In December of 2011, I flew over Mount Saint Helens in a small commuter jet and was lucky to get this shot. I was living on the Central Coast of California at the time, and, other than the 1980 eruption, I had no clue about the mountain. I just knew what I saw was breathtaking, both in size and in scope.
A year later, I found myself flying over Mount Saint Helens on a regular basis, as I had moved to Seattle. On cloudless days, I could look down and see the path of the destruction to the west, where mud and chunks of the mountain had reshaped the landscape that fateful day.
In 2014, I drove the east side approach to the mountain, driving through miles and miles of blown-down forests and standing-dead forests, giving me a sense of the power of the 1980 eruption beyond what I had seen from the air.
At the end of the road, at a place called Windy Ridge, I took this photo and decided at some point I would have to do the western approach, to see as much of the mountain as possible.
Today was that day, two years later. After enduring a long delay on the road due to construction season, I finally made it to the west side.
First stop was Loowit Viewpoint, where the mountain’s own weather blocked the best part. It was still amazing to see the paths of rivers new since 1980, wildflowers seeded by wind and elk, and trees making a comeback 36 years later.
Then it was on to Johnston Ridge Observatory, named after the volcanologist David Johnston, who was camped there when the mountain blew on May 18, 1980 and swept him away in the lateral blast.
It was hard for me to imagine such devastation on this beautiful summer’s day, but when the clouds parted and I could see the top of the collapsed volcano, I got it at a gut level. I couldn’t imagine standing there facing a volcano’s fury aimed directly at me, which is what David Johnston saw in his last few minutes of life. In reading about him, every article credits him and others with keeping the death toll so low because they fought for months with scientific data in hand to keep the area closed to visitors.
On the way back down, the clouds cleared even more and I got this one last look. If you ever have the chance, go see this place. It’s one of the great geological wonders of the world.