The fingernails on my right hand dug deep into a seam of dirt while I desperately grabbed a handful of ferns with my left. My feet balanced on little granite edges. I looked down and saw the red Black Diamond cam I had clipped about 10 feet below me. Useless, I thought.
I had pulled out a chunk of moss to make room for the placement, and I knew the lobes were only supported by a layer of soil that caked the sides of the crack. Below that, I had a sling girth hitched around a small bush. My right foot slipped, and I thrashed hopelessly. Somehow the handful of ferns stayed put and I arrested myself. I started digging with my nut tool and was able to clear out enough space in the crack to place a solid orange Metolius.
Gripped, barely able to hold on any longer, I clipped in direct to the cam and broke out laughing. This is insane, I thought.
I first read about The Superunknown in the 2018 American Alpine Journal article titled “The Big Wall Belt.” Awestruck, I immediately added the Daniels River Valley, home to a number of backcountry big walls including The Superunknown, to my “list.” Imagine 3,000-foot granite big walls in a beautiful wilderness landscape, hardly touched by any people, hard to climb, and really hard to get to. That’s a dream trip for me.
Fast forward less than a year. I somehow convinced my longtime climbing partner, Zephyr, that it would be a good idea to ferry up to Powell River, a town of 13,000 on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, hitch a boat ride up to a remote fjord on the north end of Powell Lake, lug hundreds of pounds worth of climbing and camping gear down twelve miles of logging road, then bushwhack through dense brush and nasty devils club to climb a chunk of granite. In reality, it wasn’t a hard sell; I just showed Zephyr a photo of The Superunknown. “Wait, 30-pitches?! Granite?!” He was jazzed.
Zephyr and I met in 2013 as students at Tufts University where he became one of my most influential climbing mentors. It wasn’t until he taught me how to take climbing into the mountains, that I really fell in love with big adventures during our weekend trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and our long summer road trips to some of the biggest alpine destinations across North America.
Originally from southeast Alaska, Zephyr was groomed for this kind of northwest coastal wilderness odyssey. He owns two pairs of shoes and they’re both XTRATUF boots; he always has a Kokanee in one hand; and as a former engineer for a climbing gear company and member of two mountain rescue teams, he happens to be pretty good at rope-work. There are few people I trust on big climbs as much as Zephyr.
And whatever we got up to in the Daniels River Valley was sure to be very, very big.
Currently, there are only two routes on The Superunknown—Sacred Stone (1,200 meters, VI 5.10 A1), established in 2017 by Evan Guilbault and Colin Landeck, and Dude Wall (1,020 meters, VI 5.11 A2), established in 2018 by Drew Leiterman and Travis Foster. The only other recorded big wall route in the Daniels River Valley, Jungle is Massive (1,290 meters, VI 5.10 C2), is on the adjacent Red Alert Wall and was established in 2017 by Leiterman and Foster.
When I started to tell my friends about these huge granite walls in the Daniels River Valley, most reactions were along the lines of, “Never heard of it, must be a pile of choss.” But choss couldn’t be further from the truth. The granite is pristine—of some of the best quality for climbing—and the landscape is out of this world—endless forest. However, the crux, which has likely prevented any further climbing development in the region, is the heinous bush approach.
Justin, our ride up the lake, seemed a bit puzzled as Zephyr and I loaded our seven climbing ropes, two fully-stuffed haul bags, and fancy camera equipment into his boat. “How’d you get my number again?” Justin asked. His contact info is actually listed in the Powell River Rocks climbing guidebook, which was just published in 2018. Nevertheless, Justin hadn’t been called for a lift from any climbers before. As a side business, Justin provides a water taxi service on Powell Lake where his family has a floating cabin. His usual clientele consists of hikers that need a lift to a section of the Sunshine Coast Trail, a thru hike that can be started part way up the lake. It had been years since Justin gave anyone a lift all the way up to the Daniels River Valley, and that was for a group of hunters that spent a week up there with a keg of beer and a crate of snacks. Justin said they didn’t manage to actually hunt anything as they were too busy drinking.
Zephyr and I didn’t have a particular climbing goal for the Daniels River Valley. We had some limited beta for The Superunknown and Red Alert Wall, but we knew there would be countless walls up there to explore. We set no expectations and went out hoping to see what new walls could be accessed and where there could be potential for more big routes.
Justin dropped us off and nervously waved goodbye. I could tell he was worried that Zephyr and I might not be alive by the time he came back to pick us up.
