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).


Jillian said...

"I was still living in MD but remember hearing about it and being quite alarmed. It
was big news. My friend just hiked up Mt. St Helen's last week. Lots of snow.

LJ said...

I was not alive yet, but I have certainly heard all about it. I need to do that hike. Great pictures as usual!

Joe said...

I had just moved to Seattle from Michigan the month before. I figured Mt St Helens
blowing up was just one of the exciting things that was always happening here... ie the
sinking of the Hood Canal Bridge, DB Cooper, earthquakes, and stuff like that.

jeff said...

I remember blood red sunsets in Wyoming for several days. We got a fine coat of ash too.

Victoria said...

I was in Boston, too, in a newsroom, and I remember when the bells on the UPI machine started going off (always the sign of a big, breaking news story). As a copy kid I ran over to pull the story, and was certainly excited/shocked to see the news from my far away home. As I recall, we knew it was due for some sort of eruption, so it wasn't a total surprise, but the vast force and extent of damage was amazing. I went back there with my daughter's fifth grade class this past fall, and the exhibit and beauty of what's up there are amazing!!!

John said...

Hi Jill,
We were at the beach that day and did not know anything about what had happened until late afternoon, when we were driving back to Portland on Highway 26. We came to a wide spot in the road where about a dozen cars had pulled off and people were standing around looking to the north at a huge column of smoke rising in the air. What was it? A huge forest fire? A nuclear attack on Seattle? We finally turned on the radio and heard the news about Mt. St. Helens. I have some pictures of the ash fall in Portland a few weeks later which I'll e-mail to you.

David said...

Nice blog on St. Helens. Was distracting to me though to see it written Saint Helens. Not sure why.


Misha Henshaw said...

I was scuba diving off of Alki Beach during the eruption and getting my "Open Water Diver" card. Water did not get any warmer - ha!! May 18th is also my guy's birthday and that was his 18th birthday so there you go!