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Ben Ditto Revisits the Joshua Tree Past on Father Figure
Posted on June 23, 2016

Ben Ditto enjoying the positive holds in the middle of Father Figure (5.12d)

Last fall, Eddie Bauer climbers Mason Earle, Katie Lambert, and Ben Ditto journeyed to the sandbagged desert routes and super aesthetic problems of Joshua Tree. We ran a preview Gabe Rogel gallery of the trip a few months back, but this week we’re retelling all the stories of the trip, starting with this climbing ode to the Stonemasters of the past from Ben Ditto’s experience on an iconic J-Tree route called Father Figure (5.12d).—LYA Editor

Ben Ditto getting started on Father Figure (5.12d)

Words by Ben Ditto, Images by Gabe Rogel

One hundred feet up, the second pitch of the North Overhang of Intersection Rock leaves a comfortable ledge and levers around an awkward roof. Past the corner, a slanting hand-crack with slippery feet leads to the top of the formation. Belayed by my friend Doug, I clowned around at the lip for a moment, posing for an iPhone picture, and sizing up the exposure. I wondered where—exactly—James had bounced when he fell from here. Did his foot slip from this smear, or had he bungled one of the tricky hand-jams? Regardless, I can’t believe he survived the long fall onto the ledge below, or the second fall to the ground. It was December 18, 2004, when James Lucas took the quick way down from here, almost 11 years to the day. I shook my head in disbelief, and placed another piece before continuing to the top of the formation.

North Overhang was first climbed in 1969. Like many things from that era, such as Woodstock and the Mustang, it became a classic. And true to the reputation of early California climbers, North Overhang is known today to be a little bit heads up, even when climbing it with a rope.

This was my third trip to J-Tree and, like the previous two, it was a quick mission. My knowledge of the climbing in J-Tree is limited, and based more on the “climbing legends” than actual experience. It actually rained on my first trip there and I couldn’t climb at all. Our campsite in Pleasant Valley ran with water. The second visit started out a bit like this one, with no real plan. My partners and I explored the jumbled landscape, looking for routes that seemed reasonable and enjoying the desert sun. Eventually we found our way over to “Father Figure,” a short and bouldery sport climb, hidden in a small arena of sculpted boulders. That year we all left without a send, but the climb and the location resonated with me as something special.


In December, I was able to capitalize on the indecision of our group by suggesting we go and check it out the next morning. My photographer’s mind knew that the east-facing aspect would collect beautiful morning light, while my climber’s mind coveted a clean ascent.

Father Figure was established by Scott Cosgrove in 1988. It is hard for its 12+ grade. In 1988 it would definitely be a test-piece. Today, the climb is fairly unique in Joshua Tree because it is slightly overhanging, testing the resistance of the forearms, not the typical run-out slab climb that Joshua Tree is known for.

The character of the climb requires some power-endurance. Power to lock-off from one hold to another, and endurance to finish the last dynamic move to the anchor, 45 feet above the hard rock at the base. That last move had stopped me years before, and this year I fell a few more times there on red-point before I actually sent. I was reminded that in the late ’80s, when this route was shiny and new, 5.12 really meant something. It was cutting-edge.


Not long after Scott established the route, John Bachar free-soloed it, an ascent that I find horrifying. The cruxy move at the end involves matching hands on some small sloped edges, trusting a high right foot and then pulling the handholds down to mid-torso. Bachar obviously had nerves (and fingers) of steel.

On the walk out from Father Figure I stopped to wonder if, in 25 years, climbers from the year 2040 will be impressed by what the top-end climbers are doing in 2015. What would it take? Who will free-solo La Dura Dura?

Climbing in Joshua Tree is full of inspiring stories and characters. Sadly, some of the legendary climbers have passed away, but each time one of their climbs is repeated, a piece of their experience is passed on. These climbs intimidate and motivate. They remind us how badass and dedicated the first ascensionists were. Without such giants, climbing wouldn’t have progressed quite as far, and my own climbing experience wouldn’t be nearly so rich.

Joshua Tree National Park hosts more than 300,000 climber days per year

Check out the First Ascent gear Ben Ditto utilized in Joshua Tree at

Author: - Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

  1. Doreen

    So pleased to meet you all,on your fifty peak adventure.So sorry the visit was so short,because of the storm.Have a safe journey,and you accomplish your goal.Sincerely Doreen De HP

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