Mt. St. Helen’s

Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!

May 18, 2021

There are only a very few days in our lives which we recall with complete clarity. One’s wedding day, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one. There are also days which are touchstones because they affect so very many people. December 7, 1941. September 11, 2001. May 18, 1980.

The last date was, particularly for those of us living in Washington and Oregon, the day when we understood the terrible, yet awesome, power of nature. In less than two minutes, the top 1,314 feet of Mount St. Helen’s was blasted away and swept down the north face of the mountain, leveling everything in its path.

Photographer Keith Ronnholm was in the right spot at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980 when he captured the eruption in a series of still shots.

From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“The landslide exposed the dacite magma in St. Helens’ neck to much lower pressure, causing the gas-charged, partially molten rock and high-pressure steam above it to explode a few seconds after the landslide started. Explosions burst through the trailing part of the landslide, blasting rock debris northward. The resulting blast directed the pyroclastic flow laterally. It consisted of very hot volcanic gases, ash and pumice formed from new lava, as well as pulverized old rock, which hugged the ground. Initially moving at approximately 220 miles per hour (350 km/h), the blast quickly accelerated to around 670 mph (1,080 km/h), and it may have briefly passed the speed of sound.

Pyroclastic flow material passed over the moving avalanche and spread outward, devastating a fan-shaped area 23 miles across by 19 miles long (37 km × 31 km). In total about 230 square miles (600 km2) of forest was knocked down, and extreme heat killed trees miles beyond the blow-down zone. At its vent the lateral blast probably did not last longer than about 30 seconds, but the northward-radiating and expanding blast cloud continued for about another minute.

Superheated flow material flashed water in Spirit Lake and North Fork Toutle River to steam, creating a larger, secondary explosion that was heard as far away as British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, and Northern California.”

This is the scientific description of what happened. The only way to describe that day on a personal level was ‘surreal.’

At 8:32 a.m. the hubby (he was the fiancé on that day) and I had just awoken. We were up in Blaine, Washington, the last town (population 2,683 in 1980) before crossing the border to British Columbia.

We had been there since Friday night when we arrived and sat in the family kitchen and announced our engagement. The weekend had been spent visiting, playing cards, and hanging out. The hubby and I were to leave in the early afternoon and head to Seattle where he lived. I would have to head further south to Eatonville.

But I digress. 8:32 a.m. and there are two loud ‘claps’ and the walls of the house shudder. I’m thinking earthquake or, possibly, that the bull my future father in law kept out in the field, had escaped and was ramming the house. This was not impossibility since it had happened once before.

I say to my hubby, “Maybe the bull got loose.” But his reply is prescient when he says “It’s Mount St. Helen’s.”

It was nearly two hours before his words were proven true and the TV news stations began showing video of the nearly 80,000 foot ash plume soaring above the now sheared mountain. Planes flew over the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers with photographers filming entire houses and forests being swept down the rivers, taking out bridges and all vegetation in its path. We were glued to the TV.

I had but one thought, I needed to get back to Eatonville as I was the sole reporter for the weekly paper and – although the community was not in the path of the ash cloud – being less than 60 miles from the mountain, it WAS the news story of the week, perhaps the year or even the decade.

That evening, after checking in with the publisher and working on a story for the paper to be included in the layout the next day, I was at my apartment fixing myself some dinner. I turned on the TV – KOMO 4 – and at first I thought something was wrong with the TV. It was a hand-me-down, early 1960’s, black and white which had been my grandmother’s TV when she was still alive.

All I could see on the TV was a black screen with a smudge of white appearing every so often. But it wasn’t the fact that there wasn’t much picture so much as what I was hearing. It became evident quickly that I was watching a film from someone who had been caught in the eruption. Someone who wasn’t sure if they were going to live or die. It was riveting. I later learned that the person was Dave Crockett and he did survive. But 57 others did not that day.

In the summer of 1985, the (now) hubby, me, my Mom and Dad, drove to Mt. St. Helen’s and along the forest service roads on the east side of the mountain. Nothing had yet been developed. There wasn’t a visitor centers or restroom. Just a few Honey Buckets set up where the crowds had organically gathered. We stopped at a pond where every tree surrounding it had been blown down or broken. Yet, new sprouts had started to grow, and tadpoles skittered through the shallows.

The pyroclastic flow tossed the trees around like toothpicks, laying them out in swirl patterns
I’ve always wondered about the occupants of this car and their last terrifying moments.

We saw a destroyed car, a sad monument to whoever was caught behind the wheel. We stood below the mountain and looked up in amazement at miles of the once 70 to 80 foot tall trees now scattered across the landscape like some giants’ game of pick-up sticks.

We stopped on a ridge to the northeast of the mountain and gazed down at a log clogged Spirit Lake and into the steaming crater of the mountain.

At the time – as is so often the case – we didn’t fully appreciate that the sites we saw that day would soon be gone, changed by snow and sun, rain and wind, and the regeneration of life.

A pond regenerates after the blast
My parents during the 1985 tour of Mt. St. Helens. They had been plunged into volcanic darkness in Yakima five years earlier the morning the mountain erupted.

Every year on May 18 I pause and reflect on the events of that day, still as clear in my mind as if it was last week. Mt. St. Helen’s eruption changed me; in so many imperceptible ways it marked the moment when I began to view the world from an adult perspective, recognizing there are forces in the universe over which neither I nor anyone else has control.

Mt. St. Helen’s made me more cautious and more aware of the transitory nature of life. But it also brings to mind the phrase from the Roman poet, Horace, ‘Carpe Diem.’ Every day is the right day to do just that. Go seize yours.

The links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1980_eruption_of_Mount_St._Helens

https://petapixel.com/2013/02/26/photographing-the-eruption-of-mount-st-helens-from-10-miles-away/

2 thoughts on “Mt. St. Helen’s

  1. Aptly reported Barb. Conjured up many memories. Having lived in Eastern WA, but finding myself and my hubby trapped in Western WA the day St. Helen’s blew, it was indeed surreal. Without a radio in our Nissan we were taken by surprise by the State Trooper who stopped us on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass to inform us Eastern WA was closed. This forced a detour through Portland and a precarious crossing of the Toutle River to finally return home. Needles to say subsequent cars have had radios. Smile.

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  2. I remember, too, exactly where I was when I heard about it. I was all the way across the country at our beach house on the NC coast. We heard about it on the news and we’re just stunned. I could not imagine such a thing happening. Now I live in Yakima and hear the native Yakamanians talk about it all the time.

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