I knew her before she blew. It wasn’t my fault. I have an alibi. I had descended to just below the summit of Mount Hood, next volcano south of St. Helens. Unfortunately I was on the south side, the wrong side of the mountain, and missed having the best seat in the house by exactly eight minutes.
I spent quite a bit of time on St. Helens in the few years I lived in Portland before the eruption. It wasn’t a high mountain as Northwest Volcanoes go, and not a very technical climb, and I soloed her several times for fitness, and pleasure. It was a short drive from Portland and I went often. We were still new lovers, when she began to rumble and belch ash. Soon she wasn’t so pretty anymore, smudged with black and shedding great avalanches of snow, ballooning in an unflattering, and threatening way. I stopped going to see her when the area closed. Good thing. Hoping for a break in the awful Northwest spring weather earlier this week (will summer ever come?), Claire and I slept in Turtle at a disused log landing near the mountain. The next morning we began to ride fairly early, and encountered only a few sprinkles. We were wet with sweat and beginning to chill by the time we gained Johnston Ridge, but had extra clothes. Our Arizona blood is beginning to thicken a bit, but just a bit. The crater socked in, so we didn’t stay long, but were able to get a few photos on the return ride, when the clouds broke fitfully a few times.
I skied to a nearby ridge with friends the first February following the eruption. We snow camped with fantastic views of the still actively growing central plug. It glowed in the dark, and the splintered trees surrounding us stood out in stark gray strangeness to the white snow. During the first night we all felt an earthquake, but nobody mentioned it until late the next morning; never speak the name of Evil. It was just too scary an idea that there might be a new big eruption while exposed. There were constant belches of steam and ash from the crater. We were reluctant to leave. I never went back. I wanted to remember her that way, and a ski trip was an excellent way to say goodbye.
The eruption of Mt. St. Helens was the most spectacular and significant natural event of my lifetime, so far. I had ash on my car more than once, and lucky to witness natural history. I was also fortunate to have been not too near my mountain.
I’ve seen her at here worst, and now being recolonized with trees and wildlife. But my most treasured memories are of the perfect symmetrical cone I knew best. Someday she will rebuild that cone, but none of us will be here to see it. And, in another 10,000 years or so, she’ll blow her top again, and contribute to Earth’s surface and atmosphere, the gasses and ash that ultimately helped create the conditions that led to us. The great mandala rolls on.