A Personal Account of Mount St. Helens' Eruption

The Eruption

Plinian column of ash, hot gases and pulverised rock from Mount Saint Helens


As a Washington native, I had the unusual opportunity to personally experience the the Mount St. Helens eruption and its after effects. As a teenager growing up in Spokane, I lived through the various phases, from the initial hints at eruption to the hot, gritty ashfall and days of living in a world turned gray. Later, as a Weyerhaeuser summer intern, I had the chance to visit the forestry company's private lands within the blast zone, as well as those portions of devastated land that are public.

Mount St. Helens stirred to life in late March of 1980. Earthquakes and occasional steam and ash vents kept us all on the edge of our seats, yet we treated the event as a novelty, rather than a serious danger. Surely we were safe in Eastern Washington, 300 miles from the nuts who refused to leave the mountain and the looky-loos who flocked to be part of the danger and excitement. What did we have to worry about?

Still, every day discussion revolved around the latest activity at the volcano, both seismic and human. As the bulge on Mount St. Helens' side grew, we watched and waited. If and when the volcano did erupt, we all had visions of streams of glowing lava crawling down the mountain, like the volcanoes in Hawaii — at least I did.

The Eruption

Finally, at 8:32 am on Sunday, May 18, the mountain blew. We know now the terrible things that happened that day in the blast zone — the lives that were lost, the mud slides, the log-choked waterways. But on that Sunday morning, in Spokane, it still didn't seem real, still didn't seem like anything that would directly touch our lives. So, off my family and I went to visit some friends on the other side of town. There was some talk of ashfall, but there had been ashfall in Western Washington from the minor eruptions. Everyone had just dusted it off and gone about their business, no big deal. Once we arrived at our friends' house, we gathered by the television to watch the latest news. At the time, there was no film available showing the tremendous plume spewing ash miles into the atmosphere. The main warning that something strange was about to happen came from the satellites tracking the ash cloud as it headed east, and the surreal reports from the cities where ash was beginning to fall.

Soon, we could see the leading edge of the ash cloud ourselves. It was like a black window shade being pulled across the sky, wiping away the light of the sun. At this point, the eruption of Mount St. Helens became quite real. My family jumped in the car and we headed for home. It quickly became as dark as night, yet it was still early afternoon. Ash began to fall as we neared home. We made it there in one piece, but even in the short dash from the car to the house the hot gusts of ash plastered our hair, skin, and clothes with gritty gray particles.

A Grey Landscape

The following dawn revealed a world covered in pale gray, the sky a roiling cloud that we could reach out and touch with our hands. Visibility was limited. School was canceled, of course. Nobody knew what to do with all the ash. Was it acidic or toxic? We soon learn the tricks required to function in an ash-shrouded world, wrapping toilet paper around car air filters and scarves or dust masks around out faces.

I spent the summer of 1987 as an intern for The Weyerhaeuser Company. One weekend, a friend and I decided to go camping in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, within which lies the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and a significant portion of the blast zone. It was over seven years since the eruption, but so far there had been little improvement of the roads into the blast zone, and the only visitor center was at Silver Lake, a good distance from the mountain. It was a foggy, overcast afternoon - we got lost driving on the forest service roads. We ended up on an unimproved, one-way loop that took us right into the blast zone.

Since we hadn't actually intended on driving into the damaged area, we were unprepared for the sights that greeted us. We found miles and miles of gray hills covered with stripped black timber, snapped off or uprooted, all lying in the same direction. The low cloud cover only added to the chilling effect of the devastation. With every hill we crested, it was more of the same.

The following day, we returned and climbed Windy Ridge, which looks across Spirit Lake towards the volcano. The lake was covered with acres of floating logs, compacted at one end. The area around the ridge, like most areas we explored within the National Volcanic Monument, was still buried in pumice and ash. You had to look very hard to see traces of plant recovery.

Later that same summer, Weyerhaeuser treated us interns to a field trip into their forest lands, lumber mills, and other operations. We were taken into an area of the blast zone that was privately owned by the forestry company, where replanting had already begun. The difference between this area, where a forest of chest-high evergreens covered the slopes, was striking when compared to the public lands in the blast zone, which had been left to recover on their own.

Returning to the Site

Since that summer, I have been back to visit the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and the new visitor centers several times. Each time, I am amazed at the noticeable level of recovery of plant and animal life, and impressed by the exhibits and offerings at the visitor centers. While the magnitude of the eruption's effects is still very apparent, the evidence of the power of life to reassert itself is undeniable.

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