The shadow of Fire Mountain

When Mount St Helens erupted in May 1980, Rob Carson witnessed its awesome power and devastating destruction. As the volcano sparks back to life, he recalls the impact of the blast - and its shattering aftermath
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On 17 May 1980, Mount St Helens was a symmetrical cone, a mountain so close to perfection that it was sometimes called "America's Mount Fujiyama". Photographers loved St Helens because it looked the way a mountain is supposed to look: smooth sides, pointed crest, fluted topping of snow. At its base, a clear blue-green lake reflected an upside down image of the mountain precisely enough to cause vertigo. It was made for calendars and postcards.

By the evening of 18 May, Mount St Helens was a smoking crater, hollowed out and grey. It looked defiled, like the victim of some grisly crime. The peak had burst into volcanic eruption at 8.32 that morning, exploding sideways with a blast so powerful that it knocked down trees 17 miles away.

When the ash cleared, the mountain had dropped in rank from Washington state's fifth-highest peak, at 9,677ft, to its 30th highest, at 8,364ft. Fanning out to the north was a 231-square mile swath of destruction so bleak that it defied earthly comparisons: the best analogies were extraterrestrial ones. As President Jimmy Carter noticed, along with the many journalists who rushed to the scene from as far away as New Zealand and Japan, the zone of destruction resembled the surface of the Moon.

Pulverised bits of mountain driven by hurricane-force winds had stripped the soil from the hillsides, leaving bare rock. Every plant was vaporised or torn away. Clear lakes became tea-coloured swamps, littered with broken trees. Miles from the volcano, entire forests lay scattered like straw, the fallen trunks sandblasted smooth. Volcanic ash, finer than beachsand, shrouded parts of four states. Fifty-seven people were dead, and millions of birds, deer, elk and fish.

What was unusual about the eruption of Mount St Helens, aside from the lateral direction of the blast, was that it had taken place in a developed country, and that the mountain was clearly visible from the skyscrapers and universities of the American Northwest's two largest cities, Seattle and Portland.

The eruption was regarded as a disaster, but as an opportunity too. It was a window into the earth, transportation through time to a primordial era. People rushed to the mountain, both fascinated and terrified. In the days after the blast, news photographers fought for access to helicopters. Scientists and would-be scientists, along with tourists and reporters, stormed the barricades set up around the edges of the blast zone, wheedling, cajoling and threatening the guards to let them in. Mount St Helens was the most closely watched, most photographed and best scientifically documented volcanic eruption in history.

Afterwards, a seemingly insatiable market developed for volcano memorabilia - ash pottery, bumper stickers, T-shirts, postcards and picture books. Portland Community College offered a class called "How to Paint Pictures with Volcanic Ash". So many people mailed samples of ash to friends around the country that the spillage from broken packages jammed letter-sorting equipment in post offices.

Cars caught in the blast, their lights and instruments melted into hanging globules of plastic, became tourist attractions. So did ruined homes. In the mud-choked Toutle River valley, one enterprising man whose home had been spared hung a sign on the house of his not-so-lucky neighbour: "Walk Through the Buried A-Frame!" A man from Cleveland, Ohio called the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Department to offer a young woman as a human sacrifice to appease the volcanic gods.

The extent of land destruction was not that vast when viewed in context. It amounted to less than 0.7 per cent of the forested land in Washington. If the entire state were a chessboard, the blast zone would have fitted easily into one-quarter of a square. But the psychological impacts were much greater. The eruption changed the way people structured their personal histories: it was a fulcrum in the span of time, an event of such magnitude that others were measured by it. People who were living in the Pacific Northwest in 1980 remember where they were and what they were doing when the mountain blew, as clearly as they remember Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John F Kennedy.

Mount St Helens altered the way Northwesterners regarded their surroundings, bringing an element of insecurity to a region where nature had seemed benevolent. The volcano caused people to call into question some strongly held beliefs - that mountains are eternal, for example, and that nature is benign. The Cascade peaks, lined up like innocent dollops of whipped cream from California to British Columbia, were suddenly seen as threats. People were made painfully aware that nature can be unpredictable and deadly.

