An Explosion that Shook the World… Mt. St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens in August, 2013. Peggy and I were looking down into the crater from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Mt. St. Helens in August, 2013. Peggy and I were looking down into the crater from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

It was in early July 1980 and I was flying north to help plan a hundred-mile fundraising backpack trek in Alaska. The pilot deviated from his route to show us Mt. St. Helens.

It was total devastation, a scene from Dante’s hell.

A month and a half earlier, on May 18, Mt. St. Helens had blown her top, literally. On May 17 the mountain had stood 9677 feet tall; on May 19 it stood at 8,364 feet. The mountain had a history of being the most active volcano in the Cascade range of volcanoes– mountains that dominate the skyline of the northwestern part of the US, and are part of the ring of fire that stretches around the edges of the Pacific Ocean.

This photo on display at the Mount St. Helens National Monument shows the mountain before the explosion.

This photo on display at the Mount St. Helens National Monument shows the mountain before the explosion.

Another photo at the Monument shows Mt. St. Helen four months after the eruption.

Another photo at the Monument shows Mt. St. Helen four months after the eruption.

Peggy and I call the area home. In fact I have climbed two of the mountains, Shasta and Lassen, and we see a third, Mt. McLoughlin, every time we drive the 30 miles into town for groceries. Normally we think of the mountains as dormant and a beautiful addition to our region. But all are capable of awakening. And all are capable of spewing disaster.

Weeks before Mt. St. Helens blew up, she had been showing signs of an imminent explosion. Couched between the two major urban areas of Portland and Seattle, the area had become a mecca for tourists, volcanologists and, of course, the media. Worldwide attention was guaranteed.

The explosion, when it came, was much more devastating than had been expected. A huge, lateral blast sent a cloud of dense, super hot steam filled with debris rolling down the mountain at 300 miles per hour and devastating an area of 230 square miles. Next to volcano nothing was left. Starting at about seven miles, thousands of trees were snapped off at their base and laid down pointing outward. Further out, a narrow zone of trees had been left standing but the trees were scorched beyond recovery.

The side of the mountain that was blown away added to the disaster. Crushed rock and melted glacial ice joined with downed trees and rushed into Spirit Lake and down the Toutle River travelling at speeds up to 150 miles per hour. Hummocky deposits between 150 and 620 feet were left behind.

Today, Mt. St. Helens stands as a National Monument to educate people about volcanoes and the recuperative power of nature. Three visitor centers tell the story extremely well. Peggy and I have driven by the area several times and promised ourselves each time that we would visit. Finally, on our trip back from Alaska, we succeeded.

Looking down at the valley floor in front of Mt. St. Helen, the Toutle River carves through debris left behind by the eruption which reaches a depth of over 300 feet in places.

Looking down at the valley floor in front of Mt. St. Helen, the Toutle River carves through debris left behind by the eruption. The debris reaches a depth of over 300 feet in places. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Thousands of trees were literally blown down by the eruption. Many can still be seen today.

Thousands of trees were literally blown down by the eruption. Many can still be seen today.

This stump shows how the trees were ripped off from their bases by the blast.

This stump shows how the trees were ripped off from their bases by the blast.

Looking northeast (left) from Johnson Ridge, a small sliver of Spirit Lake can be seen at the base of another ridge. Once, it was a beautiful resort area. One of the biggest stories about the explosion was how Harry Truman, an elderly man who owned a lodge at the lake, refused to leave and died when the avalanche buried the lake.

Looking northeast (left) from Johnson Ridge,  Spirit Lake can be seen at the base of another ridge. Once, it was a beautiful resort area. One of the biggest stories at the time of the explosion was how Harry Truman, an elderly man who owned a lodge at the lake, refused to leave and died when the avalanche buried the lake.

Looking Northeast from Johnson Ridge, a small sliver of Spirit Lake can be seen at the base of the ridge. Once, it was a beautiful resort area. One of the biggest stories about the explosion was how Harry Truman, an elderly man who owned a lodge at the lake, refused to leave and dyed there.

Jimmy Carter, who was President at the time, flew over the area in a helicopter and described it as a moonscape. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The recuperative power of nature is half the story about Mt. St. Helens 30 years after the explosion. It is said that fireweed, the pinkish red flower here, was said to be growing out of the ash 20 days after the explosion.

The recuperative power of nature is half the story about Mt. St. Helens. It is recorded that fireweed, the pinkish red flower here, was growing out of the ash 20 days after the explosion.

I felt the young tree growing out of a stump at Mt. St. Helens provided the best example of nature on the rebound. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I felt the young tree growing out of a stump at Mt. St. Helens provided the best example of nature on the rebound. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

As we drove off down the ridge into the mist, I couldn't help but wonder when Mt. St. Helens would choose to explode again. It will happen. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

As we drove off down the ridge into the mist, I couldn’t help but wonder when Mt. St. Helens would choose to explode again. It will happen. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

NEXT BLOG: Join me on Monday when I begin my series of posts and photos on Burning Man 2013.

4 comments on “An Explosion that Shook the World… Mt. St. Helens

  1. It’s nice to see recent photos of the area Curt. As a geologist, I find these cataclysmic eruptions grim but interesting. One thing that studying geology taught me is that when it comes to volcanos, we have to think in geologic time, instead of human-scale time. We say, “It hasn’t happened in 500 years, why would it happen this year.?” But with active volcanos, it’s not a matter of if but when. Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa – The Day the World Exploded” is a very interesting account of a whopper that blew an entire island off the map. ~James

    • Geology has always been of interest to me, James. I always used to travel with the Roadside Geology series so I could have a clue about what I was seeing. The West is packed full of geological lessons… from the sedimentary rocks of the Grand Canyon to the earthquakes of California, to the volcanoes of the Cascades and the great granite of the Sierra Nevada. –Curt

  2. Two smaller details in the midst of the vast destruction really caught me. One is that the fireweed was back in business after twenty days. The ability of nature to rejuvenate and heal is absolutely remarkable. (When’s the last time any of us really pondered the miracle that takes place when we get a paper cut?)

    The other thing is the fellow who stayed. Harry Truman? How remarkable is that? I wonder if a lifetime of bearing that name shaped his response to events, and hence, his end?

    • I have always been amazed by the ability of nature to respond to disasters– either manmade or natural. Fireweed, in addition to being tough, is also beautiful. It was the predominant roadside flower on our recent trip to Alaska.

      As with Harry, sort of the “buck stops here,” huh. Children from elementary schools begged Harry to leave the mountain… and he did, long enough to speak to the kids in their classrooms. I would have loved to hear what he told them. BTW, have you seen the movie Dante’s Peak… which was more or less based on the mt. St. Helen’s story but substituted an elderly grandmother for Harry. –Curt

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