Published: January 1981
Mountain With a Death Wish
A snowcapped peak in the Cascades shudders and explodes, blasting 1,300 feet off its top, scything down forests and sending ash clouds across the Northwest.
By Rowe Findley

First I must tell you that I count it no small wonder to be alive. Looking back on the fateful events preceding Mount St. Helens' terrible eruption last May 18, I recognize that I—and others—had been drawn into a strange kind of Russian roulette with that volcano in the Cascades.

For many weeks the mountain had masked its potential for tragedy with minor eruptions, then seemed to doze. In our efforts to get a close-range account of a significant geologic event, we moved in with the innocence of the uninitiated—until sudden holocaust shadowed us with peril and changed our lives forever.

The very beauty of the mountain helped deceive us. It was a mountain in praise of mountains, towering over lesser peaks, its near-perfect cone glistening white in all seasons. Thousands through the years had given it their hearts—climbers, artists, photographers, lovers of beauty’s ultimate expression. Some were among the 61 people drawn into its deadly embrace on that shining Sunday morning last May.

For all its splendor, Mount St. Helens was a time bomb, ticking away toward a trigger labeled “self-destruct.” Seven weeks before, the world received notice of the mountain’s brooding when it first vented plumes of steam and ash. Its immediate domain in southwestern Washington, a favored land of deep forests, rushing streams, rich farmlands, and flourishing cities, waited anxiously as successive eruptions and earthquakes dirtied its crown and fractured its sides.

Then anxieties eased as days and weeks passed without disaster. Though the volcano seethed and trembled, and its bruised north flank bulged morbidly, there were even some who voiced impatience for bigger eruptions. To many, the mountain appeared to be calibrating down toward unreadable calm.

“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it. . . .” With those words—tinged with excitement rather than panic, hearers said—David Johnston, geologist for the United States Geological Survey, announced the end of calm and the start of cataclysm. Thirty-year-old blond-bearded David was stationed at a USGS camp called Coldwater II, six miles from the mountaintop, to monitor eruptions.

Those words were his last. The eruption he reported was powerful and unexpectedly lateral. Much of the initial blast was nozzled horizontally, fanning out northwest and northeast, its hurricane wave of scalding gases and fire-hot debris traveling at 200 miles an hour. Its force catapulted the geologist and the house trailer that sheltered him off a high ridge and into space above Coldwater Creek. His body has yet to be found.

The start of the eruption has been fixed at 8:32 a.m. Inevitably, the atomic bomb is cited for comparison of magnitude, and the energy computed is that of 500 Hiroshimas. In a quadrant extending roughly west to north, but including a shallower fan to the northeast, 150-foot Douglas firs were uprooted or broken like brittle straws for distances as far as 17 miles from the mountain.

An earthquake registering 5.0 on the Richter scale triggered the collapse of the fractured north side of the volcano, which was perhaps a factor in the devastating horizontal venting that followed. Tobogganing on a cushion of hot gases, the disintegrating north rock swept down over the North Fork of the Toutle River, burying it under as much as 200 feet of new fill, which spread downstream in a 15-mile-long debris flow. The lateral blast hurled a thick blanket of ash over collapsing trees, tumbled bulldozers and logging trucks, crumpled pickups and station wagons, adding to the hopelessness of rescue efforts.

Soon the nozzling of the eruption turned entirely upward, and a roiling pillar of ash thrust some 12 miles into the Sunday morning sky, flanked by nervous jabs of orange lightning. The pillar plumed eastward into a widening dark cloud that would give Yakima, 85 miles distant, midnight blackness at 9:30 a.m. and would last the day. Much of eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana would be brought to a halt by the ashfall. Within days the silt from the mountain would reach the Pacific, after causing destructive floods on the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers and closing the busy Columbia to deep-draft ships. By Wednesday the cloud would reach the Atlantic.

I refer to no notes in setting down these events, because they have cut a deep track in my mind. In fact, my memory unbidden replays sequences unendingly, perhaps because of their awesome magnitude and perhaps because they involve a deep sense of personal loss. I have only to close my eyes and ears to the present, and I see the faces and hear familiar names. ...

