Prospector Falls (IV, WI4) – Grand Teton N.P. – First Ice of the Year! (12.2021)

Prospector Falls, also known as “Raven” or “Raven Crack” Falls, is about as classic as they come for ice climbs in Grand Teton National Park. The striking 200 foot main cascade is visible from the easily reached Phelps Lake Overlook, a favorite sight with early winter tourists. The whole route is four pitches, about 400-500 feet in length and is rated WI4.

Prospector Falls (left) and the Apocalypse Couloir (right) viewed from the Phelps Lake Overlook, one week before our climb.

Intro

The idea to climb Prospector Falls came from a desperado ski mission with Carl Osterburg seven days earlier. There’s no article about the journey because really, there was little to report. We bushwhacked with heavy packs for far too long, climbed halfway up the Apocalypse Couloir (that’s right, up) only to bail at an impassible rotten band of choss and ice. We skied 1,000 feet of steep mank with a few dicey down climbs – marginal at best. However, we dragged a slim rack of screws, rock pro, tools and a 50M rope for the fiasco, and after one look at Prospector Falls saw an opportunity for quality recreation. With fading daylight we hacked our way up the first pitch ski boot style, and despite the lack of difficulty (WI2) had an enjoyable time getting reacquainted with our spiky implements. Without the gear or daylight to travel higher we retreated from the first anchor and returned to the car hungry for more – or at least I did.

Prospector Falls (IV, WI4)

As stated above, Prospector Falls is an ultra-classic in the land of “not so classic” ice climbs. Grand Teton National Park is well reputed for ski mountaineering, but few venture out with tools alone, sans skis. I am new to the ice game, but one look around the walls of Death Canyon would make anyone wonder why there isn’t more of a frozen water scaling culture. To be fair, the approach is much more arduous than premier ice climbing venues like Hyalite, Cody and Ouray. Prospector Falls in particular requires 3.5 miles of hiking and healthy pinch of scree hopping, creek crossing and bushwhacking as an entrance fee. If the road to White Grass Ranch is closed, you can tack on 1.5 miles. The more I type about it the more I understand why GTNP sees so few ice climbers, but for those willing to walk, quality icy adventures abound.

Scott and I both rank very “green” on the ice climber scale. Scott had never led and only swung tools a handful of times. I had soloed a fair amount of easy ice (<WI3) for the purpose of skiing and monkeyed around on a Teton Canyon top-rope a few times, but am hardly an ice climber. As a matter of fact, I just led my first proper pitch no more than a week before. To call us under qualified for Prospector Falls would be an understatement. That said, we both work at Teton Mountaineering and had spent enough slow afternoons staring at shiny new tools, screws and vibrant guidebooks to render us dangerously inspired. If there were any easier ice formed or any lick of alpine ski mountaineering, we would have docked this adventure for more experienced times. But this winter has resembled Palm Springs more than Jackson Hole, and this noble north facing puppy was the only suitable adventure for the stormy Friday afternoon, aside from setting a new distance record on the spin bike – which sounded about as fun as trying to ski. Alas, we take to the ice.

Approach

As the saying goes, getting there (Prospector Falls) is half the battle. Brave the gnarly Death Canyon Road, hike up and over the Phelps Lake Overlook and veer west into Death Canyon. Follow the maintained trail past two broad switchbacks on the northern canyon wall until the route is directly south of you. From here you should be able to see a janky bridge formed by a half dozen logs, starting atop a large boulder and finishing on the south side of Phelps Creek. Bushwhack to the bridge, monkey across and continue up the obvious forested drainage to the base of the climb. The apron of the Apocalypse Couloir runs right beneath Prospector Falls and can be used for reference. It should also be noted that the Apocalypse is a major avalanche zone worthy of respect when the snowpack is deeper than twelve inches. We left the car at 8:30 and were racking by 10:30, not too shabby given a few inches of new snow and a lingering ankle sprain.

Prospector Falls and the Apocalypse Couloir

The Climb

According to the Falcon Guides “Best Climbs in Grand Teton National Park”, Prospector Falls consists of four pitches. We skipped the latter two. The fourth pitch (100 feet, WI4) wasn’t formed and the third pitch is a benign mix of low grade ice and snow gully romping, not worth doing without pitch four. The second pitch is the meat and potatoes, a lovely 200 foot frozen cascade with several sections of vertical ice, firm WI4. The first pitch is 50-75 feet, a consistent low angle slab with one pronounced bulge at the top, healthy WI2 when we climbed through. I have heard rumors from the old-schoolers that this pitch can completely vanish mid-winter?

Since I was the rope gun for the big enchilada, Scott grabbed the reigns and set off for his first lead on pitch one. We had never climbed together, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. To my delight he confidently dispatched the pitch with four screws, pausing only momentarily to pull the crux bulge. The ice was very wet off the start but got better with each step. This was my first time climbing in a brand new pair of La Sportiva G5’s – and yes, they made ice life far easier than clunky ski boots. Paired with a spicy sharp pair of Grivel G14’s, I felt like I was walking on a sidewalk. We belayed from a rat’s nest of equalized pitons directly below the second pitch. If you are climbing only the first pitch you can lower off an earlier piton anchor (30M) on the west side of the snow gully, visible as soon as you top out the ice.