"If the Holocaust didn't do it, the blast of this mountain would have flattened any remnant of faith based on the natural world," wrote the Rev Arthur Morgan, a minister from the nearby town of Kelso. "Such a faith has been rendered absurd. In a world where mountains wash into the sea, our marriage, job, economy and government appear all the more vulnerable. What remains secure?''

The clergyman's faith may have been shaken, but it was not destroyed. The true foundation, he said, was rebirth. Flowers were bursting out of the ash a week after the eruption. "It is this push of life towards life that allows us to speak of God,'' he said. "Despite the apparent eternal beauty of the lakes and the everlasting appearance of the mountain, the only certainty is the spirit of life, which is greater than all these things."

Others did not find the connection so easy to make. Studies on the psychological effects of the eruption on communities close to Mount St Helens indicated widespread depression, which in some cases persisted for years after the blast. People suffered from troubled sleep, jumpiness, irritability and a sense of powerlessness. They felt rage, hopelessness and grief over the deaths of friends and family, and guilt that they themselves had survived.

Psychologists differ on the subject, but most believe that post-traumatic stresses do not last long. People tend to wrap themselves in more comfortable thoughts. The impact of disaster is gradually diluted until it disappears. Nature, likewise, heals its wounds. According to biologists, in 100 years' time it will be difficult to see any effects of this volcanic devastation.

The most lasting effects of the Mount St Helens eruption may be those in science. After the explosion, the volcano and the area around it became a vast outdoor laboratory for biologists and geologists. Observation of the interaction of species that struggled back into the blast zone has brought revelations about the very nature of life.

The eruption also led to a revolution in volcanology. By watching Mount St Helens and monitoring every shudder and exhalation, geologists gained a better understanding of how volcanoes work. As a direct result of the blast, the US Geological Survey established a major research centre in Vancouver, Washington, which now serves as a base for monitoring all the Cascade range volcanoes, and as an international centre for volcano research.

The brand of science practised there is still in its infancy. In 1792, when George Vancouver and his crew first sighted Mount St Helens from the deck of the Discovery, many Europeans still clung to the notion that volcanoes were caused by burning coal, deep underground. Others, in that more religious age, believed volcanoes were gateways to the infernal regions and imagined Lucifer sitting enthroned in the flames. The lava that burst forth was believed to come from the fires of Hell, and the noise was the shrieks and groans of damned souls.

That view was not significantly different from those held by native Northwest Indians. These people, whose ancestors had occupied the land around the Cascade range for perhaps 10,000 years before Europeans arrived, regarded Mount St Helens with a mix of fear and awe, as might be expected for a mountain that periodically sent great plumes into the heavens and caused ash to fall from the sky. The people who lived in the shadow of the mountain believed that volcanic outbursts were divine retribution for their personal failings, or the fallout of warring spirit gods. They called the mountain Loo-wit (keeper of the fire), Lawelatla (one from whom smoke comes) or Tah-one-lat-clah (fire mountain).

Northwest Indians generally stayed away from Mount St Helens, believing that approaching it was a risk not only to themselves but to all life. There is no indication that any native person climbed to the summit before the Europeans arrived. Apparently, the only time tribal members would even go near the mountain was on the occasion of spirit quests. Young men would venture to the tree line and there - knees shaking, hearts pounding - they would absorb mana from the great spirit within.

According to John Staps, a Klickitat Indian who led a party of white people to the summit in 1860 (and lived the rest of his life in shame for having done so): "When an Indian boy wished to be received into the council of the brave of his nation, he would ascend the mountain peak as far up as the grass grows, and there prove his bravery by walking to and fro in [the] presence of the Spirit which governs the mountain until morning. Old men and brave warriors greeted him, and welcomed him into their secret councils. He was no longer a tenas man [adolescent], but a great brave."

© 'The News Tribune', 1990, 2000. Adapted from 'Mount St Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano', by Rob Carson: with permission from Sasquatch Books