Thursday, November 08, 2012

Revisiting Mount St Helens

In 1980, I was a Master Sergeant air traffic controller, stationed at McChord AFB near Tacoma, WA.  On Sunday morning, May 18th, I was working in the radar room below the control tower, enjoying my second or third cup of coffee, when around 8:30 there was a loud “boom” and the tower shook as if there was a nearby sonic boom.  It wasn’t long before the controller in the tower yelled over the intercom “Holy #$%^& – the mountain just blew up!”.  And so started my Mt. St. Helens experience.
We promptly went into a semi-confused near panic mode – after all, none of us had any experience in dealing with a cloud of volcanic ash.  We’d been told that if the mountain erupted, the ash would be hard and metallic (yup, the cloud rapidly covered half my radar screen), might conduct electricity, and would probably clog and kill our car engines.  Although the bulk of the ash drifted Northeast of us, it became dark and light ash began to fall.  One aircraft, a four-engine turboprop cargo contract hauler, insisted on taking off in spite of our warnings.  He did….and returned 20 minutes later with two engines out, one running rough, and one overheating.  He managed to land in spite of the fact that his windshield was sanded opaque by the ash, and the normally painted aircraft was down to the bare metal on all of the leading edges of wings and the nose.  After that, no one wanted to take off.  Although most of the fears of a heavy ash fall did not materialize, it was an interesting time, and one all of us that were there will always remember.
We hadn’t visited the area around the mountain since we left McChord in 1982, so we decided to spend an extra day as we drove north.  We stayed at a great RV Park in Kelso, the Brookhollow RV Park.  After days of overcast skies and rain, we were happy to see the clouds start to breakup as we left the park.  Our first stop was the Washington State Park visitor center at Silver Lake, not far off the interstate.  It’s a beautiful facility and a good place to learn about the mountain before continuing the drive.  From the parking lot, you could see the mountain in the distance as the clouds began to clear.Mt St Helens from Distance
As we followed the highway along the Toutle River, we realized that the mountain was covered in a fresh coating of snow, and the clouds were slowly starting to burn off.  This valley is where the huge mudflow, taking homes and roads with it, funneled down from the eruption.Valley View of MSH
At the next viewpoint, we could begin to see the crater, still steaming as it slowly rebuilds the mountain.  A previous visitor had left a “snow elf” on the railing for us!Mt St Helens with Snowman
Mt St Helens with Clouds
Our trip ended at the visitor center at Johnson Ridge, named for David Johnson, a volcanologist who was camped near this site and was the first to report the eruption with the radio call “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”  Tragically, he wasn’t scheduled to be on the mountain, but was filling in for a friend.  His remains were never found.  You can read about him here.  From the visitor center, we had an unrestricted view of the mountain and crater, with tendrils of steam flowing from the new dome.  Makes you juuuust a little bit nervous!Mt St Helens Crater from Distance
Mt St Helens Crater
It was a fantastic weather day – except that it was cold!The DNPC at Mt St Helens
From inside the visitor center, large windows provided a panoramic view, and along the walls were stories, some sad, of the rescues made after the eruption.  We especially enjoyed one that told of a husband, wife, and baby being airlifted by helicopter.  The woman put the baby into their backpack to keep warm, and the helicopter crew kept yelling for her to throw away the backpack.  They couldn’t hear her response, and finally decided that if the backpack was so important to her, she could keep it.  One of the few stories with a happy ending….
View from Visitor Center
The visitor center has a large, well-appointed theater with an interesting movie about the eruption.  When the movie is finished, the screen raises to reveal this:View from Theater
It was a fitting finale to an absolutely wonderful, memorable day.  We could visit the mountain for years again and never see it like this!  We’ll leave you with this panoramic photo (don’t forget to click on it to enlarge):
Mt St Helens Panorama
We’ll be starting our volunteer job at Fort Worden’s Coastal Artillery Museum soon, so check back and see us!


  1. Isn't that an incredible sight? I love that place! You were lucky to see it cloaked in snow. Good memories!

  2. That is quite a story. So glad no one was hurt.
    We really enjoyed our visit to Mt. St. Helens. There wasn't near the amount of snow when we were there.
    Lovely photos.

  3. Great post...and especially interesting since you were there at the time of the eruption. Wonderful photos. Yeah, I think seeing the steam tendrils rising from the dome would be just a tad disconcerting.

  4. Wonderful post and pictures, as always.