Pitch two was where our journey really revved up. As I stared up at the towering expanse of blue ice and racked a dozen screws, I began to ponder mortality, my sanity and whether my muscles were up to the task. According to veteran strongman and notorious GTNP first ascentionist Rex Hong, Prospector Falls was “the real deal.” Was I making a mistake stepping up to this monster having only lead one pitch of WI2? I guess we would find out soon enough.

Staring down at the first half of my lead on pitch two.

I chose the rightmost line on the formation, a narrow and “lower angle” gully (pictured below) flanked by a rock wall to the west. The center line looked steeper and more sustained, and I was seeking the path of least resistance. However, by my second screw I quickly realized the grade difference was little more than an optical illusion. The gully had several 10-15 foot segments of 85-90 degree ice, and given the questionable ice quality was definitive WI4 by Will Gadd standards. Our line may have been slightly easier due to a few right crampon stemming rests on the rock, but was definitely thinner and harder to protect. It was also more circuitous, so there was no chance we would reach the top with a single 60M rope. I climbed about 60 feet to the base of a prominent vertical bulge and set up a four screw belay in cryptic ice. Like a seasoned newbie I burned half my rack in the first forty feet, fumbled one screw and needed the other four to build a belay. Lesson learned: If you have 17 screws, take 17 screws – better not to need them then not have them.

Scott working through the lower pitch two crux
Gettin’ cozy with the hanging belay
Photo: Scott Melin

From our bomber but brutally awkward belay I set off for the crux move, a dead vertical chimney-like feature with some claustrophobic stemming. I sunk two screws to protect our belay and punched it to a good rest on a snow ramp above. From there I skirted a scary chandelier and hugged the right wall up lower angled features and the occasional bulge, all while a gnarly stream of spindrift rocketed down from above. Had we been more ambitious and taken the center line we would have gotten dusted, and as the leader I could have been wiped clean off the wall. Instead we enjoyed shelter outside the fall line – guess it pays to be a novice sometimes.

Though the grade eased off above the crux the ice became consistently more rotten, promoting the use of “emotional protection” – A.K.A. screws that wouldn’t hold the sagging weight of a watermelon. Besides a bomber #2 cam placement in a dry crack at knee height, I might as well have been soloing. Eventually the gully petered out, forcing an insecure tip-toe traverse onto the face. Luckily the ice became quite solid and started eating screws, and I finished with confidence, lots of rope drag and even more stoke on low angle terrain, reaching the belay with a scanty five feet of spare rope. Tethered to a plump tree root backed up by a single nut, I soaked in the views of a clouded Phelps Lake and belayed Scott up my wandering path. Once again he scaled the ice with alarming ease, but not without a “nice f**king lead dude” shoutout at the top. For this crew of rookies, we had reached the pantheon.

The face you make when you try to smile but are too hungry, frozen and sick of sitting in hanging belays
Photo: Scott Melin

Conclusion

We clocked 10 hours and 29 minutes car to car, with a likely 6 hours spent on ice. Slow? You bet. Prospector Falls was “the real deal”, and for new ice climbers is not recommended – that is, unless you have a thirst for the unknown and enough knowledge to keep you from the Teton County SAR helicopter. As a nearly virgin leader I found the climbing quite engaging but also surprisingly secure. Had the ice been better quality our line would have gone at WI3+. Only once did I wish I to be off the wall, about 20 feet above the gold cam unable to find a good rest for my pumped calves in a dripping rock corner, staring down a 40 foot tumbler. That said, with a calm demeanor these uncomfortable situations provide an excellent canvas for problem solving, and problem solve I did. While grateful for such an excellent adventure, I won’t be trying to up the ante any time soon. Maybe after several Hyalite weekends I will return for the full undertaking – when the ice, and my calves, are fully formed.

A mini-topo of our “Right Gully” line up the first two pitches of Prospector Falls

Gear Check

Below is the rack I would bring if I climbed the right gully of Prospector Falls again. From talking to climbers that have completed the entire route, my rope and rack recommendations should be sufficient for pitches three and four as well.

Rack

  • 12-18 screws
  • #2 BD Camalot (Gold)
  • Several long runners (double and triple length)
  • A few knife blades and small nuts (to replace anchors if needed, as of 12/2021 anchors are in good shape)
  • Anchor material
  • V-Thread tool

Rope

  • Two 60 meter ropes (One 60 is sufficient if only doing P1)

Other Resources

  • “Best Climbs (in) Grand Teton National Park” – Guidebook, Falcon Guides

As always, I would like to give a huge shoutout to my main squeeze Icelantic Skis. They have nothing to do with ice climbing, but equip me with quality skis (that can take a beating) to send the gnar. Check them out!

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