Reid Blackburn. I knew him only a week—the week before the May 18 eruption. At 27 he was a master of cameras and a student of words, a journalism graduate of Linfield College in Oregon and five-year photographer with the Vancouver Columbian, a radio technician, a backcountry trekker. He had just the right talents to keep vigil on the volcano and to fire two remote, radio-controlled cameras recording simultaneous images of significant events. For this meaningful project he was on loan from the Columbian to the USGS and the National Geographic Society. His post was a mountainside logging road camp called Coldwater I, eight miles from the crest of Mount St. Helens, three miles farther west than Coldwater II.

Colleagues say that Reid had the incisive eye of the born portrait photographer, capturing a face precisely when the mask falls away to reveal an instant of truth. He was as gifted in filming animals, anticipating the wistful look of a puppy, the trust of a lamb.

Nine months before, Reid had married Fay Mall, a member of the Columbian's office staff, who shared his life’s goals and ambitions.

I first met Reid on Sunday, May 11, when I helicoptered to Coldwater I and spent the night there to watch the mountain. I returned the following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The talk ranged from newspapering to backpacking. As we talked on Thursday afternoon, I felt the ground sway like a boat on water. “An earthquake,” Reid said without expression. “It’s about 4.5.” Repeated jolts had calibrated him.

The eight miles that separated Reid from the crater seemed a reasonable margin of safety before May 18. Afterward, with four feet of ash blanketing the camp, and in the knowledge that people twice that far from the mountain had died, I found it hard to think reasonably about margins of safety.

Harry Truman. He was a man who rejected margins of safety. For more than half a century he had lived at the foot of Mount St. Helens on the shores of Spirit Lake. When sheriff’s deputies ordered all residents to leave for safety, Harry said no. Harry had raised the adjectival use of profanity to a new high, and in a position statement that demonstrated his art, he told me why he wouldn’t leave:

“I’m going to stay right here because, I’ll tell you why, my home and my _______ life’s here. My wife and I, we both vowed years and years ago that we’d never leave Spirit Lake. We loved it. It’s part of me, and I’m part of that _______ mountain. And if it took my place, and I got out of here, I wouldn’t live a week anyway; I wouldn’t live a day, not a _______ day. By God, my wife went down that _______ road _______ feet first, and that’s the way I’m gonna go or I’m not gonna go.”

Harry and his wife, Edna, had built a lodge and cabins by the lake, and their resort became a favored retreat for two generations of vacationers. Three years ago Edna died, and Harry closed the lodge, renting only a few cabins and boats each summer. When a steel gate was placed across the highway, barring outsiders but locking Harry in, he still did not change his mind: “I said block the _______ road, and don’t let anyone through till Christmas ten years ago. I’m havin’ a hell of a time livin’ my life alone. I’m king of all I survey, I got _______ plenty whiskey, I got food enough for 15 years, and I’m settin’ high on the _______ hog.”

Harry said that he had provisioned an old mine shaft with ample drink and victuals, and many of his friends hope he might yet dig out of such a retreat. But the lack of warning preceding the May 18 eruption makes it all but certain that Harry was caught in or near his beloved lodge, which now lies crushed under thick debris and the raised level of Spirit Lake.

The mountain he elected never to leave rewarded him with an eternal embrace, a cataclysmic burial of a magnitude befitting deity more than man, an extravaganza befitting even Harry’s gift for vocal brimstone.

David Johnston. You already know of his fate, but now you must know of his promise. Like Reid Blackburn’s credentials for photography, David Johnston’s training for geology was impeccable. The University of Illinois awarded him a degree in geology with honors, the University of Washington conferred master’s and doctorate, and the National Science Foundation granted him a fellowship.

Better than most observers, David knew the awesome potential of Mount St. Helens. “This mountain is a powder keg, and the fuse is lit,” he said, “but we don’t know how long the fuse is.” Yet he responded to the need for samples from the crater by volunteering to be the sampler.

“He was a marathon runner in excellent condition,” explained Lon Stickney, USGS contract helicopter pilot, who had made more landings on the mountain than any other human. “David figured he could get down into the crater and back out again faster than any of his colleagues.”

