On May 18, 1980 the Earth groaned beneath Mount Saint Helens in southwest Washington state as a magnitude 5.1 earthquake walloped the Cascades’ youngest volcano and triggered one of the largest landslides ever recorded.

As the land moved, the entire north slope of the 9,677-foot mountain fell away, exposing the volcano’s core and provoking gigantic explosions of steam, ash and rock. It’s a blast that leveled forests, melted glaciers and caused devastating mudflows that surged down the mountain’s flanks as ash shot 80,000 feet into the atmosphere and blanketed eastern Washington beneath feet of silty pyroclastic debris. Fifty-seven people and countless wild creatures died.

Because of its symmetry, the conical contours of Mount Saint Helens were said to be the most beautiful of the Cascades’ picturesque volcanoes, the “Mount Fugi of the West.” But when the 1980 eruption removed its highest 1,312 feet, the volcano’s appearance became more that of a squat Sumo wrestler than the sleek-lined ninja it had been. The mountain’s north side, where the earth crumbled and the volcano exploded, boasts an impressive mile-across horseshoe-shaped crater. But its south side still has smooth, undulating slopes and sleek, treeless lines. Perfect for climbing. Perfect for skiing.

The Climb

Because the eruption removed the accumulation zones of Mount Saint Helens’ glaciers, all of the climbing routes to the crater rim are considered non-technical. The ice that remains doesn’t move much and is relatively uncrevassed.

At more than 5,500 feet of elevation gain from the Marble Mountain Snow Park to the crater rim, climbing Mount Saint Helens is a big undertaking, but for those willing to schlep their gear it’s also a fantastic intermediate- to advanced-level ski back down.

When Mount Saint Helens erupted I was 7 years old and hadn’t yet even heard of a pair of skis, but the eruption was an event captured by my young imagination. Images of flattened forests, slate-gray skies and ash-buried towns flickered across my parents’ black-and-white television screen. And then with time, as with all things removed from sight and sound, the volcano slipped from my thoughts. As the residents of the Pacific Northwest went about the business of digging out their towns, mourning those lost and monitoring ongoing eruptions—which have continued to as recently as July 2008—I went about the business of being an Appalachian-bred boy.

This summer, 31 years later, my curiosity and need for a mid-summer adventure returned my focus to the volcano that had captured my childhood imagination

The day dawned, sort of, in Portland, where I gazed out a friend’s guest bedroom window at 4:30 a.m to discover the sky had been overrun by a gray drizzle. Discouraged I considered searching for the nearest paperback and espresso machine, but my Portland friends were resolute. “If you wait for good weather to get outside around here, you’ll never leave the house,” they said.

Mt. St. Helens Worm Flows and Swift Glacier. Photo by Greg Stahl.
Swift Glacier. Photo © Greg Stahl.
The standard climb on Mount Saint Helens’ southern face is called the Worm Flows and ascends Swift Glacier from around tree line to the crater rim. Clouds persisted, but the rain waned, and as I climbed into the fog the mountain’s hard volcanic edges grew soft in the diffused light. Cornices emerged from the mist and vanished just as delicately as they’d appeared. Subtle swells of light ebbed and flowed. The soft outline of a cliff face. The subtle edges of a snow creased ridge. The mountain was windless and soundless, motionless and obscured from view. It was like being on an inappropriately intimate first date. She hid far more than she showed, but we were close just the same.

And as the footsteps fell away in meditative cadence the glare gradually mounted until, at some point I failed to fully notice despite a desire to do so, I was marching beneath deep blue skies, a cottony blanket spreading south and east to two more of the Cascades’ big volcanoes: Hood and Adams. The transformation was abrupt but the transition too subtle to discern.

An hour later, we plodded the final steps onto the crater rim, the solid quilt of clouds down beginning to tatter and tear, breaking into thousands of little puffs, and revealing the Cascades’ wooded valleys 5,000 feet beneath our feet. Mount Saint Helens’ huge horseshoe-shaped crater yawned to the north toward the imposing bulk of Mount Rainier, the highest and largest of the range’s volcanoes. Beyond the crater lay a wasteland of treeless ash and the azure blue of Spirit Lake. Vents in the crater spewed steam, and there was a difficult-to-describe sense that we were tangibly close to a potent and prolific force.

