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Mountains of Mayhem

We couldn’t see a sausage. About 10 miles into the 50-mile ‘504’ road that led from the I5 freeway all the way up to Mount St. Helen’s edge, it became plaintively clear that all we were going to experience today was the inside of a white cloud. For the second time on this trip, Mother Nature was going lay our plans to waste. I didn’t mind the Hurricane so much in Miami, that was at least something to write home about, but being thwarted by a drizzly, foggy whiteout was just a bit insulting. Another volcanic explosion and we would have saved face; or maybe a tornado or an El Nino-generated rainstorm would have sufficed. Nope, we weren’t going to see one foot of Mount St. Helens because of a bloody cloud. We had stopped at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Centre, 5 miles back, but it was closed. A few other hapless tourists drove aimlessly around the car park, and just like us, probably felt like prized goons because they hadn’t checked the opening times in advance. It was quite wooded around the shores of the visitor centre at Silver Lake, so we couldn’t see what was in store for us further ahead. But now, around the 20-mile marker, driving along the ‘504’ road which paralleled the Toutle River below, it all became crystal clear, or not, as it turned out. As the drizzle drizzled down, as drizzle does so well, I flicked the windscreen wipers of the Ford Taurus up another notch. There were so many wiper speeds on this car, about 15 I’m sure, that I couldn’t help thinking that if you ever encountered a number 15 rainstorm, driving would probably not be a good idea. At number 15, I think it would time to get the scuba gear on. Optimistically we drove on, through the big white blancmange, in the vain hope of a meteorological miracle. After nearly 40 miles we stopped at the second newly built visitor centre – Coldwater Ridge. At the entrance we bought our ticket off one of the park wardens. I made a glib, sarcastic comment about the weather, to which he had no reply, but by the look on his face, he obviously felt guilty that the mountain had let everyone down today. Still, in the hazy mist we could make out snapped and uprooted trees and a kind of barren desolation below. Avalanche damming from the explosion formed Coldwater Lake, which we could just make out below us. Squinting my eyes into the distance, I was sure I caught fleeting glimpses of the mighty mountain, like the ghostly Brocken specter, it was probably a mirage of my desire. We left with a few souvenirs and continued on up the ‘504’. Ten miles later, and with the visibility down to 50 metres or so, we arrived at the Johnston Ridge observatory, apparently only 5.5 miles from the crater, but it could easily have been 50 miles. Still we made the most of it, looking at the interesting exhibitions, especially the stories of those that escaped and sadly, like the geologist David Johnston, those who died. There was a 15-minute movie show in a large purpose-built theatre, which satisfied our senses and filled the gaps in our knowledge of the history of this mountain. It started by playing Johnston’s chilling last radio message – “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” – while showing an impressive morphed montage of Rosenquist’s still photographs, which truly brought the power of the event to life. The piece de resistance and surprise ending to this show was the projection screen automatically retracting into the roof to reveal enormous glass windows behind, as the daylight streamed into the theatre. A bunch of school kids started laughing. I’m sure it’s usually spectacular, watching this mini-movie, all the while unsuspecting that at the end, the ‘curtain’ will rise and hey presto, there’s the real Mount St. Helen’s in all her majesty through the windows. All we could see was a big white nothingness. We drove back down the mountain and checked into the Mount St. Helen’s Motel on the edge of the I5 freeway. The garish red and yellow sign that attracted us to this establishment was subtitled with the rather catchy phrase – “HOPE YOU HAD A BLAST”. We were wet, disappointed and wet and disappointed. The motel was nestled in amongst a tacky and gaudy collection of fast food outlets, cheap accommodation and quick-buck amusement centres. My favourite exclaimed – ” GIANT SCREEN…Experience the Eruption, Mount St. Helen’s erupts here every 45 minutes!” Pretty exhausted, we vegged out, watched TV and had an early night.

