Fixing my Mt. St. Helens Problem

June 27, 2009

The first thing in my life that I both recall and can put a date to are two vignettes from May of 1980. One is scouring a closet with my mother for a red bandanna to tie around my face, the other is a dim, gray moment-memory of an ashen street scene.

So, I can say with some truth that I remember the Mt. St. Helens eruption. I was two and a half.

I grew up here. I not only recall (albeit vaguely) the eruption itself, but, being in a journalistic family, I know its legacy and its impact on our local psyche. I know its causes, its histories; I’ve chewed the fat with involved scientists and gungho reporters who violated boundary restrictions to be the first to fly helicopters over the smoldering craters. I had a surreal overnight camping adventure with a professor (in a geodesic dome in the middle of the park in front of Smith Memorial Center at Portland State Univ.–this is a long story) who managed to get himself stuck on the side of the mountain when a tree blocked his only way out. Et cetera.

Yet I have never once (at least to my recollection) been to any of the visitor centers. I had not, even, set foot within the National Monument itself. This is not a badge of pride, and so today David and I fixed this marked glitch in my otherwise consitent regional adventure/travel record.

Most of the exhibits in the several centers we visited repeated things I already know. I took a lot of geology and earth science in college. But I did learn three new things, which I shall share with you! Lucky you!

  1. The glacier that formed around the lava dome in the crater after the eruption is the youngest glacier in the world. It was greatly pissed off and melty after the lava dome activity of 2005.
  2. The landslide and debris flows from the eruption covered and then boiled the Toutle River and local groundwater. The resultant trapped steam exploded in places, geyser-like, and created craters as much as a quarter mile across. In a landscape of such monumental disarray it’s easy to miss “smaller” details like this.
  3. Because of the way sound waves were directed–relatively straight up, then bouncing off the atmosphere somewhere up there–a “cone of silence” existed some 60 or so miles around the eruption. Those, like me, in Portland, would have heard nothing. In Eugene, it was another matter: many solid minutes of dynamite-exploding, thunder sounds. Even people on the very flanks of the mountain only heard the local sounds of trees snapping and rocks falling, not the eruption itself.

I’d like to revisit with my family and see what their recollections are of the event. I’m sure my parents would have clearer memories.

Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge.

Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge.


  1. Christie says:

    I was one of those reporters than conned a helicopter pilot to fly into the dome during an eruption. I believe the verbage I used at the time (when the pilot refused to fly in as ash could ruin the rotor blades and result in us crashing) was: “I’m a girl, and I’m not afraid”. Stupid pilot. However we did get the story, which appeared two hours later on The CBS Evening news. And seeing the dome at that time, live and molten and desolate and angry, and choking on the “rotting eggs” smell of sulfur, is a lifetime memory.

    I was in Boise during the first eruption. We heard the “cracks” on May 18th. It sounded like unearthly snapping thunder. Even in Boise the ash was visible in the high atmosphere for many weeks.

    I am glad you got to see the mountain this week, Lyza. Seeing the vegetation in your photo is astounding– it shows how the earth naturally heals itself.

  2. Kes Wold says:

    I distinctly recall seeing the ash cloud with my parents and a few neighbors while standing in front of my house. I do not recall any of the ash fall (must have been bored) but do remember collecting ash that had fallen in our driveway. We still have a jar of it somewhere.

    We should climb to the crater rim sometime! Much better view of the lava dome from up there :)

  3. autumn says:

    man. i thought you were going to stick with me having this problem. sigh.

    i do remember asking my mother why i couldn’t go out and play in the grey snow…

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