My friends having decided to glissade rather than ski, they departed the crater rim before me, and I lounged there long enough to be the day’s final climber. Then I buckled my boots and clicked into a pair of skis. What had taken five hours to climb took 20 minutes to descend on fantastic mid-summer corn.

The Volcano

According to Valarie Smith, who lived at Silver Lake 25 miles west of Mount Saint Helens and was 9 when it erupted, the volcano was a formative force in her family’s lives. Many of her ancestors are buried in the family cemetery on the bank of Silver Lake, where the mountain’s lore runs deep.

“I now live within sight of the mountain and visit her as often as possible,” Smith reflects at her website, The Many faces of Mt. St. Helens, where she has compiled compelling biographies of the eruption’s victims. “…it was an important event in my life. It helped to shape who I’ve become.”[1]

Smith reports that before Europeans settled the West, Mount Saint Helens was considered sacred to the area’s tribes, which had borne witness to its destructive behavior over time. They christened it with names like Lawelatla, “One From Whom Smoke Comes;” Louwala-Clough, “Smoking Mountain;” Tah-one-lat-clah, “Fire Mountain;” and, most common, Loo-wit, “Keeper of the Fire.”

Their spirituality deeply ingrained from generations of interaction with the raw forces of plate tectonics, the natives refused to fish in Spirit Lake, believing the fish had heads like bears and captured the souls of those who committed evil deeds. They also believed the lake’s shores were home to a band of demons. Only young warriors seeking to prove themselves dared climb to timberline and spend a frightful night. Later, as white settlers laid claim to the land, legends grew that the mountain’s evil spirits punished the tribes for allowing the outsiders to stay.

But when Mount Saint Hellens grew fitfully angry in May 1980 and 3 billion cubic yards of mud, ash and glaciers came showering down most of her human victims were white. Native Washingtonian Toni Swogger remembers one of them in a biography posted at Smith’s site:

Robert Lynds “was shy and kept to himself quite a bit. But he was a real sweet heart. Very soft spoken, polite and always had a shy smile for us . . . Like many folks I think the threat of the mountain blowing was not a reality for Robert. He was a real ‘natures (sic.) child’ with shoulder length hair, a laid back manner, and just wanted to get away with his new girlfriend. He had a new happiness about him and I can only guess he had found new love. He was kind, sweet and would do anything for anyone. All of his friends were really saddened when the mountain blew that Sunday because we knew he’d gone camping and we just knew he was gone.”

But as with all things, the cycles of renewal and regrowth assumed their age-old patterns in the wake of the blast. Plant life poked its way through thick layers of ash, and deer, elk and other large animals were drawn to the newly growing forage. An elk herd that numbered 1,500 prior to the eruption returned threefold by the mid-1990s, and the animals dropped seeds and nutrients in their scat. Seeds blew into the ash from the think stands of timeless forest nearby.

“Ecologists had assumed rebirth would happen from the outside in, as species from border areas encroached on the blast zone. But recovery has also come from within,” writes McKenzie Funk in the May 2010 issue of National Geographic. “Starting with a single plant [Forest Service ecologist Charlie]  Crisafulli discovered in 1981 on the barren, 3,750-acre expanse known as the Pumice Plain, purple prairie lupines became the first color in a world of sterile gray. In life they were nutrient factories, food for insects, habitat for mice and voles; in death they, and the organisms they attracted, enriched the ash, allowing other species to colonize. Gradually the blast zone began to bloom.”[2]

It’s a transition that’s something like climbing a mountain, where clouds and light play in subtle swirls and views shift with each passing step, too gradual to notice but unmistakable and somehow sudden all the same.

“The only thing permanent,” Smith writes of her beloved mountain, “is change.”

While the return of plants and animals to the area devastated by Mount Saint Helens’ eruption has been gradual in a place forever altered by forces difficult to comprehend, it is not unlike the slow, deliberate cadence of footsteps that lifts a climber from the clouds onto the volcano’s high snow-smeared shoulder, where the sky is blue and renewed perspective easy.

An abrupt transition too subtle to discern.

© Greg Stahl

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1. Valarie A. Smith. The Many faces of Mt. St. Helens, A native Washingtonian’s look at the reawakening of Mount St. Helens. www.olywa.net. Accessed July 13, 2011.

2. McKenzie Funk. Mountain Transformed. National Geographic, May 2010. ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/05/mount-st-helens/funk-text. Accessed July 15, 2011.