I awoke at about 8am. I pulled the blinds apart to sneak a peak at the weather outside. It was as foggy as hell. As far as I was concerned, that was it. We were just going to have to settle with what little we saw yesterday. I was pretty disappointed to say the least, but I figured somewhat optimistically that we could always come back. Nodding our head to the American culture that we were in the thick of, we jumped into the car and promptly drove 100 metres to the Burger King establishment across the road. There we devoured the dubiously named Franco-American “croissandwich”, which was a rubbery concoction of sausage and cheese – it tasted beautiful by the way – for breakfast. We took our time, drove back to the motel and rang ahead to sort out accommodation in Vancouver and San Francisco, which were soon approaching on our crammed itinerary. I thought I’d make one last phone call before we packed our bags and headed north to Seattle. If I wasn’t an eternal optimist, I wouldn’t have even bothered, but something told me to give it a shot. I looked up the number for Coldwater Ridge Visitor Centre and gave them a ring.

“Good morning, Coldwater Ridge Visitor Centre” was the cheery greeting.

“Oh, hi. I was just wondering what the weather was like up there on the mountain?” I asked, not expecting a positive reply.

“Well, the sun’s out and we’ve got pretty good views of Mount St. Helens, the whole mountain is visible in fact” was the surprise return.

“Is it raining at all?” I queried

“Nope, it’s very dry and clear. Quite a surprise after all the rain of the last few days” said the park warden.

I looked out of the motel window, just wondering for a minute whether we were talking about the same day, i.e. today.

“You mean it’s clear up there?”

