Mount St Helens

With the possible exception of Alaska’s Mount McKinley (the tallest point in North America), Mount St Helens in southern Washington state is probably the most famous peak in America.  The volcanic eruption on May 18, 1980 was unlike anything most Americans had ever seen.  I was far away in Oklahoma, but I remember looking at photographs of the devastation in a National Geographic issue of the time.

Even before the blast, Mount St Helens was not a particularly tall member of the Cascade Range, but it stands well above the surrounding hills, and like the giant Mount Rainier 50 miles to the north, it has considerable girth.

The local Klickitat tribe called the mountain Louwala-Clough, which roughly translates as “smoking mountain” or “fire mountain”, alluding to its volcanic history.

The first white explorer to see the mountain was British Navy Commander George Vancouver and his men aboard the HMS Discovery on May 19, 1792, almost 188 years to the day before the 1980 eruption.  Vancouver named the mountain for a British diplomat and personal friend named Alleyne Fitzherbert, Baron St Helens.

Eruptions were noted in 1800, 1835, 1842, 1854, and 1857, although some of these may only have been steam explosions.  Then the mountain was quiet until 1980.

The volcano began to show signs of life in late March of 1980, drawing interest from scientist and tourists alike.  After a couple months of waiting and watching, however, nothing seemed to be happening.  In fact, the activity almost stopped entirely.  Just when it seemed that the whole thing was over, the mountain suddenly erupted early on a Sunday morning.  The explosion flattened everything within 200 square miles, and sent a plume of ash up to 15 miles into the sky.  The ash spread eastward at 60 mph, reaching Idaho by noon.  The northern flank of the mountain collapsed in the eruption, and a mix of earth, rock, ice, snow, and water created volcanic mudslides, called lahars, which rushed for miles down the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers.

After the eruption, the mountain was about 1300 feet shorter, with a two-mile-wide crater opening to the north.  Fifty-seven people were killed, including USGS volcanologist David Johnston, who was stationed at an observation post on a ridge five miles north of Mount St Helens.  Today there is a visitor center and observatory on the ridge that bears his name.

August 2001

In August of 2001, I made a trip up to Mount St Helens with my friends Nate and Yuki.  I had visited once before, driving to the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the north side, but Nate and Yuki had never been to the mountain, and so I suggested we try the southern approach.

We stopped along the way to explore a lava tube, a long, undulating cave left behind after hot magma pushed through.

We made our way around the south and east of the peak, and then up a winding road to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint, to the northeast of the crater.  From here we could see what is left of Spirit Lake.  There was a little gift shop and eatery along the way up, so we stopped for lunch.  We got a kick out of the ground squirrels eating anything that dropped to the ground, so Yuki started feeding one while I took some photos.  I know, it’s a bad thing to feed wildlife, and we obviously weren’t the first ones, considering how tame they were.

It was an unusually hazy day at times, which makes the desolate peak seem even more dismal in the photographs.  Twenty years after the last major eruption, much of Mount St Helens is still covered in grey ash and a few blackened tree stumps.  However, there are signs of life returning to the slopes, with wildflowers and a few small trees.  It will take time, but someday the mountain will have green forests and wildlife again.