The Changing Face of Mt. St. Helens

Thirty-five years ago today, the mountain I observed from my home every clear day for ten years of my childhood, changed her face when a cataclysmic eruption blew out her north side. Fifty-seven people lost their lives that day. There were several eruptions during the spring and summer of 1980 that snarled traffic on one side of the state or the other, plunging drivers into darkness in mid-day, clogging engines with ash, and rendering wipers useless. The ash cloud eventually swept around the world. It was epic. I wasn’t there; I was living far, far away. But I wept for the loss of our beautiful mountain.

My family camped at her base, paddled canoes on her Spirit Lake, ate our tuna sandwiches and picked huckleberries on her grass and pumice-covered slopes. Mt. St. Helens, Lawetlat’la to the indigenous Cowlitz people and Loowit to the Klickitat, was known as the most beautiful of all the northwest peaks because of her perfect symmetry. Did I mention Helen is my middle name, making her my mountain? I don’t remember that we took visiting relatives there—no star power. They wanted to see the mighty Rainier. The demure St. Helens was a quiet, private lover.

She is a young volcano, only some 40,000 years old. But that day in 1985, she lost her youthful beauty, and a third of her height. For years only scientists inhabited the blast zone. That’s what they called it: The Blast Zone. Roads, bridges, and railroads had to be rebuilt; and her fragile habitat had to heal. Then the owners of the timber were allowed in to salvage what they could of the billions of board feet that lay prone. But she’s making a comeback, and she’s changing again. It’s hard to keep a good woman down.

There is a plastic washtub full of ash under the shed at the back of the carport along with a two-pound Maxwell House coffee can full; other containers of the stuff occupy shelves in the shed and a space in the basement. My father collected it when he shoveled tons of it off our flat roof. Under moss and layers of bark in the trees, if one were to dig down, there is a layer of the gritty gray stuff. Yesterday, as I was digging a hole under the big leaf maple in my Garden Where Nothing Will Grow to put in a sword fern I dug out of the middle of a trail I was building, I swear I dug into ash and teeny tiny gravel that shouldn’t be there. I’ve been digging in that patch of yard for the past two springs, and hadn’t encountered that soil composition before.

Everywhere are reminders of that spring—most notably out the window and across the valley.

I have been hiking at St. Helens since I returned to the PNW. She’s a different mountain than she used to be, and she still looks like a not-so-long-ago disaster zone; but she isn’t lost after all. We all change. But we are still beautiful, strong, and resourceful; or at least interesting. Betty Friedan said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” I guess it applies to mountains, too.

Sunrise from the deck of our home in the 1970s.
Gretchen, Rebecca, and Jo Ann “resting” after a hike. 1964.
My mother at Spirit Lake; mountain in the clouds. 1964
Photo by my mother from our deck during one of the lesser volcanic events that spring and summer of 1980 (possibly October).
Her changed face. 2011
Spirit Lake; mountain in the clouds, log jam in foreground. 2013
Sunrise from the deck of our home. 2014

9 thoughts on “The Changing Face of Mt. St. Helens

  1. Wow ! Love the photos !
    Thinking tonight about your wonderful garden near your house on the hill. Seems it just keeps getting better with age. Time can be a healer and a thief. And sometimes time can simply make things (us) better.


  2. Love this. I was a kid living in OR when she blew, so I never experienced her pre-eruption majesty. However, the husband and I appreciate the unique beauty that she offers today. It’s an amazing thing to hike St. Helens one weekend and Rainier the next. Two starkly different environments, each breathtaking in their own right. I’m certainly not trying to pimp my blog, but you may like a recent post I wrote about a hike to Harry’s Ridge:


  3. Thanks for the pictorial of the big event. I did not live in the state of Washington that year, but moved to Spokane the following year. I was pretty surprised that there would still be traces of ash in a city across the state a year after the event.


  4. Great pictures of The Mountain. They bring back lots of memories for me.

    As it was for you, Mt. St. Helens was always a special place for me. My first recollection of the Mountain was back in the 50s when my dad took me up there. I remember camping on Spirit Lake and my dad doing his strong man act by lifting a huge (to a 5 year old) boulder over his head – it was pumice of course. The first solo driving trip I took after I got my drivers license was up to timberline on a snowy Saturday in March 1968. I spent my first two Spring breaks from UW classes snow camping and cross country skiing at Mt. St. Helens. I climbed the mountain in 1972. My first wife and I winter camped at timberline several times in the late 70s. My last visit to the mountain before the May 18th eruption was a week earlier when I went up on the south side and took pictures of small epuptions. I was in Seattle on May 18th, 1980, but drove down to Napavine (where my parents lived). I got some great pictures of the eruption from the 13th street overpass in Chehalis. Since 1980 I have been back to Mt. St Helens many times, but not since 2008. I hope to visit again soon.

    Thanks for the memories.


    1. Thank you for your memories, Todd. My mom, who was in Tennessee on May 18, knew before my dad did that the mountain had erupted. It was a cloudy day, and there was no ash toward Centralia from that one and he had no idea. She returned home on the day of the subsequent one that hit Centralia, and had to stay in Tacoma because cars couldn’t run in the stuff. She took the train down the next day. My dad was shoveling the roof when she got home.


  5. I love this story (You tell it so well, and the photos are great!) and am trying to share it with w friend w/ whom Bob and I visited Mt. St. Helens years ago, but I can’t get the site address to work . Any ideas? Sally


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