FEATURE image: The Mount St. Helens eruption, May 18, 1980. The image is in the public domain in the United States because it only contains materials that originally came from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). See – https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mount-st.-helens
By John P. Walsh, May 18, 2016.
“Nobody lies about her lodestone any more. She burned and destroyed the whole park! Killed people too – what a pity! Only scientists are out there now. What’s there to see, dear? Isn’t it all in ruins?”
This is what the lady innkeeper told me in Portland, Oregon, before I set out in the car one early morning in July 1991 to visit the crater.
“It’s a pity she blew. It was such a pretty mountain before. WAS, I say. The kids loved camping at its base. It was so easy for them to get in and out. Then she blew and changed everything.”
I waved my good-byes and started the two-hour drive.
As seen from Spirit Lake, Mount St. Helens in 1980 BEFORE the eruption on May 18, 1980. United States Forest Service (USFS) photo by Jim Nieland. USGS/Public domain.
Earthquakes, avalanches and a ten-minute eruption on May 18, 1980 toppled nearly 4,000 feet from the mountain summit. Author’s collection.
In April 1980 a bulge developed on the north side of Mt. St. Helens as magma pushed up inside it. View from the northeast. Photo by Peter Lipman. USGS/Public domain.
Phreatic or steam-blast eruption from the summit crater of Mount St. Helens on April 6, 1980. Aerial view to the southwest. The ash-laden cloud surrounds and obscures a finger-like ash column with an upper white cloud formed by atmospheric condensation of water vapor. USGS/Public domain.
At 8:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980, an earthquake followed by a landslide and near simultaneous volcanic blast changed forever – and in less than 10 minutes – a Cascades landscape of 230 square miles. Months before the unexpected blast, volcano watchers had camped near the mountain, including scientists and photographers, who were interested to gauge its recent unusual seismic and geological activity and capture what the mountain may do. Local property owners pressured authorities to be let back into their homes during this uncertain and, as it turned out, critically dangerous waiting period. Especially good weather brought out an extra contingent of weekend campers, backpackers and curiosity seekers to the mountain, many from Portland only 70 miles away.
Eruption Of Mt. St. Helens From Portland, ending 123 years of dormancy.
Everybody I talked to during my 1991 visit remembered 83-year-old Harry Randall Truman who lived by the mountain for over half his life and refused to leave in the days and weeks before the May 18, 1980 eruption. Not sure whether the mountain would blow or not, Truman, who served in the U.S. military in Europe in World War One, resigned himself to the mountain’s fiery whims. When the 1000-story high burbling volcano finally did blow, the avalanche and blast buried Mr.Truman, as it did Spirit Lake, in 350,000 acre-feet of fire and ash debris. Mr. Truman’s body was never recovered nor did he represent the only loss of human life in the eruption.
Harry Randall Truman (1896-1980) lived by Mount St. Helens for 54 years. Truman died in the eruption after he refused to evacuate.
Reid Blackburn, 27, a photographer at The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington, was killed in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Blackburn got caught in the blast at Coldwater Camp. While his car and body were recovered four days later, his camera only resurfaced after a week.
The day before the blast – in this May 17, 1980 photo – 30-year-old volcanologist David Johnston is shown in the evening at his camp near what is now known as Johnston Ridge near Mount St. Helens. A principal scientist on the monitoring team, Johnston perished while manning an observation post 6 miles away on the morning of May 18, 1980. Johnston was the first to report the eruption, transmitting “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” before he was swept away by the lateral blast. Johnston’s remains were never found, but state highway workers discovered remnants of his USGS trailer in 1993. Photo by Harry Glicken on May 17, 1980 at 19:00, 13 1/2 hours before the 1980 eruption. USGS/Public domain.
On Sunday, May 18, 1980 at 8:32 a.m., the bulging north flank of Mount St. Helens slid away in a massive landslide — the largest in recorded history. Seconds later, the uncorked volcano exploded and blasted rocks northward across forest ridges and valleys, destroying everything in its path within minutes. USGS/Public domain.
This camper contains two victims of the Mount St. Helens eruption in a gray landscape about eight miles from the mountain, May 20, 1980. USGS/Public domain.
View downstream of the North Fork Toutle River valley choked by a debris avalanche deposit from the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. USGS/Public domain.
Streets of Yakima, Washington, May 18, 1980.
Only a few months before my July 1991 visit the authorities had re-opened Mount St. Helens for the first time in more than a decade. It was named a National Volcanic Monument and deemed safe again for visitors. After Bear Meadow I followed the prolonged twisting road to past Ghost Lake, Meta Lake and Norway Pass until I reached Independence Pass. From its overlook I saw for the first time the ashen slough that had been Spirit Lake. For years prior to May 1980 several camps inhabited the shore around the lake’s perimeter. There had also been various lodges around the oblong-shaped lake including the one Mr. Truman lived in. On May 18, 1980 Spirit Lake met the full impact of the volcano’s lateral blast. The sheer force of the blast lifted the lake out of its bed and propelled it about 85 stories into the air to splash onto adjacent mountain slopes. Despite the weeks of warnings about a potential eruption of Mount St. Helens, the sole film records of the actual event are in photographs.
