Day One Pump – Prospector Falls (WI4-, IV) – Death Canyon South, Grand Teton Nat. Park (11.19.22)

On Saturday November 19th, 2022, Eric Boomer and I made the arduous five mile pillage into Death Canyon for one of Grand Teton National Park’s finest early season ice climbs. The main flow was well formed and climbed at WI4-.

Ice ice baby – alas, icicle bashing season has arrived! After a futile trip into Death Canyon a week prior, thwarted by heavy winds and unstable snow, I lassoed Eric Boomer (world class sufferer) for a strike mission on one of the Tetons’ most commanding, consistent and aesthetic ice flows. I had climbed the falls once before, last December with Scott Melin, where we got our naive minds and undertrained bodies beaten into place, thieving away with an ascent of the easier “right gully” by the skins of our teeth. Today I sought better style on the center line, and hopefully better ice!

Prospector Falls and the Apocalypse Couloir viewed from Phelps Lake

The approach to Prospector Falls is markedly more tenuous when the Death Canyon Road is closed. During more delayed winters the summer trailhead will remain open until New Years, allowing for easy foot travel to Death Canyon’s finest climbs. Today we got perhaps the worst of both worlds, enough snow to close the road, add mileage to our approach and require the added weight of skis, but not enough to cover the extensive talus and shrubbery that characterize the canyon bottom. Our ski bases took a beating as we marched for several hours on the summer trail, over the Phelps Lake Overlook, down the switchbacks to Phelps Lake and into the annals of Death Canyon. As we reached Cathedral Rock the sun broke through the haze, exposing a brilliantly formed Prospector Falls, and an impressive showing from north side ice routes that are typically late to form. The Sentinel Ice Couloir, 737 Earful and even Dread Falls (that’s right, Dread Falls) all appeared climbable, or at least “well on their way”, sparkling in the morning sun like diamonds. We were able to locate the dicy Phelps Creek climber’s bridge just beneath Cathedral Rock, cross trepidatiously on skis, scrape through the burly talus field underpinning the Apocalypse Couloir and reach the base of Prospector Falls by 10:45AM.

Oo la la Dread Falls 😉
The Sentinel Ice Couloir with an impressive showing for November
Prospector Falls from the apron of the Apocalypse Couloir

Upon close inspection Prospectors looked impressively formed for November. I had brought along a small littany of pitons, nuts and cams expecting tangos with dry rock, but today it was apparent only screws would be needed. The first pitch was wet and uninspiring, mostly thin and hollow virgin ice that kept me grateful for the easier grade (WI2+), complete with a rotten bulge that required some hooking on rock. The second pitch, the real enchilada, appeared fully formed and fat – on par with January expectations. With Boomer new to the ice game I was point man for this operation, and felt well-suited and eager for my assignment.

Our rappel line on the second pitch of Prospector Falls

Though appearing bulgy and trivial from below, the main attraction second pitch climbed far closer to vertical than expected. It’s amazing how the appearance of technical ice can shape-shift depending on the viewing angle. From cross-canyon the falls appeared beastly, from directly below seemed no more than WI3, and from first person, on the sharp end, consensus fell somewhere in the middle – mostly solid ice eager to take screws of all sizes, with a few prolonged sections of 80-90 degree business broken up by convenient bulges to place protection. Having previously rappelled this pitch with two 60M ropes I assumed I could reach the top of pitch two in one pull, however the rope ran dry ten meters from the top. Boomer was forced to simul-climb through the first crux before I could provide a formal belay, and displayed tremendous fortitude in not trundling me down the mountain with an errant slip.

The author leading the second pitch of Prospector Falls
📸: Eric Boomer

We briefly explored the upper reaches of Prospector Falls searching for the elusive pitch four WI4 pillar, to no avail. There was a vague chimney-ish gully chocked with splotches of ice and snow indicative of a potential mid-winter pitch, but hardly looked worth climbing in it’s given state. We left a community anchor atop the varying flows of pitch three and returned to the ground with three 60M rappels and a sense of tremendous accomplishment from each of our first 2022 winter ice exploits.

New anchor for y’all on pitch three. Setup for a 60M rappel to P2 anchor.
The upper reaches of Prospector Falls. First winter ascent? 5.9?

Approximate Trip Stats:

  • Round Trip Distance: 10 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2000 feet
  • Round Trip Time: 11 hours

Gear Check & Rack Recommendations

For protection, ice screws should be satisfactory. Consider thin pitons, small nuts and some cord for up-keeping fixed anchors. Two 60-plus meter ropes are needed for descent from fixed anchors. Pitch four gear requirements are unknown.

Skis or snowshoes should be considered mandatory for the approach. Phelps Lake is not frozen yet.

Ten Thousand Too Far is generously supported by Icelantic Skis from Golden Colorado, Barrels & Bins Natural Market in Driggs Idaho, Range Meal Bars from Bozeman Montana and Black Diamond Equipment. Give these guys some business – who doesn’t need great skis, gear and wholesome food?

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Ski mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing and all other forms of mountain recreation are inherently dangerous. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk! This article is written to the best possible level of accuracy and detail, but I am only human – information could be presented wrong. Furthermore, conditions in the mountains are subject to change at any time. Ten Thousand Too Far and Brandon Wanthal are not liable for any actions or repercussions acted upon or suffered from the result of this article’s reading.

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