Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Mount Saint Helens: Remembering a Former Beauty Queen
Surely you’ve heard it’s the anniversary of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Saint Helens. More accurately, the top of the mountain collapsed, releasing a massive slide and pyroclastic cloud of superheated ash. What was it like that day?
It was a fearsome, awesome spectacle. A once in several generations of lifetimes event.
And although I grew up with a peek-a-boo view of Saint Helens’ summit from my childhood home and a passionate love of her conical white beauty, I didn’t witness the eruption. I was in Boston at that period in my life.
When I heard the news, I called my parents in Troutdale, Oregon, who excitedly described watching it spew a huge cloud into the sky. My dad was at church when the initial eruption occurred and heard a loud boom that rattled the windows.
The East Coast media was all confused. Several papers placed Mount Saint Helens in Oregon instead of Washington, probably because it was so visible from Portland. My friends in Seattle didn’t hear it and couldn’t really see what was going on that far south.
Fifty-seven people perished in the blast, including a guy I knew as a kid. My brother knew David Johnston, the geologist who died in the blast and namesake of the observatory, while at the University of Washington Geology Department.
For me, the eruption was like a mutilation. The most beautiful and graceful-looking of the Cascade volcanoes changed in an instant to a blown out, hulking lump of steaming rock and ash.
Before that May morning, Mount Saint Helens served as a backdrop to many memorable moments in my young life.
One sunset just a few years before the eruption stands out. While my high school sweetheart and I sat (yes, just sat) in an alpine meadow on the slopes of Mount Hood (at Elk Cove, to be exact), Saint Helens slowly changed in hue from white to strawberry ice cream-pink to dusky blue on the northern horizon about 50 or 60 miles away. It was a magical display.
Since then I’ve hiked up to the blown off summit rim and peered down into the gaping, open maw of the blown out crater. It’s impossible to conceive of the force of the eruption while you’re standing there.
But I highly recommend making that trip sometime. Outside of Hawaii, there are only a few places on the planet where you can get so up close and personal to an active volcano.
When You Go
Check here for conditions and how to get a permit to climb to the summit of Mount Saint Helens. Photo credit to the U.S. Geological Survey/Robert Kimmel (top photo).