I was born in 1980, just a few weeks following the awakening of a slumbering giant. There were a few who were suspicious of the giant, ever watchful of its slumber, growing more confident in predicting that the seemingly deep sleep was a mere shallow doze. But the thought of devastation did not harmonize with the quiet, peaceful view of the giant; and life around her continued as usual, even with the whisper of danger on the air. Another decade of slumber passed, but this time the giant was being monitored. The few who knew her volatile temper had installed monitoring equipment in 1972, understanding that the threat was real. And in 1980, the first real signs of the giant’s power began to show themselves. The first triggers were hundreds of earthquakes, some registering above 4 on the Richter scale. With each tremor the pressure built within her. Through the end of March and early April, she belched due to the pressure releasing steam vents on several occasions. The giant was slowly rousing from her slumber. As the pressure below continued to build, the giant’s mass began to bulge. From within, the giant grew at up to 5 feet per day for several weeks, enlarging her North face to contain the pressure. But even the bulge could not keep the giant from a full, violent awakening. Finally, on May 18th, after yet another earthquake, the giant let loose a landslide shedding her newly amassed bulk gagging rivers and spreading her ash and rocks over the surrounding terrain, declaring her territory. With the pressure finally released, the giant’s very breath burst forth, a lateral blast, with enough power to make the surrounding landscape unrecognizable to those who had been the giant’s constant companions for decades. While the landslide traveled at rates of over 200 hundred miles per hour, the lateral blast more than doubled those speeds overtaking the landslide and choking the air with superheated ash, gas and rock destroying all life in its path.
May 18th, 1980 was the day Mt. Saint Helens erupted. While the warnings were enough to make everyone aware of the coming danger of the eruption, no one was prepared for dealing with the aftermath. As if it were a show designed for Broadway, thousands of people had flocked to the area in the hopes of seeing the eruption. While the area had been dedicated a no entry zone, the very day before the eruption, homeowners were permitted, at their own risk, to visit homes in the area to access their belongings. Another entry run was scheduled for May 18th, but the eruption happened prior to the designated time. Still, there were some 57 people killed in the eruption, most by asphyxiation from the pyroclastic flow of the lateral blast, some from burns. There were also survivors, over 170 people were rescued, some of whom suffered for years to come. Most people remember Harry Truman, a lodge owner at Spirit Lake who was the only full time resident on the lake. He had refused to leave, declaring his larger than life dedication to his home and claiming that the mountain would protect him. In the eruption, the force caused Spirit Lake to rush 800 feet up the hillside before settling back in to the valley where 200 additional feet of rock and debris covered the lake’s floor. Harry and his lodge lay under that 200 feet of Mt. Saint Helens.
In addition to the loss of human life, plant and animal life was devastated. The old growth forest of the area was lost. Rivers were dammed and made lakes by Mt. Saint Helen’s deposits. Mud and debris flows choked the rivers that still ran. President Carter sent federal aid to the area and the battle against the ash was all consuming. Away from the immediate area, ashfall blocked roads, caved in homes and stranded over 3,000 travelers. The Columbia River was closed to all ocean-going traffic due to its drastic decrease in depth from the newly deposited mud. The Corps of Engineers removed 300,000 cubic yards of material from the Columbia River channel, which only gained 5 feet in depth from the 25 feet lost due to the eruption. Sixty-three miles of road were completely demolished and more than 150 miles lay under ash. Within two weeks of the eruption, the ash that had entered the atmosphere had circled the globe.
Since the eruption, Mt. Saint Helens has continued to change. There is a small lava dome that has formed inside the crater that continues to grow slowly. The area has become a National Park to allow people to visit the volcano, but to keep permanent dwellers and construction out of the volcano’s path. The forest has reclaimed some of its realm in the volcano’s shadow, but the devastation is still present, which we can easily see with a visit to the volcano. And that is exactly where we found ourselves on July 28th, 2016, inspired by the desire to see the place where what goes on below our feet was unleashed for just a few minutes in the same year of my birth.
As we approach the volcano, the rivers show deep gouges in the surrounding hillside far above the current water’s flow providing evidence of how the landslide and pyroclastic flow traveled. Nearer still to the volcano, the vegetation is much more sparse and young, while dried, dead tree trunks remain where they have been laid to rest scattered along the ground. And we can even glimpse in to Mt. Saint Helen’s massive crater at Johnston Ridge Observatory, named for the volcanologist who died during the eruption at the same spot. On the day we visited, hoping to be awed by the massive crater left behind and the lava dome continuing to grow within its walls, we found Mt. Saint Helens shrouded in thick clouds. There was no crater. No lava dome. Only clouds. But, we could hear her through the mist, still whispering her danger while keeping her secrets hidden.
Fun Facts & Tips:
- Campground – We stayed at Silver Lake RV Park for about $35 a night. It was cheaper than the nearby state park. Something odd though, you can’t use blue sewer chemicals during your stay. You have to show up with your tanks completely empty and then promise not to use the chemicals. There is a hotel there as well.
- For visiting Mt. Saint Helens, our recommendation is to go to the Johnston Ridge Observatory Visitor Center first. This one is on national park land, and therefore, takes the American the Beautiful Annual Park Pass. There are several other visitor centers nearby, but they are state run and not nearly as nice. Plus, they are very far away from the volcano. Johnston Ridge is right at the crater. There are other things to visit, but Johnston Ridge should be your first stop. They have a great video there and also a lot of first-hand accounts from survivors.