by Hank Leukart
April 26, 2006

The closest you can get to the moon

The astounding scenery around Mt. St. Helens tells a story of a horrifying natural disaster.

Mount St. Helens spews smoke and ash while being observed from Loowit Viewpoint

Mount St. Helens spews smoke and ash while being observed from Loowit Viewpoint (view all Mount St. Helens, Washington photos)

This is the second essay in a two part series about visiting Mt. St. Helens. Read the first essay about my personal volcanic disaster for the whole story.


OLDWATER RIDGE, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Wa. — On Sunday, May 18, 1980 at 8:32 AM, an earthquake prompted Mount St. Helens in Washington State to erupt, causing its north face to collapse in a massive rock-debris avalanche — the largest in recorded history. Pressurized gases in the volcano hurled the volcano’s north face into nearby Spirit Lake, over a 1,300 foot-high ridge, and then fourteen miles down the Toutle River. The explosion triggered a stone-filled wind that toppled 150 square miles of surrounding forest, an enormous mud flood that caused rivers and lakes to overflow, and a mushroom cloud of ash that turned day into night in cities as far as 200 miles away. While the sound of the eruption was heard as far away as British Columbia, terrified loggers only 2 miles from the volcano heard nothing — due to the way the sound traveled — until a torrent of ash and stone pasted them to the ground and eventually burned them to death. For hours following the blast, the ash-filled air made it impossible for people to see their hands in front of their faces and news footage showed cities at noon in complete, midnight-like darkness.

According to the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, the eruption released an amount of energy equal to 27,000 times the energy released by a single Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb. During World War II atomic bomb tests, testers stood within a couple miles of the detonated test bombs (with eye shields) and felt only wind from the blast; when Mount St. Helens erupted, it destroyed everything in the 150 square miles surrounding the volcano.

Today, Mount St. Helens is one of the most beautiful and dramatic recreation areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Clearly, I couldn’t pass up a chance to see the volcano on a perfect Seattle Sunday. After my personal volcanic disaster, I took a significantly easier route to Mount St. Helens the following day and drove to Coldwater Ridge. On the way, I stopped at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center near Silver Lake, where I took a quick walk through its museum and watched The Fire Below Us, a documentary film about the 1980 eruption. Obviously a relic of 1980s nature-documentary filmmaking, the film’s tone was often ridiculous and melodramatic but managed to convey the terror of the eruption despite its synthesized music, purple-turtleneck-covered host, and dramatized re-enactments of victims’ stories. The movie was worth watching simply to see news footage of nearby ash-covered cities and actual video of the volcano’s eruption.

After my ’80s flashback, I continued on to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, where an animated forest ranger greeted a group of us and gave us a rousing description of the volcano and its eruptions in front of a glorious backdrop of the volcano itself. After stern warnings about closed hiking trails and the Park’s current climbing ban (scientists fear that the recent 2005 eruption makes climbing to the top of the volcano too dangerous), I coincidentally ran into a friend on the way to start my hike. After getting the low-down from a ranger about the few open hiking trails, we learned that while the Park had officially closed the Boundary Trail near the volcano due to snow, a large portion of the trail was passable. That’s all we needed to hear.

My friend and I started out on the short Hummocks Trail and quickly split off onto Boundary Trail.

Wow. Because the 1980 eruption toppled all trees surrounding the mountain and killed all vegetation, hiking near the volcano feels like a walk on the moon. While plants and wildlife have started returning to the area, you can still see miles and miles of trees smashed into the ground and large foothills of volcanic ash and dirt (called hummocks). The Mount St. Helens landscape looks like no other place I’ve ever been on Earth, and it looks especially foreign in the Pacific Northwest, an area normally covered with enormous fir trees. Above, you can see over forty photographs of the hike. Be sure to take a look — they’re stunning.

The two of us hiked about nine miles and reached the Loowit Viewpoint, which gives hikers an exceptional 360 degree view above the valleys surrounding the volcano. The distance from Loowit to the peak of the volcano isn’t far; for a moment we considered climbing to the top. But as we stood on Loowit peak, we saw the volcano forcing puffs of smoke and ash out of its top. Maybe the National Park Service had a reason for the climbing ban after all.

But if they lift the climbing ban later this summer, expect another essay — written from the crater on the top of Mount St. Helens. Until space tourism takes hold, it’s the closest anyone can get to the moon. WB

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