Zephyr and I quickly got to work implementing our plan to tackle the twelve miles of logging roads to make it to the walls. In the AAJ article, we saw a picture of Landeck and Guilbault doing the approach with a DIY rickshaw built out of two bicycles lashed together with alder branches. A novel idea, indeed, and it inspired our solution—Zephyr and I loaded up a couple of cheap bicycle trailers (the kind you’d tow your three-year-old child in) that I bought online, and we biked in while towing our gear behind. Surprisingly, the junky trailers made it out and back with no major issues—only one easily repaired tire puncture. Surely, our bike trailer technique was a breeze compared to hiking, but I will admit that peddling for hours in first gear up gravel roads with 100 pounds of gear trailing behind was not as easy as I had expected.
We set up a base camp about eleven miles in where the logging road becomes a single-track trail. Previous expeditions had gone all the way to the established Superunknown Camp a few miles further in, but that spot had flooded because a small dam built on the stream near camp had collapsed. Our chosen camp had a nice water source and was located beneath drainages that Zephyr and I hoped would lead us to some previously unexplored walls.
For the next few days, “approaching” was the name of the game. We filled our packs with light racks, food, water, and single ropes, then marched through knee deep rivers, bushwhacked through salmonberry while carefully avoiding the sting of the abundant devil’s club, and scrambled up moss-covered slabs in an effort to find access to something worth climbing.
After getting shut down by some of the more unreasonable approaches, we were able to get on the rock a few times. We started to open up some new pitches on a formation that we dubbed The Blob, which will surely be home to some quality long routes in the future. A route to the summit has yet to be established, but an approach and rappel route up and down a series of gullies and slabs has been uncovered. Just to reach the vertical pitches, we had to climb 1,000 feet of easy fifth class slab, which we named 1000’ of Funner after a 5.6 sandstone jaunt in Utah’s San Rafael Swell called 1000’ of Fun.
Even though we were primarily interested in finding unclimbed formations, I still wanted to take a day to get on The Superunknown. It rises prominently above the valley, flanked by long slabs and capped with a steep headwall cut by a seemingly infinite number of crack systems. The two existing routes up The Superunkown have barely scratched the surface, and there is still a vast amount of potential for new climbs on the mountain. Zephyr and I started up a new route to the left of Sacred Stone. We found high-quality climbing on the first few pitches including some great laybacks and dihedrals. But we hit a roadblock when I started climbing up a crack system that was essentially a garden of weeds. The climbing was fairly sustained, and I was on lead trying to dig out finger jams in the dirt beneath the weeds with my nut tool while stemming to either side of the vegetation. After an hour on the pitch and a few near-slips that would’ve resulted in nasty whips, I pulled the plug on the route and we bailed.
Because of the many bears in the Daniels River Valley, we carried a 12-gauge Remington Model 870 shotgun loaded with two rubber bullets followed by two Brenneke Black Magic Magnum slugs. It was a good thing we had it: We saw a total of twelve bears in just nine days.
Most of the bears we encountered were quick to run away upon meeting us. But one, who we endearingly named “Fred” in our delirious post-climb/bushwhack state of mind, decided to get more friendly than we liked. Fred wandered into our camp one evening and wasn’t too excited to leave when we started yelling at him to get out. Zephyr grabbed the shotgun and unloaded two rubber bullets into Fred’s bum, which made him question whether we would be very good friends after all. Fortunately, Fred chose to wander away and we didn’t need to use any Brennekes.
Mountain lions were also a bit of a concern out there. We met two mountain lions, one of which was an absolute Goliath of a cat. The thing was bigger than most of the bears we saw. Both lions took to the bushes then growled at us as we passed by. I’m not sure what they were trying to say, but they thankfully decided not to eat us despite clearly being peeved by our presence.
There’s certainly a lot of excitement to be had on the walls in the Daniels River Valley. I consider this to have been an incredibly successful recon mission as Zephyr and I learned so much about the tricky logistics of climbing in this valley. Until things get developed further, I wouldn’t recommend going out to the Daniels River Valley if you strictly want to go on a rock climbing trip. However, if you’re looking for pure adventure on a grand scale filled with lots of challenges, uncertainties, and maybe a little bit of rock climbing on some of North America’s most spectacular big walls, then you better get out there—the “Big Wall Belt” is paradise.
Ari Schneider is a rock and ice climber, alpinist, coach, and writer. He specializes in first ascents, solo climbing, and remote mountain adventures. Keep up with his adventures on his website, or follow along on Instagram.