Long before we moved to the Pacific Northwest or even visited the area, there was one mountain in the area that I knew all about. Mt St Helens exploded in 1980 killing over 50 people and devastating a wide area. The idea that the side of a mountain would just slide away and the exposed volcanic activity would blow out with the force of tens of megatons of explosive was amazing to me then and it still is. I had been thinking of taking a visit for a long time.
The lack of a reason for time off this year means I have built up a balance of PTO that the company wants me to use so I booked a random day off in the middle of the week and, with nothing else planned, I thought a road trip was worthwhile. It is a little over three hours south of us to get to the mountain so I headed off earlier with a good forecast. I was a little skeptical as I drove south in the rain and low cloud but weather changes quickly here and altitude can make things change fast.
The road to Windy Ridge Viewpoint closes in the winter but it was still mild enough and there was almost no trouble on the road. The deep shadows combined with the sun breaking through the trees made for some awkward conditions to drive up while watching out for the sudden deteriorations in the surface which appeared without warning. The majority of the road surface is perfect but every once in the road, a little chasm will appear! Also, while the air temps were in the 50s, the shade meant there was the occasional icy patch on the road which gets your attention on steep sections with big drop offs!
As I got closer to my target, I started coming around corners which provided a view to the mountain. It is a dominant shape even without the 1,600’ or so that got blown off it forty years ago. This was not an ideal time to visit for photography purposes because the sun is so far south so it is a little backlit but the good viewpoints are in the north and, even if I had been there for sunrise, it would still have been a less than ideal sun angle. That would have required an overnight there which I didn’t feel was a great plan.
When I got to Windy Ridge, I was all alone. There were two vehicle parked up near the trailhead but the occupants were obviously off up the trail. It was just me. Consequently, it felt super tranquil. I read up on the disaster and what happened to the area and the people. I spent a lot of time just staring at the mountain. The hollowed out side of the mountain gives you an idea of just what got blown out. There are new bulges in the surface as magma pushes up from underneath which serves to remind you of just what you are looking at. This thing has blown on multiple occasions and will again at some point. Right now it looks benign. The eruption from 1980 continued on and off into the mid 2000s. It is quiet for now but it will cause trouble again at some point. The desolation of the area, even after 40 years, is a stark reminder of the power of a volcano. Some trees have. Grown up but most of the landscape is still barren. Everything was scoured clear by the high speed and burning heat of the blasts. Some areas were sheltered by geography and they are were things have grown back first but they are in the minority. Quite a place. One day I shall go back and do the hike to the summit.
If you live in the Seattle to Tacoma area, you get familiar with the phrase “the mountain is out” or “in”. This refers to Mt Rainier which can be shrouded in cloud or out in the sun. As a 14,000’ mountain, it is the most obvious landmark around here. It also drives its own weather systems so the clouds on the mountain are always worth a look. Not so long ago, I was quite taken by the cloud development over the mountain which was a bit different to what I am used to seeing. The boat in the front was not helpful but I wanted to get a shot of the mountain so went for it.
If I remember – which I frequently don’t – I take my polarizer with me when I am going to photographing scenery. With our trip up into the Cascades, we went to the overlook of Diablo Lake and the sun was reflecting off the surface of the lake waters. I took two shots – one with the polarizer rotated to remove the glare and one with the glare in full effect. I was interested to see which of the shots I preferred when I got home. The color of the lake is very nice but sometimes the reflections are more interesting. I include both here to show just how much of a difference the polarizer makes and for you to decide which is to your taste.
My sister was visiting so we took a trip up into the Cascades across the North Cascades Highway. Having traveled this way before, I had photographed some of the dams already. This time, we got a closer look at Diablo Dam. You can drive down to the dam and across the top of it to get to the facilities on the other side. The dam is wide enough for two vehicles to pass although that might not be obvious given the way some of the drivers behaved.
The spillways on either side of the dam look a lot bigger when you get close to it than is the case when looking from a distance. The chance to see it up close, given that so many of the dams in the mountains are rather inaccessible, was pretty cool.
I have been on a couple of flights recently that took my past Mt St Helens. One was coming back home from LA and the other was departing out towards Dallas. In both cases I got a good view of the mountain covered in snow and with hints of clouds lower down. When you live in Seattle, Mt Rainier is a constant reminder of the volcanoes that surround you but Mt St Helens is the one that has reminded everyone about the power that these mountains contain. Hopefully it will be calm for a while.
The view from our hotel in Whistler towards the mountains was really pretty but never more so than when the sun was setting. A couple of evenings I thought I should get a shot but was either elsewhere or too slow. I did manage to get out there one time though, although I was still a little late. The shadows were creeping up the lower slopes of the mountains but I still had the nice color on the summits. The warm, evening light was really appealing and mountains look good at the best of times so this was a great scene to see.
Taking any of the Washington State ferries provides with some interesting scenery. Puget Sound is surrounded by large mountains so you can see something in most directions. The other ferry plying our route passed us mid-way across the journey and catching it with a mountain in the background was not tricky. The ferries seem large when you are close to them but they are quickly put in context with a volcano in the background!
The move from the Bay Area to the Seattle area involved a two day drive. The first part of the drive north is pretty flat but, as you get further north, you get into the southern end of the Cascades Range. The interstate runs around the south and west of Mount Shasta. You first see it a long time before you are anywhere near close to it. These large mountains are not easy to miss provided it is a clear day and the weather was lovely on this occasion.
We pulled off the road briefly at a viewing location. We were still some distance from the mountain and the view was not unimpeded but I guess this was a better spot than was available further up. The mountain had plenty of snow on it. As you looked closer, you could see wisps of cloud above the surface. I couldn’t tell whether they were actual clouds or snow that was being whipped up by wind as we were too far away. It took a long time to go by the mountain. We came up the west side but for a long time it just was there. Eventually, it was behind us and we continued on to our overnight stop.
If you want to go the top of the mountains, you might as well travel in style. An aerial tram (cable car for the Brits out there) runs from the center of the resort to the top of High Peak. We went in to buy our tickets only to find out that they were running a special for the last weekend of the ski season and both of us could go up for less than I was expecting to pay for one of us! Nice result.
Whenever I see these contraptions, I can’t help but think of them in the context of so many movies I saw as a kid. Invariably, someone would end up on the roof in a perilous situation. The real thing is of course a lot less dramatic. The larger these things are the smoother the run seems to be. The only disturbance is when you pass over the towers but this one was large enough that the transition was very gentle. The swing was nicely damped too so it was really a non-event.
The thing I find quite amusing is how the cables sag under the load of the car. As you get towards the steepest part of the climb, the car seems to head straight for the cliff face before it pulls up to the next tower. It is all very simple really but it still looks cool. Our trip up was pretty quiet because we were early. By the time we came down, things were quite a bit busier. I liked the display screen in the car that had all of the key parameters for the service so you could see that the loads and wind speeds were well inside limits. Just as well!
Ski resorts are great places in the summer because they have an available way to the top of the mountains to enjoy the view. Mammoth Peak was no exception and a trip in the gondola too you via a mid station to the top of the mountain at 11,000′. While people were making the trip, we were outnumbered by the mountain bikers who rode up in the gondola and down on the bikes. Seems like a good idea if you want to focus on the fun part rather than the lung busting part – particularly at that altitude.
There was a bit of haze in the air but it was pretty clear so I could see a decent distance in all directions. I imagine the mountains look great when covered in snow but it was still a lovely place to be for a while.