Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Blast from the Past

Memories are faulty, and the faults of mine seem to be showing. For years, I have been telling listeners what may or may not be a true story about my experiences on the morning of Sunday, May 18, 1980--30 years ago today. I thought I recalled getting up early, having a bit of breakfast, and then descending the stairs of my apartment building in downtown Portland, Oregon. As was frequently the case, I was running late for my job with Willamette Week, the city’s principal “alternative” newspaper. As I left my building and started toward town, I noticed there was a remarkable amount of what looked like dust scattered everywhere--on the sidewalks, in the street gutters, blowing off of windowsills. Then it hit me: Mount St. Helens, located 50 miles northeast of the city, in the Cascade Range, had blown its top, just as news reports and geologists predicted it would. I was wading through volcanic ash.

So much for memory. After researching that initial Mount St. Helens blast, I realize that Portland was spared its ill effects. In fact, Portlanders didn’t even hear the mountain explode, thanks to an odd “quiet zone” phenomenon. (Wikipedia explains that “This so-called quiet zone extended radially a few tens of miles from the volcano and was created by the complex response of the eruption’s sound waves to differences in temperature and air motion of the atmospheric layers and, to a lesser extent, local topography.”) The peak erupted that morning at 8:32 a.m. PST. There’s simply no way the ash could have reached my hometown in quantity by the time I was speeding off for work. Furthermore, reports say that winds spared Portland on that first day, carrying the ash eastward instead. Not until mid-June was the Rose City dusted by St. Helens’ spewing.

Maybe, then, I’m conflating two incidents: the initial explosion, and Portland’s eventual ash dusting, which caused many people in Oregon’s largest city--including me--to don protective masks (which, believe me, was hardly a favorable fashion statement).

If so, I stand chastened.

My personal recollections of May 18, 1980, though, are insignificant compared with the historic volcanic events themselves. For weeks prior to the big blow-up there had been newspaper and television stories about steam venting in large quantities from Mount St. Helens. Earthquakes had been felt around the mountain, flaming gases were spotted, and almost all of the people who made their homes nearby--with such notable exceptions as irascible innkeeper Harry R. Truman--had evacuated from around the suddenly rumbling peak. Yet the idea that a volcano--one that had sat dormant for 123 years--might explode in our vicinity in the late 20th century seemed, well, incredible. Many Portlanders were convinced there would eventually be an anticlimax to the whole story, that the then 9,677-foot-high mountain would conclude its geological tantrum with a whimper, and our lives would return to normal.

No such luck. That morning, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake provoked a mammoth landslide on St. Helens’ north face, exposing partially molten rock and causing an explosion of lava that toppled forests and plunged into once-tourist-friendly Spirit Lake. A column of volcanic ash and gases skyrocketed 8,000 feet into the atmosphere. Over the coming weeks, that ash spread across 11 U.S. states, while melting glaciers on St. Helens precipitated mudslides and swelled adjacent rivers, turning them into sluggish gray snakes upon the landscape.

The explosion was so violent, it ripped 1,314 feet from the mountain’s summit and created a horseshoe-shaped crater where a symmetrical, snowcapped peak had once risen.

Mount St. Helens had become the Lucy Westenra of alpine eminences, a formerly beautiful and sweet-natured landmark transformed into a monster. Fifty-seven people were killed (including the aforementioned Mr. Truman) by the blast, and some 200 homes were destroyed. All life was decimated within an 18-mile zone. And more than 4 billion board feet of timber were felled and damaged (about a quarter of that later to be salvaged). Commercial air flights were cancelled in the area and Interstate 90, connecting Seattle to Spokane, was closed for more than a week, due to poor visibility.

President Jimmy Carter, touring the devastation long after the original eruption and several later explosive events, remarked: “Someone said this area looked like a moonscape. But the Moon looks more like a golf course compared to what’s up there.”

Carter wasn’t the only person who wanted to see what had become of Mount St. Helens. Perhaps a week after the May 18 eruption, my brother, Matt, and I drove up Interstate 5 from Portland to see what had become of the now-infamous peak. We couldn’t get very close, but we at least obtained a clearer view of the ash column, and saw the blackened surrounding countryside.

Two years later, with the mountain at least temporarily quiet once more, Matt and I decided to climb St. Helens. It wasn’t Matt’s first trip up the slope, but it was mine. I hope my memories of that expedition are keener than they are of May 1980. I recall that we went with a childhood friend of Matt’s, and that the ascent was more arduous than I’d expected. It was a warm, sunny day, and all three of us were wearing shorts and T-shirts, though we had jackets with us, just in case. Given our exertions--scrabbling over giant boulders and wading through thick ash deposits--our casual dress was for the best. We didn’t overheat. But by the time we reached the summit, and could look carefully over the edge into the vastly enlarged crater, we were still pretty damn beat. After recording our conquest with photographs, we began our descent. Not far from the top, we observed another contingent of mountaineers going up, only they were clad in full alpine gear. Either we were too stupid to know that we ought to have been similarly equipped, or we were too daring for our own good. No matter--this story has a happy ending. After trying to walk all the way down the mountain to our car, we realized that we didn’t have to: the gray ash worked very much like snow, and we could slide down many of the slopes, sitting on our jackets. What a sight we must have made for anybody looking up at the mountain that day! It was as if Mount St. Helens had never been the site of a cataclysm, never been the cause of death on a large scale. We were just three crazy guys sledding down a mountain, laughing.

I have driven past Mount St. Helens many times in the succeeding years, and on each occasion my thoughts of the violence that beheaded it are mixed with those of the delights we experienced that day, slip-sliding down its ashy slopes.

Not a bad mix of memories--if I recall them at all correctly.

Mount St. Helens, pre-1980

Mount St. Helens today

MORE ON MOUNT ST. HELENS’ ANNIVERSARY:Mountain Transformed: Thirty Years After the Blast, Mount St. Helens Is Reborn Again,” by McKenzie Funk (National Geographic); “The Future of Mount St. Helens 30 Years Later,” by Phuong Le (Associated Press); “Mount St. Helens Yields Ecological Lessons Three Decades Later,” by Tom Banse (KPLU-FM); “Songs of the Mount St. Helens Disaster,” by Paula Wissel (KPLU-FM).

No comments: