Building Confidence – Climbing the Sentinel Ice Couloir (WI3/4) – Grand Teton National Park, WY (03.10.22)

The Sentinel Ice Couloir is a two… or three… or four pitch moderate ice climb on the southern aspect of Albright Peak (north side of Death Canyon). While hardly a classic, this quirky route provides an alpine style climb in a very dramatic setting, and probably the easiest accessed pitch of grade four water ice in Grand Teton National Park. Despite the Tetons receiving a walloping of snow the past week, Connor James and I set out determined to make this long planned mission happen, no matter the powder that stood in our way.

Myself standing waist deep in the lower Sentinel Ice Couloir. “Pitch one” is straight ahead, with pitches two and three in the upper frame.
📸: Connor James Photography

Building Confidence – A Tale of Two Climbs

Back in December Scott Melin and I hacked up Prospector Falls by the skins of our teeth. I took the sharp end on the crux pitch, needing 30 screws and and an intermediate belay to scratch up 60 meters of soft WI4. I was gripped – not panicked, but certainly walking a tight line with the devil. That was my second lead on ice and first beyond the WI2 grade. It’s suffusive to say I bit off a bit more than I intended to chew.

Fast forward three months and I was back in Death Canyon staring down the Sentinel Ice Couloir. Since my near-epic on Prospectors Falls I reeled in the reigns and became a student of the ice. I took three trips to Montana’s Hyalite Canyon, spent several days learning the art of dry tooling, led alpine ice on my second ski descent of the Grand Teton and completed a solo winter ascent of the Middle Teton’s North Ridge and Northwest Ice Couloir (5.6, AI2+). I’ve been a pinch (or more) obsessed, but that obsession has brought me a lot of fun, a tremendous amount of learning and opened the grades of WI4 and M5 for confident leading. Racking up for the Sentinel Ice Couloir was a different Brandon than the one who bumbled to the base of Prospector Falls a mere 12 weeks ago. I was excited, not scared. I was confident, not doubtful. For the first time in my alpine ice career I felt properly qualified to lead an adventure, and lead an adventure I did.

The Sentinel Ice Couloir

Not to be confused with the gully directly east of Sentinel Turret (Sentinel Gully) or the Southeast “Couloir” of Albright Peak just above Phelps Lake, both which hold a high concentration of transient, moderate and mostly uninspiring ice, the Sentinel Ice Couloir is located just west of the Sentinel Turret and is home to two solid pitches, and two iffy “pitches”, of grade three or four water ice. Though the ice pitches aren’t particularly aesthetic on their own, the twisted nature of the couloir combined with epic views of Prospector Mountain’s north wall, including the Apocalypse and Son of the Apocalypse Couloirs and Prospector Falls, makes the Sentinel Ice Couloir a worthy objective for the adventure minded and alpine inspired ice climber.

Approach

In typical fashion I made an under-informed butchery of our approach. Beginning at the northern Moose-Wilson Road closure I guided Connor and I up the notably longer and less efficient Death Canyon Road and summer trail to the Phelp’s Lake Overlook. From here we were forced to ski 500 feet of loosely covered south facing forest that resulted in one ski ejection and a few near core shots. I’m surprised Connor didn’t turn around or kill me. We would later learn the preferred approach follows Moose-Wilson Road south from the Death Canyon Road closure, using one of the many summer trails to reach the eastern tip of Phelps Lake before crossing the frozen water surface directly into Death Canyon. The morning was bitterly cold, a stifling negative 28 degrees when we left the car at 6:30AM. Early morning sun made the temperature slightly more bearable, but as we rounded the southern wall of Death Canyon shade began to strike. My god awful BCA hybrid skins (yes, that’s a call out) clogged with snow and detached from my ski bases at the Sentinel Turret, the skin glue useless in such frigid conditions. Luckily a supportable crust beneath a newly fallen 18 inches of light powder allowed us to stash skis, switch to boots and walk the remaining half-mile to the base of the Sentinel Ice Couloir following the still visible Death Canyon Summer Trail.

Skiing towards from the Phelps Lake overlook with views of Prospector Mountain and the Apocalypse Couloir.
📸: Connor James Photography

Earlier that morning I’d made the outlandish declaration of a two hour approach, but our first screw didn’t see ice until after 11:00AM. The lower couloir was flooded with new slough, forcing us to wallow for 300 feet through waist deep snow before unsheathing tools. The first “pitch” was almost entirely buried, reduced to a measly 10 foot nugget of easy WI2 (shown in first picture above). We soloed this trivial obstacle and proceeded into another 200 feet of steep snow climbing, once again swamped with deep snow. Finally, after four and a half hours of brutal trail breaking we stashed packs, racked up and began the first of two quality 40 meter pitches.

Myself leading up the steeper beginning of pitch two.
📸: Connor James Photography

Climbing

I couldn’t feel my toes as I began up pitch two, placing only one screw on a short 20 foot wall of brittle WI3 before running out another 100 feet of ledgy but intriguing WI2. Frankly, I appreciated the easier than expected start given the reduced dexterity of my frozen feet. As I was climbing the late morning sun finally struck the crux curtain above, and I made sure to cross into the beaming light before building a belay. Blood flow lovingly returned to my extremities as I belayed Connor on a three screw anchor, but the feeling was bittersweet. Warm toes is great, but falling ice is not, and with thousand foot granite walls looming above the Sentinel Ice Couloir, warming induced rock fall, ice fall and avalanches are a serious concern. I watched many spindrift sloughs rocket down the north gullies of Prospector Mountain and feared we could be next. It really is astounding how quickly unfiltered sun and an absence of wind can transform the coldest day of winter into an alpine greenhouse worthy of melting thick water ice and dislodging ancient rock. We were officially in a race with father sun.

Myself leading the ramps of pitch three towards the crux curtain. Steeper than it looks!
📸: Connor James Photography

I started up pitch three in a flurry, determined to experience the pitch we came here to climb. 60 feet of soft and ledgy hero ice (WI3) led to the crux pillar (WI4), but one look found it aerated, hollow and questionably protectable. Furthermore, we only had ten screws. With three at the belay, one dropped and a scanty four below, I feared that even if the curtain accepted protection I would be forced to “run it out” well beyond my acceptable limit. Instead I swallowed my ego and traversed left to an easier but still incredibly fun traversing ramp/curtain of WI3. With 40 feet of ice and a lousy two screws, I climbed cautiously but confidently, hardly realizing the immense fall potential. Despite the easier grade, our leftmost bail out had lots of interesting movement and proved the highlight of our adventure.

Connor topping out pitch three, high above Death Canyon.

Stripped of gear I belayed directly from a fixed anchor on the west (climber’s left) side of the couloir. Fifty feet above pitch three one last ramp of low angle ice remained. A thin veil of clouds halted warming and allowed us to explore an uninspiring pitch four. I placed two screws, climbed into an alcove marking the terminus of the couloir and, unable to find any fixed belay and without the means to build one, down-climbed back to Connor instead of belaying him up. The wind had accelerated exponentially, walls of nuclear spin-drift rained down every two minutes and with the sun now entirely swallowed by a rogue and un-forecasted afternoon windstorm, returning to the ground seemed of utmost importance.

Rappelling through the spindrift.
📸: Connor James Photography

Descent – Fixed Anchors?

“Descent: Rappel from fixed anchors” says the guidebook(1). But where to find those anchors? I couldn’t begin to tell you. After rapping off the fixed belay above pitch three we needed two more v-thread rappels, 30 meters and 5 meters, to reach the bottom of pitch two. We climbed on a 60 meter single rope, and had we brought the 60 meter tagline in my trunk we probably could have reached ground in one rappel. Perhaps the “fixed anchors” were buried in new snow? Lesson learned: never rely on finding fixed gear. Though pitch one was an easy down-solo, we didn’t notice any anchors here either. Should pitch one be more consequential and not suitable for down-climbing, a large tree trunk on climber’s right would provide an adequate bailout.

V-threads for the win!
📸: Connor James Photography

A Quick Summary and Recommended Rack

I don’t have a GPS watch, but I estimated our round trip distance to be about 14-16 miles. We returned via Phelps Lake and the Moose-Wilson Road, which as stated above was much more efficient than our initial approach. The trip took us about 11 hours, but many of those hours were attributed to breaking trail through deep snow. In firm conditions and with adequate ropes for a one rappel descent from the top of pitch three, an efficient party could easily climb the Sentinel Ice Couloir in eight hours round trip.

If I were to climb the Sentinel Ice Couloir again, I would bring two 60 meter ropes and a rack of at least 12 screws. If one was determined to belay above pitch four, a selection of pitons and nuts might be warranted for building a fixed anchor. The Sentinel Ice Couloir is south facing and as such, suffers from substantial rock and ice fall potential, as well as avalanche danger. Warming conditions and sunlight should be evaluated carefully, as 600 feet of steep and avalanche worthy snow needs to be descended (and cannot be avoided) after rappelling from the ice. First light hit the couloir at approximately 11:30AM on March 10, 2022.

Sources

  1. Best Climbs Grand Teton National Park, 2nd Edition, Falcon Guides, 2019

As always, I would like to give a huge thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise.

If you enjoy and would like to support Ten Thousand Too Far, consider subscribing below and/or leaving a donation here. The hours spent writing these blogs is fueled solely and happily by passion, but if you use this site to plan or inspire your own epic adventure, consider kicking in. A couple bucks goes a long way in the cold world of adventure blogging. I also love to hear your thoughts, so don’t leave without dropping a comment! Thanks for the love. 

Follow along on instagram at @brandon.wanthal.photography


Connor James shot most of the photography in this article. His work is stellar. Follow his adventures on instagram at @_iamconnorjames

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Disclaimer
Mountains are dangerous. Climbing frozen waterfalls is especially dangerous. Mountain conditions change regularly, and the information in this article is only accurate as it pertains to March 10, 2022. This article is written strictly for informational purposes only. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk.

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