Mount St Helens Anniversary

Mount Saint Helens… for locals the name conjures up images of either lush unrivaled beauty, or absolute carnage and destruction. For those who knew the mountain before May 18th, 1980, Mount St Helens was the crown jewel of the Cascades. Often compared to Mt. Fuji for its perfectly symmetrical cone, photographers and painters alike captured her beauty, often reflected in the pure blue waters of nearby Spirit Lake. Before 1980, the mountain symbolized hiking, fishing, backpacking and relaxation along the slopes of the mountain and nearby ridges, or exploration and summer activities along the lake shore.

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For those who only experienced the mountain after May 18th, the picture is a far different one. A lateral volcanic blast, virtually unknown as a volcanic threat until after the 1980 eruption, exploded outward at speeds exceeding 300 miles per hour, devastating the landscape in a swath over a dozen miles north of the mountain. Survivors who were rescued from the blast zone told of searing heat and a stone wind that tore the forests north of the volcano down to bedrock. The sound of the blast was easily heard in Canada, but totally silent directly in the mountains shadow. For those who visited Mount St Helens in the years immediately following the blast, the landscape was harsh, a volcanic desert covered in ash and surrounded by trees felled as if by a giant’s lawnmower, all pointed away from the central crater, a gaping maw a mile wide with a steaming newborn lava dome inside.

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For those visiting the mountain today, 33 years later, the emerging story is quite different than any of those seen before. The scars from the blast have largely faded from the surrounding landscape, largely dependent on proximity to the crater to determine the scope of what remains from those ten fateful minutes when the mountain shattered apart. Trees that once lay like matchsticks have decayed and sunk into the ridges surrounding the mountain. The standing dead zone, where trees were choked and burned to death on the edge of the blast, have fallen, and a new forest rises 10-20 feet high below the remaining ghostly sentinels. The massive mat of fallen logs that choked Spirit Lake in the immediate aftermath of the eruption (headlines of the day proclaimed “Spirit Lake Gone!”), has steadily shrunk to 1/3rd of its size. The logs instead have created a sunken forest of ghosts just beneath the waves of the lake.

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Exploring this new landscape is to gaze upon the literal birth of a forest. For those anxious to discover the new story of Mount Saint Helens, the trail network around the mountain is one of the best in the northwest. Trails to the north, such as the Boundary Trail, gaze head on into the crater of the still active mountain. One can occasionally spot wisps of steam which confirm that the lava dome inside the crater is still hot. The Boundary Trail stretches from the valley below, where it connects to the Hummocks Trail (another fine trail when the road to the visitor center hasn’t been plowed free of snow), all the way up Johnston Ridge, past the visitor center, across the blasted ridges north of the mountain and into the Mt. Margaret Backcountry. From there it continues east, eventually reaching Bear Meadows, along Highway 99 at the Windy Ridge entrance to Mt. St. Helens. It continues on to Mt. Adams from there, winding its way outside the volcanic monument. To hike the Boundary Trail is to ask the question “How far do I want to go and when do I feel like turning around?”  The Mt. Margaret Backcountry in particular is a glorious place to spend a few nights, looking down from the lofty ridges and peaks on the blast zone, with Mt. St. Helens itself your constant companion. For those looking for other adventures in the blast zone, there are numerous trails on the northeastern side of the monument. The Harmony trail, which is the only access to the waters of Spirit Lake, takes you quickly down into a valley bowl swept clean of trees by the waters of Spirit Lake, as the 1980 eruption landslide caused the lake itself to slosh up the ridges and pull the blasted trees down off the slopes and into the lake below. Views from above Spirit Lake and the mountain can be had at the Independence Trail and the Norway Pass Trail connect to take you on a journey along the ridges of the eastern shore of the lake. The remnants of fallen trees and new forest are everywhere around you in this part of the monument. Those looking for a longer multi-day journey that never strays far from the mountain should set their sights on the Loowit Trail. The Loowit is Mount Saint Helens version of the Wonderland trail of Mt. Rainier, a huge circle that takes in all sides of the mountain that can be accessed from numerous other trails along each side. And of course, those looking to summit an active volcano can do so via permit (required above 4800 feet) by climbing the Monitor Ridge route in the summer or the Worm Flows route in winter.

This Saturday is the 33rd anniversary of Mount St Helens eruption. It’s a great time to go explore the past and get a glimpse into the future. Maps and more info about all the trails above can be found at the US Forest Service website.

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About the author

Orion Ahrensfeld - Orion has been a Northwest photographer for 7 years, attempting to capture images on trails and in the wilderness that convey the beauty of these unique places from a unique vantage point. In particular he has heavily explored the Northwest's stratovolcanos, through images to take others to some of the rarer or harder reach places, while showcasing some of the most interesting geologic features of the Cascade Mountain Range.

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