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Ben Ditto Checks Out to Tick First Ascent of High Times in Tuolumne
Posted on November 2, 2015

The line of High Times is unique in Tuolumne Meadows repertoire of high-quality slab climbing. Rest well at the transition between the crack and the roof. Ditto starts into the crux of High Times.

Eddie Bauer climber and photographer Ben Ditto has done his time in Yosemite Valley, as a seasonal itinerant resident and a climbing steward. But a bout of Instagram-driven, “living the dream” depression motivated him to exit the vortex and shift his focus to deep reflection, thick adventure biographies, and putting up his first new free route in Tuolumne Meadows. The result was High Times (5.13b), a steep, northeast-facing line on Drug Dome that provides a cool, unique Tuolumne challenge for all the climbers who will follow. —LYA Editor

Not a bad place to spend the day! Drug Dome has some of Tuolumne Meadows most classic climbs. High Times ascends the left side, opening up new terrain for those looking to climb steep clean rock.

Words by Ben Ditto, Images by Owen Bissell

Shaking out below the crux, my gaze follows the sweep of wall below, dropping away steeply, four pitches to the ground. I hear the angel and the devil of performance sports, whispering in my ears…one says you’re tired, you can’t make it, and the other says rest well, and crush! Whether or not I do the first ascent of this route, it all boils down to the next few moves. I force myself to focus, take stock of my breathing, feel my pulse slow down, and check my knot one last time before pulling up into the sequence of flat edges, heel-hooks, and fingertip-sized knobs that lead out the final bulge, guarding the top of Drug Dome. Woo-hoo! Standing on top, I feel the performance-related nervousness transform into the peacefulness that follows a “checked” box on the to-do list of life.

After belaying Katie up, and rappelling back to the ground, we head back to our van/home in the Tuolumne Meadows campground. Van life isn’t always as glamorous as what people imagine. After a spring and summer of living in the dirt, public restrooms, and losing our campsite to the plague-infected large gray squirrel, I was beside myself with self-pity. Of all the indignities possible in this life, feeling sorry for oneself must be the worst. At these times, I find it convenient to look beyond all the wonderful opportunities surrounding me and focus on the thing I “want” but don’t have. This misery is the worst on weekends, when my depressed state might be witnessed by our friends who come to climb, arriving happy and inspired to be out in nature with their friends Ben and Katie, who are “living the dream.” It only takes a time or two, when depression and dissatisfaction collide with dreamy perceptions, that I begin to see my state as impractical to my goal of being happy and productive, and start to do something about it.

I sought to immerse myself in other people’s adventures and began to read about Theodore Roosevelt’s in the early 1900s. “The River of Doubt” begins after Roosevelt’s second term as President. During his quest for a third term, while delivering a campaign speech in a crowded lecture hall, he was shot in the chest at point-blank range. Roosevelt lost the election and found himself depressed. To battle the depression, he signed up for a big adventure to the Brazilian Amazon to explore an unknown jungle river. His adventures almost killed him and his son Kermit, but they got it done, and along the way he forgot the personal depressions that were plaguing his daily life back home.

The route beta for High Times. C: Ben Ditto.

My first climb in Yosemite was over 20 years ago, and in the months and years I’ve since spent, I’ve mostly repeated existing routes. Meanwhile, I’ve spent many months of my life in faraway places, exploring for new route possibilities, but I had not yet tapped into that pioneering spirit here in Yosemite. This year would be different. This year I needed a goal to focus on to help me keep the plot.

In 2012 I spotted the steep, northeast-facing side of Drug Dome, nestled in the shade of tall trees, around the corner from the well-trodden classics and hidden in plain view of the descent. The black streaks and seemingly blank rock took root in my subconscious. I dropped a “pin” on the location in my mental map of possibilities.

The guidebook shows a few single pitch routes over on that side of Drug Dome. One day in July, I managed to talk Katie Lambert and Brittany Griffith into checking it out…the prospects were exciting. One of the routes, Red Banner Week, was established by locals Jake Whittaker and the late Sean Leary. The line follows a left-leaning crack/weakness that seems easy from the ground. True to their reputation as master rock climbers, and consistent with a lot of routes in Tuolumne Meadows, this route is hard and committing. After taking some big falls past the crux, I made it past and into a series of unprotectable traverses…tricky for the leader, but dangerous for the second. I decided to bail off their bolt and move onto the next option, “Spinner.” Established by Dave Bengston, the route climbs up an easy dihedral for 30 feet before splitting off right and out a 12-foot roof crack, again protected by a bolt. This route is really cool, hard, and unique in Tuolumne for being so steep.

