Earning the summit

Earning the summit

As she neared the top of Union Peak, Cher Rydberg's up-close view of the 7,698-foot peak was decidedly different than the one from her Butte Falls kitchen window thousands of feet below.

The 53-year-old Rydberg scrambled slowly up the final switchbacks toward the summit, edging along on all fours to keep from rolling backward to what felt like certain death.

"It got pretty steep," Rydberg says. "I got to thinking, 'Oh, boy, this is serious stuff.' "

But after a close encounter with a swarm of bees and help from the firm grip of her 20-year-old son, Rydberg reached the South Cascades pinnacle she had long dreamed of climbing. And the panorama earned by spending the past year hiking at least 100 miles a month in training was well worth the price.

"It was just amazing," Rydberg says. "I couldn't see my house but I could see Mount Shasta, Mount McLoughlin, Lost Creek Lake and the rim of Crater Lake.

"And I thought, how was I going to get down?"

Rydberg's bucket-list moment this past Labor Day weekend has been a goal for years, the focus of her if-I-can-see-it-I-gotta-climb-it attitude every time she spies Union Peak staring smugly at her through her kitchen window.

The rugged, rocky peak is the base of an old volcano, with glaciers having eroded everything else around it. It was an island in the middle of a sea of lava when Mount Mazama erupted 7,700 years ago to form Crater Lake.

The trail, within Crater Lake National Park, is an 11-mile round trip with a 1,600-foot elevation gain from trailhead to summit, 36 switchbacks, a trail rating of "difficult" and no water save for what hikers can carry or glean from the snow.

The actual Union Peak Trail is a 2-mile spur trail off the Pacific Crest Trail, with the easiest access off Highway 62 near the park's Mazama Campground.

But the road to get there is much longer.

To prepare, Rydberg and her 12-year-old dog Kindle, which she dubs her "mountain Chihuahua," took to the logging roads around Butte Falls six days a week for more than a year before making her ascent.

Joined by her son, Reed, Rydberg started early, easily traversing the first 2.7 miles of the PCT to reach the Union Peak Trail, and that's when things got interesting.

They picked their way through a boulder field, careful not to turn an ankle before reaching the famed switchbacks — the steepest inclination in Southern Oregon, even steeper than the trail up Mount McLoughlin, which she's climbed four times.

Rydberg chose not to count the switchbacks over the half-mile stretch, instead focusing on the multi-colored rocks and stunted trees that line the trail. She stowed her water bottle and walking staff in her backpack, eventually getting down on all fours to inch forward.

To lose traction would mean a horrific tumble down the rock.

"There were places my face went pale," Rydberg says.

Right at the top, she reached for the branches of a blooming chinquapin bush and found it came alive.

"It was full of bees," she says. "I was afraid I was going to get stung and fall down the mountain."

But Reed's outstretched hand steadied her and Rydberg took that final step to the peak.

"I couldn't have done it without him," she says.

The pair stayed on the peak for about 30 minutes to call out every landmark they could identify, but all the while their descent was in the back of her mind.

"It was hard to eat my lunch," Rydberg says. "I was worried how I was going to get down."

Reed carried her pack as she sat on the trail and inched downward through the steepest part of the switchbacks before hiking out with a smile.

"I couldn't believe it," Rydberg says. "I felt so good after 11 miles. It was from doing 100 miles all those months."

Rydberg says she typically sets new goals for herself in winter, so the next peak on her bucket list remains, for now, a mystery.

She's added a new year-old dog, Kwin, to the mix as an understudy to Kindle as she continues those 100-mile hiking months.

"I really feel it helps," she says. "It gets me out in the winter."

And from now on, when she looks out her kitchen window, she will look differently at that rocky peak on the horizon.

"Now, when I look out my window, I know exactly what it looks like on top," Rydberg says. "It's not a mystery to me anymore."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him on Twitter at

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