Mount Saint Helens erupted May 18, 1980

Today is the anniversary of the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens in southwest Washington State.  This is one of those amazing events that everybody that was teenage or older at that time will remember from the dramatic news footage.

Last year we got to visit Washington State and do some hiking at Mount Saint Helens.

Following is an article that originally appeared in the Enterprise-Journal newspaper while we were hiking at Saint Helens.

The mountain that we know as Mount Saint Helens in southwest Washington State has been called Louwala-Clough or Loowit – both names meaning “Smoking mountain.”

Before the infamous 1980 eruption, Saint Helens was a beautifully symmetric, snow-capped cone almost 10000 feet tall.  It was such a picture perfect mountain that it had been called “the Mount Fuji of the West.” That changed suddenly on May 18, 1980.

The mountain had been grumbling and belching for months, so geologists knew something was going on but they could not predict the intensity.  A geologist was actually flying over the mountain, looking down at it when it erupted and she said it looked, “like God had just unzipped the top of the mountain.”

The eruption decapitated the mountain, blasting more than 1400 feet of the uppermost slopes toward the north-northwest and creating a kill zone of nearly 200 square miles.

The blast and the pyroclastic flow of debris scoured all of the trees and soil off of the south-facing sides of nearby hills and deposited all that material in nearby Spirit Lake, raising the lakebed by 200 feet and choking it with trees that are still lying in that lake today.

I was 11 years old when I watched the newscasts of that eruption in May of 1980.  I was fascinated by all things science, and I scoured every page of the Ranger Rick and Discover Magazines that my folks subscribed me to – so the geologic power of St. Helens was fascinating.  But despite my love of science and geology, that infamous eruption of Mount Saint Helens eventually faded into the dark recesses of my memory as I graduated High School and went to college.

Until earlier this year!  Elise and I had just returned from climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania Africa and we were in full recuperation mode complete with thousand-yard stares and ravenous hiker hunger.

In the midst of our recuperation, a buddy of mine who lives in Washington State sent me a message asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool for you to climb both Kilimanjaro AND Mount Saint Helens in the same year?  That would be major bragging points for you!”

My immediate response was, “No, that doesn’t sound fun at all.  Leave me alone.” but sure enough, his suggestion started eating on me and I started reading up on Mount Saint Helens a little bit and a couple of days later I sent him a message back saying, “I’d love to climb Mount Saint Helens with you.”

Unlike Kilimanjaro, you do Mount Saint Helens as one long day-hike.  Most folks start sometime just after midnight (depending on how fast they plan to hike) so that they can get to the tree line and the beginning of the boulder field right at dawn.  That way they’ll have as much daylight as possible to finish the climb and descent before dark.

We started making plans and found that you have to have a permit to climb past the treeline to the summit and that the rangers are known to strictly enforce those permits.  So we started looking at getting permits and it turns out that the ancient computerized permitting system was kaput and would come back online in about two weeks.

Well, on the designated day, my buddy and I were chomping at the bit to get our summit permits, and he logged on within a couple of hours of the computers coming online and found that all the summit permits for months to come had been sold in less than an hour!

Sometime later another hiking buddy told me that there was a permit-trading website ( where people would sell or trade permits if they wanted to climb on some other day than the one for which they had a permit.  My climbing buddy checked that out and there was only one permit available for that day.

So it was decided for us.  We would not be summiting Mount Saint Helens this time – but we are still free to hike any of the trails below the treeline without a permit.

When you read this, Elise and I will be in Washington State trekking around on the lower slopes on and around Mount Saint Helens and getting our first ever views of the Pacific Ocean at Cape Disappointment and Long Island Washington.  Stay tuned for stories from this adventure.

People keep asking me, “Aren’t you afraid that mountain is going to blow up again while you’re on it?”

Not really.  I guess it is certainly a possibility whenever anyone goes tromping around on an active volcano.  I’m thinking that the science and technology of geological prediction has improved dramatically in the last 40 years.  Besides – if it does erupt with us on it maybe they’ll name something cool after us like they did with the Johnston Ridge Observatory (David Johnston was a geologist that was camped doing research five miles NNW of the mountain, dead center of the blast zone, when it erupted.)

How does the Roaming Parkers Observatory sound?