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Thirteen Years in a Cave in Yosemite: Half Dome Skier Zach Milligan

I saw a picture of Half Dome in my barber shop and I was like, ‘Where is that?’ I knew I needed to climb it.

zach milligan skiing half dome Photo by: Jason Torlano

When Jason Torlano and Zach Milligan skied Half Dome on February 21, making them the first to descend from the summit to the Valley floor, they became international stars and made headlines from Outside to The Guardian to NPR.

The story captivated audiences. Half Dome at 8,839 feet is one of the world’s most recognizable features with névé covered slopes up to 60 degrees. They were just two friends out on a grand adventure, with Jason the more experienced, with more than 20 first ski descents in the Park. Zach, though a skilled ski mountaineer, didn’t consider himself a “real skier.”

Milligan by Dean Fidelman
Portrait of Zach Milligan. Photo: Dean Fidelman

I’ve climbed and reported on Zach’s feats on ice and rock — and now skiing — for more than a decade. Until recently, he preferred to remain in the shadows and asked me to refer to him in the press as an anonymous climber. This time he let me share his story with others because I’m a close friend, someone he trusts. Over the years, we’ve partnered on the 700-foot Rostrum North Face with the 5.11b Uprising variation where he charged up the overhanging fist-jamming crux like he was floating on air.

This past week we romped up the polished and technical multi-pitch trad line Moratorium, 5.11b, located below El Cap’s East Buttress. The next day we ran for two hours at snowline in the Sierra foothills; then had a bouldering session in Mariposa. While descending along El Cap’s base after topping out The Moratorium, we talked under the shadow of the 1,000-meter golden wall where he brought me up to speed about what he had been doing. The conversation continued during our trail run and as we glissaded from the summit of 1,642 meter Kirby Peak.

Milligan at Killer Pillar
2010: Milligan descending into the sport climbs at Killer Pillar. Photo: Van Leuven

Three years ago, after 20 years in Yosemite, Zach left his job in the Park to grow his own company and lead a business instead of working for one, Zach Milligan Flooring, which he operates in Bozeman, Montana.

Raised in Tucker, Georgia, as a child Zach enjoyed hiking and adventuring. He worked as an electrical apprentice out of high school, where he logged upwards of 60 hours a week. 

His world changed at 18 when he saw a picture of Half Dome on the wall while getting his haircut at a barbershop. “I was like, ‘Where is that?’ I knew I needed to climb it.”

“Then I went to Mountain Ventures in Atlanta (now closed) and saw a picture of Peter Croft soloing the Rostrum, and that completed it. Whatever that is, that’s what I am now.”

Milligan on Moratorium
Milligan on The Moratorium (5.11b, 4 pitches) in Yosemite. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

At Mountain Ventures he purchased a 50-meter rope, a Silent Partner solo-climbing belay device, hexes, stoppers and a set of rigid-stem Friends. He taught himself how to climb by solo-leading pitches, logging in 100 climbs in his first season. He downclimbed every one of them. He frequented Sand Rock in Alabama, Tennessee Wall in Tennessee, and Looking Glass in North Carolina. 

Free soloing followed. At 19 he moved from Georgia to Denver, Colorado, to work as an electrical apprentice and climb in nearby Eldorado Canyon. He onsight soloed the five-pitch 5.7 Bastille Crack in Eldo and the five-pitch 5.7+ Osiris in Lumpy Ridge. The Bastille required him to jam hands and finger cracks, which he was used to, but Osiris challenged him in a new way.  

“It had offwidths on it and that was my first taste of wide climbing, soloing that shit. That’s when I learned I could keep it together and was not afraid of heights.”

Once back in Atlanta in 1999, Zach revisited Mountain Ventures and inquired with his friend and shop owner Doug Peterson about ice climbing. Familiar with Zach’s strength and boldness on the rock, Doug handed Zach a set of his personal tools and crampons. Later that day, Zach hopped in his 1987 Chevy Celebrity sedan that he picked up for $250 and drove to North Carolina to climb ice. The following day he returned to Mountain Ventures, purchased a full ice climbing set up and drove to Silverton, Colorado, home to long, sustained ice. 

Zach near Half Dome
Milligan the night before he skied Half Dome with Jason Torlano. Photo: Torlano

“I knew this was for me,” he says — adding that within that first week, he free soloed the 1,200-foot WI4 Stairway to Heaven, earning him the nickname “Georgia Ice.” More challenging ropeless climbs followed, including his 2016 ascent of Yosemite’s 1,680-foot WI5 Widow’s Tears, a route he called trivial. “But it was beautiful. It’s an awesome climb.” 

From Colorado, he continued west to Yosemite Valley. He arrived alone during the heat of summer and ventured up routes on formations that he didn’t even know the names of yet. He slept in the boulders and cooked simple meals on his camp stove. 

To make money, he picked up work at the luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel where he lasted two months. He got fired for showing up whenever he pleased, throwing a jar of powdered dish soap at his manager, and openly drinking on the job. His termination slip read, “Fastest dishwasher I’ve ever seen, but worst employee ever. Do not rehire.”

Milligan bouldering
Milligan bouldering in Mariposa, California. Photo: Van Leuven

From dishwasher, he moved up to custodian for the Park’s cleaning service Best Bet. Here he remained for 13 years, working either alone or with a small crew. “I washed windows, installed, and cleaned carpets.”

For those thirteen years, the boulders remained his home, and each night he’d move to a new spot so he could elude the rangers. He stayed inside at a friend’s house for three years who offered him space in an extra room. From there, he moved into a converted toolshed in El Portal. 

During those 20 years in Yosemite, Zach amassed an incredible amount of climbing. Highlights include the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome some 20 times which he speed soloed in 2 hours 37 minutes. He had it so wired that in 2015 he and his frequent climbing partner Ranger Jack Hoeflich partially installed the bolt ladder on the Regular route — between shifts at work — after part of the route fell to the ground 

Milligan Trail Running
Milligan trail running with the author in the Sierra foothills. Photo: Van Leuven

Zach has free-soloed the 1,600 foot 5.10 Steck-Salathé route on Sentinel rock 275 times. His 5.11 free solos at the notoriously polished and burly crag Arch Rock include Leanie Meanie and New Dimensions. He also onsight soloed the 5.10b offwidth Ahab at El Cap’s base. When it comes to his best solos, he says, “I’m real proud of the (1,400 foot 5.10c) East Buttress of lower Cathedral Rock because it’s so technical and committing. It’s a special climb.”  

Milligan skiing below the northwest face of Half Dome. Photo: Torlano

For Zach, soloing is moving meditation. “You feel like you’re in contact with God. It makes me feel like I’m in a magical place.”

To learn more about Zach Milligan, follow him on Facebook at Zach Milligan Flooring and on Instagram @ zachary.milligan.9

Lead photo: Jason Torlano