Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Remembering Mt. St. Helens

"Mt. St. Helens is the big ice cream cone." That's how my father described the mountain to me as a child, to differentiate it from the other white peaks we saw as we traveled around the state on various family vacations.

The ice cream cone.

The anniversary of the eruption that literally blew apart that childhood impression has stirred up memories, ones I can't shake even 34 years later. Not that I have horrifying stories of personal trauma, but having a mountain blow up in what felt like my back yard was a pretty impressive experience. I remember the call from my husband, Dave, who at the time was a reporter at the newspaper in Oregon City, telling me that Mt. St. Helens had exploded and blown the whole top of the mountain off. He was going to jump in our old Volvo and drive up to try and get some pictures. Did I want him to drop by the house and pick me up?

The eruption.

As a reporter covering the story, he'd gone up to the mountain several times before, from the first appearance of steam venting from the peak to what geologists had said was the increasingly ominous swelling of the north side of the mountain. Along with everyone else in the city, I'd been following the stories that were dominating the local media, and had gone up to the mountain with him a couple of times for press conferences.

One in particular was with David Johnston, a 30-year-old volcanologist with the US Geological Survey, who'd been tasked with explaining to a group of geologically challenged reporters (and one tag-along art director) exactly what was going on inside the mountain. Obviously excited about sharing this incredible experience, he gave an overview of the various theories and scenarios the scientists who'd gathered on the mountain were coming up with.

But the bottom line?

"This is the last place I'd want to be when this thing blows," he said to us.

The north fork of the Toutle River on Mt. St. Helens after the eruption.

A few mornings later, when the mountain erupted in what was said to be the force of several hydrogen bombs, it was Johnston who was on duty at the USGS observation post on the mountain. He was reported to have radioed, "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" His body was never recovered.

The day it erupted we made it as far as Amboy, Washington, a little less than 30 miles from what was left of the mountain, before being stopped by the roadblocks that had been set up to divert people flocking to see the eruption. We drove to the top of a hill where we could get a view of the roiling clouds of ash that were pouring out of the now-leveled top of the mountain. With the wind blowing the ash plume away from us, we were stunned by the massive, dark-grey cliff of ash rising thousands of feet up into the clear blue sky, eventually leveling off far up in the atmosphere.

Mt. St. Helens now.

Weeks went by and Portland was occasionally dusted by falling ash when the wind changed from its usual eastward direction. I remember driving up the Gorge some time later to visit my parents in The Dalles and, standing in their yard, seeing the ash cloud still visible as it rose from the mountain. Eventually it stopped spewing ash, the devastation to the mountain's landscape began to heal and an interpretive center, named the Johnston Ridge Observatory, was constructed in the new Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Thirty-four years later, I'm used to the revised shape of the former ice cream cone. But the things I heard and saw during that time still stick in my head.

Historic illustration and photos of Mt. St. Helens from USGS.

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