“Yep, it’s clear!”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

We packed our stuff up and checked out of the Mount St. Helens Motel, and in a matter of minutes were racing the 50 miles up the ‘504’ road to Johnston Ridge Observatory. What a difference a day makes. For some reason all the fog was just hanging down near the village and no sooner had we cleared the Mount St. Helen’s Visitor Centre and driven out of the forest, we could see blue sky all around. There was so much moisture in the lowland forest, the sun was busy evaporating it and creating an enormous fog cloud, making me think when I looked out of the window that things hadn’t improved one iota from the day before. Where once I was blind, now I could see. In a 24-hour period, I hardly recognised the same road. All around was magnificent scenery. Douglas and Noble firtrees lined the initial few miles as we snaked around the lower reaches of the Toutle River. We passed over the magnificent new multi-million dollar bridge at Hoffstadt Bluffs, where yesterday I wouldn’t have even noticed there was a bridge. A sign ominously declared that we were entering the ‘blast zone’. As we rounded a few turns, the road hugging the north side of the river valley below, my anticipation was building. To our right, the width of the Toutle River was quite literally dwarfed by the dirty-brown solidified mudflow, stuck like a vast flood plain of melted chocolate to the valley floor. My gaze fixed upon this bizarre marriage of geomorphologic textures and colours; the moist greenery of the temperate forest and the brown treacle below it. I tried to imagine the terrible scene in 1980, as a wall of boiling mud smashed it’s way down to the Columbia River, killing fish stocks and wiping out houses caught in it’s great wake. I glanced up to the road again and fixed my gaze into the distance. She caught me completely by surprise, just as she did 20 years ago to the residents of Washington State. ‘She’ was Mount St. Helens. Mount St. bloody Helens! Bloody fantastic if you ask me. It is hard to describe seeing this mountain for the first time, after it having first entered my consciousness as an inquisitive twelve year old. There are indeed more aesthetic mountains, there are certainly taller mountains and more impressive volcanoes, even active ones, constantly spewing molten lava. However, Mount St. Helens imprinted itself on the national psyche of America and made headline news around the world because of the destructive nature of the explosion, its proximity to a major city (Seattle) and the ensuing excess of media coverage. The moment of destruction was also caught on camera, albeit a still camera, but the composite images of the mountain collapsing are one of the most enduring images attesting to the destructive nature of volcanoes. Indeed the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) rates Mount St. Helens amongst the 20 most explosive volcanic events of the last 500 years. But Mount St. Helens was much more than a convenient segment for the evening news. It had a human story entwined in its vast geological and natural history. It was a picture-postcard perfect place of Mount Fuji-esque beauty. An impossibly gorgeous snow-capped mountain, surrounded by mature forests of Douglas and Noble Firtrees, where generations of families came for their summer holidays. Some probably stayed at Harry Truman’s lodge at Spirit Lake and walked the forest trails, where they might have come across a Brown bear foraging for berries, or heard a woodpecker’s bill crashing against the bark of a 300 year-old pine tree. The look and feel of Mount St. Helens before 1980 is best summed up by a black and white photograph of Spirit Lake taken in 1963. In the foreground, a lone kayaker paddles across the lake, silhouetted against the calm waters. Towards the lake shore behind him is a small group of cabins dwarfed by extensive pine forests on both sides. In the background, dominating the scene, is the timeless beauty of a snow-capped conical Mount St. Helens, its glacial fingers winding down the mountain’s flanks. The power of this photograph is entirely in the imagination, for this scene no longer exists. It is an image for which everyone can feel a certain nostalgia towards. Compare this photograph to a picture taken from the same place today and the differences are startlingly clear. The top 1300ft of the mountain has disappeared and it looks as if someone has scooped a 2000ft deep crater, 2 miles wide, from the heart of the mountain. To imagine all this happening in a matter of seconds is truly astounding. As we drove closer to the mountain up the new 504 road or ‘Spirit Lake Memorial Highway’ as it’s now called, a few fluffy cumulus clouds circled the volcano about a 1000ft below the summit crater rim. We were still 15 miles as the crow flies from the mountain, but my appreciation of the sheer power of Mother Nature was growing with each bend in the road. For this area is the edge of what has been termed the ‘blast zone’. I looked at the mountain in the distance. It seemed serene and quite far away still, but this was a cruel deception. Here, the valley sides are scattered with freshly planted seedling trees that are thriving on the fresh volcanic soil. Evidence of the lateral air blast is all but gone here as this area is outside the boundaries of the National Volcanic Monument, with most of the downed trees having been retrieved by the logging companies. However, there are a few noticeable stumps and patches of dead wood strewn on the ground as evidence of the violent episode. We pass by North Fork Ridge, still 14 miles from the mountain. Near here, a forest worker called James Scymanky and three of his logging buddies were felling timber on that fateful morning. They needn’t have bothered. Mount St. Helens was hidden from them by the ridge but Scymanky remembers “a horrible crashing, crunching, grinding sound”, immediately before he was knocked down by the blast cloud. He was temporarily blinded by the suffocating darkness and badly burnt by the searing heat. After a couple of minutes the visibility returned and Scymanky was astonished to see all the trees were down and thick grey ash had covered everything. Scymanky lived to tell the tale, but unfortunately due to their burns, his three companions weren’t so lucky. I am amazed Scymanky survived at all because measurements have revealed that the temperature of the blast cloud at this point was still 500°F. Four miles later we pass by Elk Rock and the views of the Toutle River valley below are truly spectacular. Some campers paid heavily for these views back in 1980 with their lives, and I’m still trying to grapple with the fact that Mount St. Helens looks as though she is at a relatively safe distance. I appreciate this deception is entirely due to the fact that an explosion of the type that ripped this mountain apart is so rarely experienced by human eyes that it stands outside the realm of day to day comprehension. The valley immediately to the north of the volcano is covered with 600ft of avalanche debris, enough to completely obliterate the central business district of any medium-sized city. We drive on for a few more miles and pass a sign in the road declaring ‘Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument’. This is the west-side entrance to the park established by Congress to ‘allow for the natural recovery of the land and provide opportunities for research, recreation and education’. A little while later we park in the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center and walk towards the door. The same park warden I saw yesterday recognises me immediately, but this time greets me with a broad smile and mentions something about seeing the mountain today. He’s proud to be able to show off the mountain and I don’t blame him. At the viewing platform we have an uninterrupted view of the devastation the mountain wrought. The four-mile long Coldwater Lake below us didn’t exist prior to the mountain’s furious outburst. A natural avalanche dam, created the voluminous lake out of the small Coldwater Creek. An idea of its new size is given by the fact that tugboats were brought in to help salvage the logs in the blast area around the lake and it’s now around 180ft deep in parts. However, the serenity of the lake that greets us now is due in part to some quite unnatural interference. In 1982 this lake apparently came quite close to overflowing its young dam of loose debris and causing further devastation in the Toutle River valley below. To prevent this happening in the foreseeable future, the Army Corps of Engineers were drafted in to bore a 1.6 mile-long tunnel beneath Harry’s Ridge to Coldwater Lake, creating an artificial water-level stabiliser. Sitting forlornly in the middle of the lake is Hummock Island. This apparently slid off the north side of Mount St. Helens. I say this matter-of-factly, but looking at Mount St. Helens in the distance, it’s quite mind boggling to imagine this actually happening. Harry’s Ridge on the far side of the lake is sill strewn with fallen logs and abandoned logging machinery, damaged in the explosion.

