Jim Zellers, 35, has made numerous first snowboard descents down some of the most difficult terrain on the planet. From the Tahoe Basin to Siberia, Alaska to Nepal, his credits span the earth, yet one of his most difficult triumphs occured, practically, in his own backyard.
Zellers, on March 13, made the first snowboard descent and the first descent without the use of a belay line down the east face of Half Dome, an 8,842-foot monolith that rises high above the Yosemite Valley.
"It's the most I've ever done for any one [of the descents]," Zellers said. "You make all these attempts, and then all of a sudden it's finished. I'm still buzzing."
The descent, which took less than an hour to complete, was the result of five years of observation, anticipation and planning. The bald mountain of granite, according to Zellers, is only covered with snow once or twice a year and even then, only for a short portion of the day. To ride the 47-degree slope requires a lot of skill; to catch the mountain at its prime is a mixture of geography, physics and luck.
For five years, Zellers has been making regular trips to the massive dome, camping in the Yosemite Valley and hiking four or five hours to the base to see if the snow was sticking. The sun heats the rocks, according to Zellers, and the snow that stays tends to seperate and fall off in large chunks, leaving the mountain patchy and unrideable.
"It's like being in def con for four years until it happens," Zellers said.
One year, Zellers went and the snow was all over Half Dome but was thin on the rocks. The next year, he said, he couldn't make anything really happen. The following year, he and his wife, Bonnie Zellers, went, and after noticing a large crack in the snow, declined the ascent. Moments later he said the whole left side of Half Dome avalanched. Last year, it formed up, but when he got to the base he found that there was very little snow.
"If he'd gone and done it the very first time, he would've been very lucky," Richard Leversee, a friend of Zellers' who was shooting photos of the descent, said. "Had he pulled it off the first time, he wouldn't have realized how lucky he was. It was almost like he had to pay his respects to Half Dome ... that's just what it demands."
This year it was meant to happen. Zellers and Leversee left Sunday night from Truckee, slept a couple of hours, woke up early Monday morning and hiked to the base. When they arrived, they found the conditions to be reasonably safe and ridable. After examining the mountain in silence for a while, Zellers determined it was time.
"Now that he's a father, he's a lot more thoughtful ... calculating," Leversee said. "There's a lot more richness to what he does. He's a father now, he's not going to orphan his child. He's very careful about it. After looking at the mountan for a while, he said, 'okay, I'm ready to do it.' It wasn't a bold, brash statement, it's that he was ready to do it."
After ascending the massive rock outcropping, Zellers found that the line down the east face started at about 250 feet wide and funneled down to about 25 feet at the base. Due to wind waves and variable snow conditions, Zellers explained, the conditions required that he make turns all the way down. With a narrow corridor through which to navigate, the tail of his snowboard actually hung over the north face on his last couple of turns.
"The crux of what Jim did was only about three inches thick. If he fell at that section he would've slid 1,500 or 2,000 feet. He probably would've died," Leversee said. "It was unequivically a no-fall situation. Falling was not an option."
"You feel a real intensity with that kind of focusing," Zellers said. "It's a big, big rush."
Upon reaching the bottom, Zellers went and sat off by himself for about 15 minutes. At the base of the mountain, Zellers said he asked himself, "that really just happened?"
"You could say it was almost the fruition of his entire career," Leversee said. "It took all his experience, ability and focus and he brought it all together on Half Dome. This one was special."
Zellers was the second person to make the descent.
Another Truckee resident, Eric Perlman, and Bob Bellman first made the descent on skis (using a belay line) back in 1981.
"It's good that another Truckee boy was the next to bag it," Perlman said. "It's not that surprising. Those who have trained at serious resorts - Sugar Bowl, Squaw Valley or Alpine - know what it is to ski the steeps and work the threadlines of snow between the rocks."
An article titled Close Capers on Half Dome that appeared in the late winter issue of Ski in 1981, written by Perlman, was an inspiration for Zellers. Zellers said that the article effectively described the frustration of dealing with the mountain and the exhuberance of having completed the ride.