We wondered when the last time was that anyone had climbed these pitches. Are there any other lines possible to climb here? It was such a lovely place to spend the day, hiding in the shade from the blazing sun. The tall trees were swaying gently in the breeze, mirroring the long black streaks that draw the eye up the face of Drug Dome.

A few days later, I walked to the top of the dome, loaded down with gear and uncertainty. Rappelling down a long static line, I began to scour the wall for signs of a climbable line, establishing directionals, and top-roped soloing with mini-tractions. Eric Bissell came up for the afternoon and we played around with a few possibilities that the wall has to offer, never quite finding the line I was looking for. Further to the right, I found a few signs that another climber had tried to piece together a climb here, but it seemed abandoned. This section of wall is steep and the small knobby holds easily become inadequate for upward progress.

Attempting to finding the line with Eric Bissell on day one. 'High Times' climbs to the right and up the left side of the big roof before heading up and left to the black streak and steep prow.


My perceptions changed on my second and third days on the route, when I rappelled into the steep crack that leads up to the roofs capping the fourth pitch. A line of knobs link the crack to some horizontal jugs and into some tiny knobs through a roof to the top of the wall. I had found the line! Beginning on the initial 25 feet of Spinner, the line splits off to the left and forges through cracks and steep faces before finishing up through the top bulge of the formation.

At this point in the evolution of the route, I had to either commit, or bail. The explorations had provided me with a glimmer of motivation and I was excited to share it with people. In fact, I was telling everyone about it, and my fourth day on the route I was accompanied by Ian Nielsen and Ryan Alonzo. Seeing these two folks up there enjoying themselves really helped me to commit to the hard work to follow. They both liked the climbing, the setting, and seemed inspired by the line. So it was on! Planning consumed my thoughts, and one of the big decisions was how to protect the line.

The seventh day on the route was a hard one. Ian and I spent the day hand drilling protection bolts and anchors. In federally designated wilderness, machines are banned, which serves to limit the destruction of wilderness qualities. I’m happy to embrace the hard work of hand drilling if it means we don’t see mining and motorized vehicles out there in our wildlands. A few days later, my eighth day on the route, was Labor Day (literally). Ian came up again, this time with our friend Steele Taylor, and together we put the finishing touches on the route.

The last 15 feet of climbing on High-Times is steep and clean rock, battling out the bulge on micro-knobs and flat edges.

After my 9th day of work, the route was ready for an attempt to climb it all clean from the ground. I had been so immersed in the process of opening this route that any hint of the depression that had motivated me had disappeared. Now a new emotion settled in that I hadn’t expected. It was time to climb this route clean, and officially open up the first ascent. I want this route to be a “gift” to the community as much as for it to be my “conquest” of the wall. I started to feel the performance anxiety of the athlete. I needed to stay strong in my mind as I approached the wall on my 10th day, hoping to successfully climb all the pitches clean.

The first pitch went without a hitch. It is satisfying to enjoy the fruits of labor and to feel that good work has been done, that the protection points were well placed, and the climbing of high quality. The second pitch requires a bit more climbing skill to surpass the “crackless” dihedral where palming, stemming, and micro-knob edging help relieve the bite in the fingertips. As I made my way through the crux, I could almost feel the excitement of the on-sight (even though I had top-roped it many times before), the gear is well placed, but it is still committing. Pitch three is a joy of moderate, knobby arête climbing and steep cracks. Pitch four begins at a cramped belay ledge below a steep crack. There’s a loose block (caveat emptor) to get things started and then some pumpy moves up the crack, leading to high-quality knobby bouldering.

Leading this pitch took a little bit more energy than the top-roped rehearsal I’d done. I found myself at the rest below the roof, shaking out for way longer than I’d anticipated…feeling the pressure to send and simultaneously present my little gift to the world to enjoy. A few lock-offs, edges, heel-hooks, and knobs later and I was on the top, the journey was complete, but the destination had been reached weeks before. I watched gleefully as she worked out the crux, finding her own beta to suit her style.

Post climb beverage, overlooking Drug and Maruolomne Domes with Cathedral Peak in the back left.

Learn more about the multidisciplined skill and multifaceted character of Ben Ditto and what makes him tick at

Author: - Monday, November 2nd, 2015

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