St. Helens became part of my life late last March. I had been working on a prospective National Geographic article on the national forests, and the Fuji-like eminence of Mount St. Helens—named for an 18th-century British diplomat—dominated Gifford Pinchot National Forest. On March 21 my friend Gerry Gause of the Forest Service’s regional office in Portland phoned me in Washington, D. C., and said that earthquakes were shaking the mountain. I checked flight schedules and began to read up on Mount St. Helens.

To my hand came an aptly titled USGS paper, “Potential Hazards From Future Eruptions of Mount St. Helens,” by Drs. Dwight Crandell and Donal Mullineaux. They said that St. Helens had been the most active of the Cascade volcanoes, and for a quarter century beginning in 1831 had concocted various combinations of steam, ash, mudflows, and lava eruptions. Before the 20th century ended, they predicted, another eruption was likely.

The quakes grew in number and force; the dormant volcano was stretching and stirring. By Wednesday, March 26, I was convinced, and scheduled an early flight Friday. The mountain yawned on Thursday afternoon, venting steam and ash. By the time I arrived Friday morning, intermittent plumes rose two miles above the peak and tinged its northeast slopes sooty gray.

This was the start of a geologic event—the first volcanic eruption in the contiguous 48 states since California’s Lassen, another Cascade peak, shut down in 1917 after a three-year run. St. Helens became a siren to geologists, journalists, and the just plain curious who crowded into Portland, Oregon, and into Vancouver, Kelso, and Longview, Washington. Seers competed in foreseeing holocaust, T-shirt vendors had visions of hot sales, and sign makers exhausted plays on the word “ash.” Sample: “St. Helens—keep your ash off my lawn.” There were some people who irreverently christened the mountain Old Shake and Bake.

The name seemed deserved as late March became April and April slid past with the mountain still not fully awake. A second crater appeared beside the first, then the two merged into a single bowl 1,700 feet across and 850 feet deep. But the eruption level, geologists said, remained “low-energy mode.”

Despite such restraint, there was growing suspense for the country roundabout. It was rugged country, still largely remote except by air, its high places inaccessible under snows most of the year. This was a country of lava caves some thought were home to Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, the giant apelike beast of legend and controversy. This was the wild country over which D. B. Cooper parachuted from a hijacked jet in 1971 with $200,000 in cash; he was never found, though a few thousand of his currency was.

Once this was a land of Indian legend, too, including one in which the favors of a beautiful maiden caused a battle between two rival warriors. They hurled fiery rocks at each other and so angered the Great Spirit that he turned the three into Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, and Mount Adams.

Spirit Lake, the mirror for the beauty of Mount St. Helens, owes its name to Indian stories of the disappearance of canoeists on its waters as strange moanings arose.

What would arise from modern-day St. Helens was of immediate concern last spring. The situation put great pressure on geologists for forecasts, but they lacked experience with volcanoes such as St. Helens, a composite of alternating layers of ash and lava. They worked long hours to place instruments on and around the mountain: seismometers to record quakes, gravity meters to gauge vertical swellings, tiltmeters and laser targets to detect outward bulging. A Dartmouth College team led by Dr. Richard Stoiber flew circles around the peak to sample its hot breath. Increased sulfur dioxide content would signal magma on the move. At the University of Washington, at Portland State, at other area universities, faculty geologists monitored their seismographs and analyzed ash samples from the mountain for any clues to its intentions.

By Saturday, May 10, the pulse was heavier—some quakes approached 5.0 on the Richter scale. Infrared aerial photos showed several hot spots in the crater and on the flanks. Most alarming of all, the mountain's north face was swelling; it had already bulged laterally by some 300 feet and was still distending at a rate of five feet a day. The volcano would not remain on “hold” much longer.

Still, the third-of-a-mile-wide crater looked drowsy enough in the bright sunlight of late Sunday morning, May 11. With Dr. Marvin Beeson, geochemist at Portland State University, photographer David Cupp and I hopped out of a helicopter onto the crater’s northeast lip.

Marvin sought ash samples for analysis. Most of the ash was old, ground-up mountain, but new, glassy ash could be collected and, if it proved high in silica, would indicate how explosive the eruption might be.

