Carl Tobin leads Mata Hari on the north face of Ptarmigan Peak back in pre-seeding days. Photo by Charlie Sassara.

Gardening of the Impossible

By Jeff Apple Benowitz

The true “mixed climbing” revolution in Alaska wasn’t rock and ice, but rock and frozen vegetation. During the 1980s, in cragging areas like Valdez, locals climbed walls of glacier-polished slate by linking frozen “clouds” of moss and hooking incipient features. They pounded Snargs and Warthogs into cold dirt for protection. Falling was not encouraged.

As with crags everywhere, once the obvious, easy routes to the top were completed, the Alaskan veg specialists kept trying to push the boundaries toward bolder and bolder lines. With the invention of safer ice-hooks in the ’90s, new, thinner routes were opened on the friable, but moss-thick, walls of Panorama and Ptarmigan peaks. Then, one day, master veg climber “Farmer Joe” sheared out while trying to till his way up some futuristic grass seams. When his wife, Mary Ann, found him at the bottom of the cliff, still breathing but in a disarray of equipment, sedge, and moss, it became clear that there was limit to what could be climbed safely, given the equipment and styles of the time.

In those days, unlike our brethren in the Lower 48, we Alaskan mixed climbers were still unburdened by ethical issues—except for one. As Abraham said from the Mount, “For one season following the harvest, thou shall let the land lie fallow.” That is, the harder routes could only be climbed once every few years; otherwise, all the moss would be removed and would not regenerate. The fun of a first turf ascent not only had the standard ego-boosting pleasure, but also had the advantage of virgin veg. Often the follower had to be careful not to desecrate the route by removing the last of the viable moss and leaving the route barren. Once the local climbing community deemed a route “plowed,” it was off limits for at least a year to allow for regrowth. Though Farmer Joe’s efforts to escalate the level of technical moss standards had been eye-opening, the consensus remained that preserving the quality of the veg and of the adventure was paramount over personal blue-ribbon goals.

Well, the youth can never leave well alone, and by the new millennium folks were showing up at the crags and roadside mountain routes with leashless tools. These newfangled devices made what was once considered the hardest veg line in the Arctic, Turf King VIII, accessible to the masses. With the rush of gumbies power-hoeing their way up routes to make up for lack of technique, moss bits a-flying, classics like McCloud were scraped clean.

A group of old-timers got together on a cold winter night in ’01 and opened a bottle of 15-year-old, peaty single malt to discuss the problem. Since there was no way to convince the youth to let routes lie fallow, the old-timers agreed to allow folks experienced in growing things to put their skills to use.

The first few attempts at seeding didn’t turn out too well. Turf King became a virtual jungle after the farmers used too much seed and Miracle-Gro. But after some more experimentation, they discovered the right formula to preserve the character of the old routes. For a short while peace returned.

Until, that is, Farmer Joe recovered from his injuries and returned to veg climbing with a new vision. Farmer Joe didn’t see blank walls where others saw blank walls; Farmer Joe saw opportunity. He went out in overalls with Mary Ann and began to seed walls where there never before had been growth.

At first this innovation seemed blasphemous. Ultra-purists argued that moss should only grow where the line of water drips. But as they realized that it took great climbing skill (and patience) to hang from a hooked tool, pull up a seeding kit, do a tad of seeding, and then gingerly down-climb till next year—all to add a few more moss clouds—many were won over. The new techniques brought new ethics. Limiting the number of new moss clouds was considered the proudest act of agronomy. Route topos began to contain lists of the number and size of artificially added clouds.

Soon everyone was gardening new routes. A few brawls broke out when someone picked another’s project before the moss had ripened, but generally everyone got along fine. During this period, incredible steep routes like the Pumpkin Patch XI were put up. This was also the golden age of Arctic alpine climbing: The 24-hour Arctic sun meant that one could seed a route, and then, with a little helpful rain, have it ready to go by the next day. In the Brooks Range climbers ascended a whole series of blank towers, the Garden Row, in this manner.


Rap seeding was a dirty job, but someone felt he had to do it.

Well, the youth could still not leave well enough alone. Soon climbers were caught at old-school Alaska crags like Ptarmigan, Keystone Canyon, and even Panorama peak seeding new routes not ground-up, but on rappel! The invention of rap seeding led, perhaps inevitably, to the power-sprayer. Soon newbies were grid seeding walls with no thought toward obvious features, logical lines, or limiting the amount of new vegetation. Now no route lay fallow; no wall was too thin to climb.

After a night of the peatyest peat of all (Laphroaig), the old-timers once again took things into their own hands. In the dark, a slightly tipsy group of Carharted folks bearing gardening claws and weed killer removed many of the new rap seeded routes.

With this act of defoliation, the rap-seed wars were upon us. Walls were grid seeded and almost immediately defoliated in shows of drunken bravado. When the Park Service rangers had to break up a scrum between a gardening-claw-wielding Farmer Joe and a power-spraying young fellow named Forest Green, the government not only put a hiatus on all rap seeding, but also banned all seeding and even climbing, temporarily.

During numerous town-hall meetings, the new-school climbers shouted that ground-up seeding just leads to turf in the wrong places, and the old guard insisted rap seeding is the equivalent of pissing on your begonias—sure they grow faster, but they smell like piss. The government, tired of all the bickering, imposed a solution. Many areas were designated seeding-free, with the old golden rule of letting routes lie fallow stringently enforced. Seeding was allowed in other areas, but only by traditional ground-up seeding methods. A few “sport gardening” areas were set aside for grid seeding.

Time has passed, and even Farmer Joe has started drinking some single-malt Cragganmore from the lowlands. Be it sad or simply progress, his last route was put up in modern style and was named To Rap Seed or Not to Rap Seed? Yet a small ragweed group still sneaks around in the fog, hucking moss off cliffs that never had veg before. Crying that, with a large enough seeding kit, even the blank walls of El Capitan could be climbed, they say that farming moss is the moral equivalent of gardening the impossible.

—Jeff Apple Benowitz, Fairbanks, Alaska

Note: This article was slated for the ill-fated Alpinist 26. The author wishes to thank Katie Ives for her editing.


Previous Alpine Life
December 2008