We drive the last 10 miles to Johnston Ridge. The road winds its way down past the dam at Coldwater Lake and through the beautiful, but eerily naked landscape. We lose sight of the mountain and find ourselves in a small valley, which is a melee of burnt tree stumps, singed logs and consolidated lahars. The road begins to climb again for a couple of miles and out of the blue, a large car park marks the end of the tarmac. Walking through a man-made niche in the ridge from the car park, the Johnston Ridge Observatory comes into view on the right. It’s a low, unobtrusive, grey, concrete structure with large glass windows for viewing, just in case the weather becomes inclement. To the left, a path winds its way up the ridge to a viewpoint and directly in front of us is a truly awe-inspiring sight. We walk to the edge of the viewing platform and take it all in for a couple of minutes. A few tourists mingle past and all you can hear is the whirring of camera motor drives and the occasional whisper. Looking at Mount St. Helens from this proximity is a humbling experience. The landscape is raw. A multitude of steep-sided gullies fan down from the base of the mountain like freshly exposed gash-wounds. Streams bleed through the bottom of these gullies, fed by the melted snow covering the top of the volcano. The sides of the ridge we are standing on have been stripped naked and gouged to expose the igneous strata of eons ago. There are no trees, no bushes. The only vegetation that breaks up the browns and greys of the volcanic destruction are small dull-green patches of what looks like hard grasses from this distance. However, amongst the devastation there is also renewal. Over 90% of plant species that originally occurred in this area have returned. The elk and deer numbers were back to normal after only five years. The trees will take a little longer. There is stark contrast here, within the park boundaries to outside the monument. Private companies and the Forest Service have undergone an aggressive program of reforestation, creating a false image for the unwary of how fast the landscape really rejuvenates. Here though, within the boundaries of the National Monument, it is barren and bare, the object of this being to study nature’s own pace of renewal and indirectly creating an enormous biological laboratory. Zooming into the heart of Mount St. Helens with my video camera, I can see that it also is undergoing a period of renewal and change. A 1000ft-lava dome bulges up from the middle of the exposed crater. Steam appears to be rising from parts of its flanks as the snow on the white dome is heated past boiling point. Like Anak Krakatoa before it, Mount St Helens appears to be giving birth to a new mountain. For 40,000 years this cycle of destruction and renewal has been occurring and undoubtedly it will happen again. We walk to the top of the ridge and take one final look around. I take a look at the mountain 5 miles away, turn 180 degrees and look at a ridge in the distance, at least another 5 miles away. There is nothing but blown down trees, strewn all over the hills like matchsticks. It is really difficult to imagine the force behind all this destruction. In front of me, indeed, all around me are the remains of what were once mature pine trees. Snapped like twigs, the dead, grey stumps will stand as a permanent testament to the power of that blast. There is a sadness in leaving this place. I would like to think that one day I will return to visit this mountain again. If only to remind myself that life is a fleeting gift, but my words are insufficient to convey this thought. I shall leave this to Nancy Ashutz who used to own an old A-frame house near Harry Truman’s lodge and spent summer holidays there with her husband and children. She wrote the following in trying to sum up her feelings when she looks at Mount St. Helens today:

“I feel only joy. Joy in the fact that I had the opportunity to enjoy these wonderful and beautiful experiences. These are memories I will treasure forever. Joy is knowing you are alive to spend your children’s lives with them. The newfound knowledge that material things are immaterial; one of the greatest lessons one can ever learn!”

Adrian Walsh, The Anglo-Australian author is currently writing a book about a six-month trip he took around the world. He lives and works in Sydney.

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