The Lees and the Mountain: 40 Years of Mt. St. Helens

Sunday, May 18, 1980, was supposed to be another ordinary weekend for my mom and her parents. They were staying at the family cabin on Hayden Lake, just over the Idaho border from Spokane.

Morning was passing when, approaching from the southeast, my mother and grandparents’ espied what one family member later described as “the meanest looking thunderstorm in all of mankind.” The radio confirmed what my amateur-geologist parent already suspected: that Mt. St. Helens had erupted. 

Grabbing the dog, everyone jumped into the family’s ricky red Toyota and fled for Spokane. The little Toyota careened around tight curves and blind corners, my grandfather hellbent on making it to their Spokane house before the ash cloud hit. 

They reached Interstate 90 with light ash falling onto the highway. Before them loomed a darkness as black as the oncoming wall of night. My mother recalls being within a couple miles of the South Hill when “it appeared all life had been snuffed out.” The air became dense as ash rained down and darkness fell. For the next hour the little Toyota creaked along, its headlight beams failing to pierce the impenetrable ashen darkness. 

After what seemed an eternity they arrived at the house. The days that followed felt apocalyptic. (In a rather ironic parallel to present times, it was essential to wear masks if one went outside. The effects of silicon ash hitting the lungs were more immediate than COVID-19). 

My parents retained an abiding fascination and respect for Mt. St. Helens. The year before they moved to Longview they drove up the Toutle Valley on Hwy 504 until they reached a floodplain. There, the old highway promptly disappeared and small Forest Service trailer marked the furthest extent of the debris field of the lahar, which filled the valley of the north fork of the Toutle River after the lateral blast. Looking east up the floodplain, the dusty crater of Mt. St. Helens loomed over all. 

Fast forward a decade to my childhood, in Longview. The bottle of Mt. St. Helens’ ash my parents kept in the basement fascinated me. The lid was partially corroded from sulfuric nature of its contents. The ash had a fine, silky texture that exuded a slight sulfur odor when the bottle was shaken. 

The “mountain” was a constant presence in childhood. We first summited St. Helens as a family in 1999. So began a family tradition of annually ascending the mountain through 2005, when volcanic activity interrupted that tradition. It was during the mountain’s 2004 awakening that I experienced my fleeting 15 seconds of fame on local television. 

After a swarm of earthquake activity under the mountain the previous day, on October 2, 2004, my parents and I went to Johnston Ridge to hopefully catch a glimpse of the action. There I experienced one the greatest thrills of my nerdy teen years: witnessing the mountain erupt. It was only a minor steam eruption; however, it was still thrilling to watch a volcanic eruption in real time – in my own backyard. 

Perhaps sensing their tort liability as much as any actual danger to the public, the authorities immediately evacuated Johnston Ridge. During the subsequent evacuation, I managed to push my way forward behind a geologist speaking at a live press conference. Grinning like an idiot, with my bouffant teenage hair bobbing up and down, I managed to make an uninvited guest appearance on local television. It did not go unnoticed by classmates, parents, and exasperated teachers. 

I basked in my glorious 15 seconds of fame. In retrospect though, the deserving local celebrity should have been guy cruising down Spirit Lake Highway in an RV blasting Jimmy Buffett’s “Volcano” from a boombox. 

Mt. St. Helens is like an extended family member to us. We fought snow banks and nasty blackberries to make it to the Arch on Coldwater Peak. We traversed the Blast Zone to Loowit Falls in scorching summer heat.

Nothing was more miserable, however, than the arduous hike between Ape Canyon, the Plains of Abraham, and Windy Ridge. Subsequently named “the Bataan Death March” by the children who endured that multi-family day expedition, that infamous hike only reinforced the mountain’s constant presence throughout childhood. At least Burgerville milkshakes sort-of compensated for that character building exercise. 

The years continue; we summit every couple years’, in light of fierce competition to obtain a climbing permit. For all the loss and devastation the mountain inflicted, we are truly blessed to have it as our neighbor.  

Happy 40th eruption, Mt. St. Helens. 

The author atop Mt. St. Helens.

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