. The "Mountaineers Route," as it's known today, remains a preferred alternative for experienced climbers seeking to avoid the crowded main trail.
While just about everyone who sets foot in the Sierra has heard of Muir, Bartholomew's name typically draws blank stares. It shouldn't.
Raised in Big Creek, Bartholomew quit his job as a stream gauger for Southern California Edison and in 1928 embarked on one of the most remarkable mountaineering adventures in American history.
Traveling alone and carrying a 70-pound pack, Bartholomew spent 14 weeks skiing the entire 300-mile length of the High Sierra from south of Mount Whitney (making the first winter ascent) to Yosemite Valley. He had wooden skis, leather boots and poles made from the handles of garden rakes. He slept in a tarp tent, wrapping himself in a down robe.
Bartholomew's tale is best told in "High Odyssey," written by former Bee reporter Gene Rose. The book includes remarkable photos taken by "Bart" with a self-timer.
No story about Sierra adventurers would be complete without mentioning Robbins, the standard-bearer for Yosemite Valley rock climbing in the late 1950s and early '60s.
Robbins wasn't the first Yosemite rock climber, but he helped push the fledgling sport into bold new directions. On other big-wall climbs of that era, including the first ascent of El Capitan, climbers used fixed ropes that served as a lifeline to the ground.
In other words, they could always rappel to the ground if things went awry.
Robbins rejected that notion. Success on a climb, he felt, shouldn't be assured. In those days, there were no helicopter rescues. So if Robbins and his partners got stuck halfway up El Cap, they had to rely on themselves.
In the late '70s, Robbins brought that same sensibility to kayaking as he and various partners made the first descents of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, the Kern River and the Middle Fork of the Kings River. (For more, check out "Royal Robbins: Spirit of the Age," written by Pat Ament.)
Even though routes that used to take days or even weeks can now be accomplished in hours, Robbins' spirit lives on in modern-day climbers. Alex Honnold's death-defying 2008 free solo (no ropes or other protection) of the iconic, 2,000-foot northwest face of Half Dome is the current standard.
Like Muir, Bartholomew and Robbins, Torlano and Blair had to cast aside their fears while skiing Clouds Rest on Jan. 16. The line was Torlano's 28th first descent in Yosemite, a list that includes Quarter Domes, Crocker Point, Taft Point Right and Dewey Point. (For anyone who knows these perches, it's mind-boggling that they could be skied.)
But these feats, whether climbs or descents, don't stand on their own. They're the latest example of a 150-year-old tradition of Sierra boldness.