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Ashland man sets speed record for crossing Hells Canyon

What do you do when the coronavirus leaves you out of work?

If you’re Aria Zoner, you search for adventure and “face your fears.”

For Zoner, who lives in Ashland, facing his fears meant crossing North America’s deepest river gorge twice in one day. And, because of a technicality, it meant making the terrifyingly challenging trip, requiring more than 18,000 vertical feet of elevation gains and losses, twice in two weeks.

“It was facing my fears,” describes Zoner, 44, of making the up-and-back crossing of Hells Canyon in less than a day.

“I went in thinking it was just a hike. By the time I got to the river I was freaked out. I don’t really swim very much. What if I get swept downstream.? That was unlike anything I’ve ever done.”

The river is the Snake, and as its name aptly describes, it wriggles it way along the border of Eastern Oregon and sections of eastern Washington and western Idaho. Its deepest section dips 7,993 feet below the surrounding terrain, making it even deeper than the Grand Canyon. For those crossing from one side to another, there is no trail, just a do-it-yourself route that includes finding a way across the pulsating, fast-flowing Snake River.

Zoner made the 50-plus-mile round-trip two times. Both times he was the first person to complete the feat in less than a day. His first attempt was Sept. 22, when he made the back-and-forth route in 23 hours, 47 minutes and 47 seconds. His time, however, was not accepted by the Fastest Known Time, or FKT, a Facebook site that features guidelines and records for people attempting a variety of supported and unsupported, often obscure, routes. Examples include the Trans Swiss Trail in Switzerland, Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin, Glynwr’s Way in the United Kingdom, the John Muir Trail in the Sierra, and, closer to home, the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail in the Fremont-Winema National Forest’s Mountain Lakes Wilderness.

Zoner established the Mountain Lakes Loops record in September, covering the eight-mile route in one hour, 43 minutes and 33 seconds. As part of his preparation for the Hells Canyon crossing, he established a record for Mount Eddy in Siskiyou County, California, by the 18.6-mile Sisson-Callahan Trail in 6:41:22. (GPS devices are required to track and time all routes.)

Zoner, whose given name is Steven Thompson, has literally been chasing records because work-wise he’s been sidelined by the coronavirus, which has limited his job opportunities. He was without a job after helping with electrical work at the new Modoc Medical Center in Alturas.

“That’s why I’m taking the opportunity and doing lots of hikes,” he said of the pandemic-induced layoff.

The Mountain Lakes, Mount Eddy and other “really wild, really remote trails” were warmups for the Hells Canyon rim-to-rim crossing, which, as he quickly realized on that September day, was unlike the others.

“All in all, I have to say this was the most challenging single day hike I’ve ever done, especially when considering the poison ivy and downed trees that I had to navigate past, on top of the two river crossings and 18,283 feet of elevation gained,” Zoner said of the Hells Canyon crossing.

“While these numbers are indeed impressive, this simple yet dangerous feat begs the question: Why do something like this in the first place? To face your fears, find your limits, and grow from the experience. After two successful crossings of this route, I can confidently say, I’ve done just that.”

Deciding to make a second attempt after learning his first trip did not qualify for FKT standards was challenging, not just physically but mentally.

“I adapted, I changed my style,” he said of his second attempt on Oct. 2.

His first effort was not officially recognized by FKT because he was shuttled across the Snake River by a passing jet boat while on his return trip back to the Windy Saddle Trailhead. Rules require river crossings be done under human power, such as swimming or paddling.

“After already swimming the first crossing, I knew it was something I didn’t want to do again,” he said.

For his October venture, Zoner carried a portable pack-raft, which with oars weighs 5 pounds, sets up in two minutes and packs down to the size of a bread box.

On his record-setting gallop he covered the distance, 50.26 miles, in 22 hours, 43 minutes, and 25 seconds, cutting off time from his earlier effort.

“I departed from the Windy Saddle Trailhead at 2:15 a.m. Oregon time and entered Hells Canyon Wilderness,” he wrote of his record-setting second trip. “Besides a wide range of updates and improvements to my strategy and gear, I had much better weather conditions and a full moon overhead. By the time I left the far side of the first crossing, I was an hour ahead of my previous time.

“At Hat Point, the views were obscured by smoke from a nearby fire. I climbed the lookout tower, took a few photos, then without sitting down began heading back. Despite having a pack-raft, the return crossing of the Snake River was still scary. The water is moving fast here, and there’s rapids immediately downstream. During my first attempt, a jet boat came by as I was scouting for the best line. Standing there in my underwear on the banks of this mighty river in the middle of a giant wilderness area, I was visibly shook, and the driver gave me a ride. This time, I paddled across and made the eddy I was aiming for without a hitch. On the east side of the canyon once again, I was now an hour and a half ahead of my previous time.”

The climb back up to Windy Saddle, his start-finish point, was challenging because of its many ups and downs and because of sheer exhaustion.

“During the final hours, I was battling between being cold from ... a strong breeze, and sweating from exerting harder than I ever have. By the top, I had lost some of my lead but got to enjoy the views, as the moon was casting shadows on the Seven Devils. On my first crossing, I was ducking lightning and getting showered on by sleet during this part.”

Zoner’s time for the Hells Canyon crossing is now in the FKT record books. He’s planning future jaunts, including Steens Mountain, and envisions covering the distance from sea level to the lofty top of Mount Everest, 29,029 feet.

Unlike many competitors, Zoner has no sponsors, only “broccoli and carrots and apples.” He believes his diet gives him an edge, insisting. “I’m so healthy from that (diet) that I rebound quickly and feel strong.” It’s Zoner’s goal to “be that living example of what you can do on fruits and vegetables.”

To learn more about the Hells Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim, and other routes like it, see www.fastestknowntime.com.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Aria Zoner at the Hells Canyon trailhead. Submitted photo
Aria Zoner with the raft he used to cross the Snake River on his record-setting rim-to-rim-to-rim crossing of Hells Canyon. Submitted photo