Mount St. Helens is a world wonder


1980 eruption left devastation in path

October 09, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Several days ago, scientists monitoring Mount St. Helens in southeast Washington state concluded that the danger of an eruption had passed even as the mountain continued puffing clouds of steam and ash thousands of feet into the air.

Crowds, kept at a safe distance by the authorities, had gathered in recent weeks at several observation posts armed with binoculars, digital and video cameras on the off-chance the mountain would once again blow its top.

Scientists also explained that if an eruption did occur it would not be on the dimension of the May 18, 1980, eruption when an earthquake caused the north face of the mountain to collapse, which unleashed an avalanche of 0.7 cubic miles of rock, lava and ash, burying everything in its path.

In a matter of moments, 3,000 feet of the 9,677-foot north side simply vanished. Volcanic shock waves from the blast reduced a forest of Douglas firs 8 miles long and 15 miles wide into a tangled mass of broken and splintered wood.

Fifty-seven perished in the disaster, including the colorful 84-year-old Harry R. Truman, who refused to leave his lodge despite repeated warnings of an impending eruption. His remains have rested ever since entangled in the debris of the mountain buried beneath some 200 feet of water and 100 feet of mud.

"With nothing to contain the tremendous pressure within, the mountain burst its side in a rare lateral blast that spit debris northward at speeds up to 250 mph and produced 680-degree temperatures over an arc of 180 degrees. A vertical cloud rose to 80,000 feet, and mud flows fed by melting glaciers raced down all sides of the mountain, followed by lava, rock and hot air," wrote Ernest F. Imhoff, then an assistant managing editor of The Evening Sun, in a 1987 account.

That year, Imhoff was one of the first to climb Mount St. Helens after the U.S. Forestry Service began allowing 100 hikers a day on the mountain that had been off-limits since 1980.

The climb to the top took four to five hours and was reached by one of four trails.

He described the trek in an interview the other day as being on a "less than steady footing. It was up two steps and down one."

It was accomplished, he recalled, on a footing of loose pumice, ash and rock. His only aid en route to the top was an ice pick that provided a modicum of stability.

Arriving at the summit, he wrote that "nothing in the average life can prepare one" for the awe-inspiring spectacle of the surrounding panorama that resembled a lunar moonscape.

"Viewing the crater is like standing on the rim of a vast gray amphitheater, a bowl 2,000 feet deep and a mile across, with one side missing where the mountain exploded sideways. A dark blob, a dome of lava 3,000 feet in diameter and 925 feet high, rises from the crater floor," he wrote.

"Looking through the maw of the crater toward the eruption's kill zone, one sees gray walls, gray ash, gray trees and an enlarged Spirit Lake, holding thousands of gray logs," he wrote. "Only the blue sky, some evergreens on the horizon and glacier-covered Mount Adams and Mount Rainier in the distance soften the stark, 180-degree image of mass destruction."

What impressed Imhoff in the midst of all of this violent natural destruction were the abundant signs of the renewal of animal and plant life.

He reported seeing small bushes, trees and flowers growing on the mountain, as well as elk, deer, gophers, chipmunks and mice who had returned within weeks of the blast. Ravens riding the thermals soared overhead as he made the long climb.

Aquatic life such as brook trout, frogs and salamanders could be found in Meta Lake, about eight miles from Mount St. Helens.

"It really is a wonder of the world, and we really don't know when it'll blow again," Imhoff said in the interview from his Bolton Hill home. "I'm a hill hiker, as the Scots say, but hiking on Mount St. Helens was just a great experience. It is one of the greatest hiking achievements that I've ever done."

He recalled being fascinated with the little "chimneys of smoke" that covered the ground and endlessly puffed superheated contents from deep inside the unsettled earth, and other "strange smells" that filled the air.

He was overwhelmed by the sight of millions and millions of trees all laid down in the same direction as if some giant hand in a fit of anger had taken a swipe and pushed them down all at once.

"And everywhere you looked, everything was cloaked in gray ash," he said.

"Climbing Mount St. Helens really was a singular and dramatic experience. While not downplaying the death and human destruction of what happened there, it remains probably one of the greatest natural wonders of the country," Imhoff said.

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