Our pilot, Kent Wooldridge, Army trained and Vietnam conditioned, made two precautionary passes before coming to a six-inch-high hover. My jump to the volcano’s crest reminded me of watching Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon; would I sink into the mixed ash and snow to my knees or to my hips? Gratefully I found that its consistency was like coarse sand; I sank barely to my ankles, and walking was easy.

While Marvin gathered ash from the crater’s lip and David documented the scene on film, I looked around at this uncertain new world. Hundreds of feet below, wispy steam breathed gently from the crater’s throat. The south side, towering some 500 feet above us and capped by a disintegrating glacier, constantly whispered and rattled with cascading ice and rock.

The dirty snow was pocked with softball-size holes. With a start I realized that each hole held a rock or ice chunk lately hurled out of the crater. I wondered how good I would be at the volcano’s version of dodge ball, I wondered when the next earth tremor was due, and I wondered why Marvin was so slow at spooning samples.

The week between May 11 and 18 now seems to me part of another life. There was the overnight of the 11th at Coldwater I with Reid. There was time that evening to drive down to Harry Truman’s lodge.

Harry greeted me cheerily, iced bourbon in hand, a couple of his 16 house cats scampering underfoot. Yes, his birds had come back-the camp robbers and wrens and blackbirds he fed. Most of them had vanished after the March 27 eruption. The raccoons had never left. The three feet of snow that blanketed his grounds had now melted; long winter was over. He and the mountain were still on speaking terms, and it hadn’t told him anything to change his mind about staying.

It was a time for looking back across his 84 years, to his boyhood in West Virginia, to his teenage years in Washington State, where his father had moved to work in the timber, to the Los Angeles of the 1920s, where, Harry said, he used a service station as a front to sell bootleg whiskey that he had brought in by boat from Canada. To years when the late Justice William O. Douglas visited his Spirit Lake lodge, and to his World War II meeting with the other Harry Truman when the latter was the U. S. Vice President.

“By God, if we had Harry S. Truman in Washington now, he’d straighten out those _______ in a hurry!”

Harry R. Truman of Spirit Lake (he never told me what the “R.” stood for) had found his life troubled since the mountain began to awaken. “I’m gettin’ letters, hundreds of ______ letters from all over the _______ country. Some of ‘em want to save me—somebody sent me a ‘Bible for the hardheaded.’ I get marriage proposals—now why would some 18-year-old chick want to marry an old _______ like me. I get dozens of letters from children who worry about me.”

The children's letters moved Harry, especially a batch from an entire class at Clear Lake Elementary School, near Salem, Oregon. Harry said he planned ultimately to answer all his mail, but he wished he could visit the kids at Clear Lake. “I’d like to explain to them about me and the mountain.”

Harry’s wish met with enthusiasm at the school, and so a helicopter was arranged to take him there on Wednesday, May 14. I went along, on what proved to be Harry’s last trip away from his beloved Spirit Lake.

No Santa Claus ever had a warmer greeting; the entire student body—104 strong—cheered and unfurled crayoned banners (Harry—We Love You) as the whirlybird eased down on the schoolyard turf. Principal Kate Mathews and teacher Scott Torgeson, whose class had written the letters to Harry, did welcoming honors. Harry, forgoing his usual adjectives, admirably explained how it is to have lived a long, full life, and to have found a piece of the world as dear as life itself. For each child who wrote him, he had a signed postcard showing Spirit Lake and the lodge.

But what would he do if he saw the lava coming for him? “I’d run,” Harry said. The earthquakes worried him more than eruptions, he added, and he had endured a few thousand tremors since the volcano had started to stir. How did he keep from being tossed out of bed at night? “I wear spurs to bed,” Harry said.

More cheers and waves. The helicopter eases up and out across sun-dappled fields. The jumping-bean cluster of young well-wishers shrinks and swings out of sight. A panorama of lush meadows and woodlands, prosperous towns, and ample rivers slides beneath Harry’s attentive gaze. “What a beautiful country we got, boys—what a beautiful _______ country,” Harry said.

Good-bye, Harry, and good luck.

Thursday, May 15. That famous Northwest weather trick—now you see it but mostly you don’t—plagues efforts to learn what the volcano is doing. A brief glimpse early in the day shows hardly a steam plume; then the clouds drop a curtain. We sit by the chopper at Coldwater I through overtures of alternating cloud and sun, raindrops and rainbows. The curtain over the mountain never lifts.

