Mount St. Helens was not on my original list of things to do or see in Washington. But as things turned out, it was a good stopping point on the way to Seattle. So hey, why not, right? I mean, it’s a huge frickin’ volcano! So we parked for a couple of nights at the Silver Cove RV Resort and took a day trip in to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
The main visitors center is at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. In May of 1980, this was just another ridge, known as ‘Coldwater II,’ and was being used by scientists to monitor the mountain, which had seen increasing seismic activity and steam-driven explosions. The location was 5.5 miles from the mountain, and was thought to be a relatively safe distance. David Johnston was stationed here for the USGS on May 18. At Spirit Lake, two amateur volcanologists had stayed behind at their own risk to take readings, and a local resident Harry Truman had refused to leave his Mt. St. Helens lodge on the edge of the lake.
On May 17, a convoy of 35 frustrated homeowners were escorted into the restricted zone to gather personal belongings. Another such convoy was scheduled for the next day at 10AM. On May 18 at 8:32AM a 5.1 magnitude earthquake happened one mile under the mountain. David Johnston saw the northern face of Mt. St. Helens, which had been bulging for several days, simply collapse. 1,300 feet of the mountain plunged into the valley below, the largest landslide in recorded history. All snow and glacial ice melted instantly and the water mixed with rock and ash began racing towards Spirit Lake. Johnston got on the radio to the USGS in Vancouver, Washington. All they heard was “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” Rock, ash and trees hit his position at over 500mph. His body has never been found.
Two miles north of Johnston’s position, a ham radio observer named Gerry Martin saw Johnston disappear and transmitted “The camper and the car just over to the south of me are covered. It’s going to hit me too.” In all 57 people lost their lives to the blast that day.
The landslide released the trapped gas which resulted in a huge explosion that flattened every tree within a 230 square mile area in 180 seconds. The flow of debris hit Spirit Lake and forced all of the water up into the hillsides. By the time the water returned, the new bottom of the lake was actually 100 feet higher than the previous lake’s surface! To this day it still has no fish.
A 25-foot wall of debris, the bulk of the initial landslide, raced down the Toutle River. It destroyed 27 bridges on its way down to the Columbia River, 75 miles away. The normally 40-foot deep channel there was reduced to 17 feet and had to be dredged just to reopen normal shipping lanes.
On our visit, we watched the movie at the visitors center and took a guided tour. Young Ranger Kelly was an excellent guide. Even though she was born eleven years after the eruption, she lost four relatives that day. The mountain has always fascinated her and obviously motivated her to study and learn about it. I guess by being up here for work and walking around every day, by being near the mountain, she feels closer to those who have gone on before.
We hiked the trail to a better view of Spirit Lake, then returned to our car. Like so many things on this trip, you simply can not comprehend the scale of the devastation and the beauty of the mountain without seeing it in person. We really enjoyed this little side trip!
For a wonderful overview and lots of pictures of the Mt. St. Helens eruption and victims and survivors, check out the web site of the Daily Columbian.