Spirit Lake a few days after the eruption on May 18, 1980. USGS/Public domain.
Sixth in a series of photographs by Gary Rosenquist. (see- https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/msh/catastrophic.html – retrieved June 24, 2021.)
Taken from a rest area near Lewiston, Idaho, on May 18, 1980, Mammatus clouds caused by volcanic ash hover over the Palouse of southeastern Washington, north central Idaho and northeast Oregon. Photograph by Betty Ehr.
At 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980 a 5.2-magnitude earthquake triggered the bulging north slope of Mount St. Helens to slice and fall away into the biggest debris avalanche in recorded history. This landslide was rapidly succeeded by the powerful lateral blast that sent scorching hot ash and rock hurtling out of the mountain at approximately 300 miles per hour, toppling and incinerating everything in its northward path. Fifteen miles away from the mountain temperatures reached Fahrenheit 572 degrees.
Entering the “Restricted Zone” of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in July 1991. About eight miles away, the collapsed north face of the mountain looms in the distance. Mount St. Helens was partially destroyed by a series of earthquakes followed by the largest debris avalanche in history and a blast and pyroclastic flow that flattened everything in its path over 230 square miles. Author collection.
While in 2016 plant and animal life continue to recover and augment as it has for decades now, my boots in 1991 crunched into a gray, dusty moon-like surface. From Spirit Lake to Windy Ridge I was confronted by trees flattened like toothpicks as far as the eye could see, and a cauldron emitting wispy white smoke. The base of the mountain is four miles wide. The journey had taken me from civilization and delightful wilderness into mile upon mile of badlands. My bodily presence was miniature in an immense, silent, and deserted landscape, the scene only a decade earlier of the most powerful natural event in the Continental United States in over one thousand years. While I heard some people talk about this volcanic eruption as comparable in its destructive power to that of a detonated atom bomb, I know that sort of comparison is ludicrous. For all its destructive force, this is not a disaster as it contains, if one requires patience to believe it, a natural benignity – or what scientists call a natural disturbance on a grand scale which allows mankind to study the natural cycle of death and life in a landscape. An atom bomb provides none of that -it only bestows extinction and contamination.
A gray, dusty moon-like surface with trees flattened like toothpicks as far as the eye could see. At Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, July 1991. Photo John P. Walsh.
Below: “The standing dead” by Rudimentary is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Ash and gas, accompanied by lightning, ascended 15 miles into the air at the speed of a mile a minute. In a blast that killed 57 people – many of whom were there to study and record its possible eventuality – it also decimated approximately 7,000 large animals and 12 million salmon. No trees of dense forest were left standing within 6 miles of the summit. Rescue operations continued for days with varied success.
Army National Guard helicopter pilot Harold Kolb rescues two men and their sons from the eruption of May 18, 1980. USGS/Public domain.
Horse rescuers give up their efforts as they fled for their lives before flood waters from the Toutle River. USGS/Public domain.
Mudflow deposits cover State Highway 504 near of Toutle, to a depth of over six feet. Photo by USGS R.L. Schuster. Public Domain.
This aerial view shown May 23, 1980 from a search and rescue helicopter. USGS/Public domain.
SGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Austin Post. Public Domain.
Encountering a washed-out road to the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center in late summer 1980.
Over 350 miles away from the eruption in Moscow, Idaho, May 18, 1980.
(above and below) July 1980 aerial view of pyroclastic flow from Mt. St. Helens. USGS Photo July 22, 1980, by Harry Glicken. USGS/Public domain.
A helicopter stirs up ash while trying to land in the devastated area on August 22, 1980. Photo by Lyn Topinka United States Geological Service. USGS/Public domain.
An eruption from Mount St. Helens on March 8, 2005. In 2016 the volcano is showing increased signs of significant seismic activity. AP Photo/USGS Matt Logan. USGS/Public domain.
Fireweed on the slopes of Spirit Lake only four years after the eruption (September 1984). Public Domain.
In 2016 in nature it is survival of the fittest – while woody plants are beginning to appear with the promise of a forest, the boll weevil is eating the wood. Photo credit: Michael Hynes.
Below: Mount St. Helens. The volcano was particularly restless in the mid19th century, when it was notably active off and on for a 26-year span from 1831 to 1857. Canadian artist Paul Kane (1810–1871) painted Mount St Helens Erupting At Night in 1847 (Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto). Though considered once dormant, the volcano has been continually active in degrees over the centuries as this nineteenth century painting attests, and remains so today after the major 1980 blast. Public Domain.
This photo of an erupting Mount St. Helens has been published and viewed widely on television over the years since the eruption. Photo credit: Richard “Dick” Lasher.
Pyroclastic flow during August 7, 1980, Mount St. Helens eruption. The view is from Johnston Ridge, located 8 km (5 mi) north of Mount St. Helens. Photo: Peter Lipman. Public Domain.
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2001), Symphony Number 50, “Mount St Helens” (1982), Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz.
Text©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.