Friday, May 16. The mountain is playing games with us. An early morning radio message from Coldwater I reports St. Helens in full view. By the time we get aloft, the curtain is closing. By the time we reach the mountain, the mountain can no longer be seen.

Saturday, May 17. All sunshine and no clouds. The mountain drowses on. The north-face bulge continues—swelling five feet a day; other signs say that nothing is about to happen. No need to keep flying around the sleepy mountain.

Instead, I drive to Cougar, a little timber-industry settlement some 12 miles southwest of the mountain, to see my friends Mort and Sandy Mortensen, who run the Wildwood Inn, a café and bar catering to loggers, fishermen, and whoever else turns up. Lately, business had been hit-and-miss, depending on what the volcano was doing. The town had been evacuated more than once, and there was no business.

I took the time to reassure myself that the Wildwood Inn’s new deep fryer was still turning out delectable fried chicken.

And that was the last day of my final week from another life.

Sunday, May 18. First sun finds the mountain still drowsing. Because it is drowsing, I decide not to watch it today, a decision that soon will seem like the quintessence of wisdom. Because it is drowsing, others—campers, hikers, photographers, a few timber cutters—will be drawn in, or at least feel no need to hurry out. Their regrets will soon be compressed into a few terrible seconds before oblivion.

Ten megatons of TNT. More than 5,000 times the amount dropped in the great raid on Dresden, Germany, in 1945. Made up mostly of carbon dioxide and water vapor, innocuous except when under the terrible pressure and heat of a volcano’s insides and then suddenly released.

That 5.0 quake does it. The entire mountainside falls as the gases explode out with a roar heard 200 miles away. The incredible blast rolls north, northwest, and northeast at aircraft speeds. In one continuous thunderous sweep, it scythes down giants of the forest, clear-cutting 200 square miles in all. Within three miles of the summit, the trees simply vanish—transported through the air for unknown distances.

Then comes the ash—fiery, hot, blanketing, suffocating—and a hail of boulders and ice. The multichrome, three-dimensional world of trees, hills, and sky becomes a monotone of powdery gray ash, heating downed logs and automobile tires till they smolder and blaze, blotting out horizons and perceptions of depth. Roiling in the wake, the abrasive, searing dust in mere minutes clouds over the same 200 square miles and beyond, falling on the earth by inches and then by feet.

The failed north wall of the mountain has become a massive sled of earth, crashing irresistibly downslope until it banks up against the steep far wall of the North Toutle Valley. This is the moment of burial for Harry Truman and his lodge, as well as for some twenty summer homes at a site called the Village, a mile down the valley.

The eruption’s main force now nozzles upward, and the light-eating pillar of ash quickly carries to 30,000 feet, to 40,000, to 50,000, to 60,000 . . . The top curls over and anvils out and flares and streams broadly eastward on the winds.

The shining Sunday morning turns forebodingly gray and to a blackness in which a hand cannot be seen in front of an eye.

In the eerie gray and black, relieved only by jabs of lightning, filled with thunder and abrading winds, a thousand desperate acts of search and salvation are under way.

Psychological shock waves of unbelief quickly roll across the Pacific Northwest. In Vancouver and Portland, in Kelso and Longview, and in a hundred other cities and towns, the towering dark cloud is ominously visible.

A phone call from my friend Ralph Perry of the Vancouver Columbian sends me outside to gaze at the spectacle. As soon as I can, I get airborne for a better look, and recoil from accepting what I see.

The whole top of the mountain is gone.

Lofty, near-symmetrical Mount St. Helens is no more. Where it had towered, there now squats an ugly, flat-topped, truncated abomination. From its center rises a broad unremitting explosion of ash, turning blue-gray in the overspreading shadow of its ever widening cloud. In the far deepening gloom, orange lightning flashes like the flicking of serpents’ tongues. From the foot of the awesome mountain there spreads a ground-veiling pall.

Somewhere down there lies Coldwater I, above the rushing waters of Coldwater Creek and the valley I had left in verdant beauty only 40 hours before.