Sitting beneath Mt St Helens is Spirit Lake. It was there before the blast but not exactly where it is now. The debris that rushed off the mountain and the side of the volcano collapsed pushed down to the lake and actually raised it up a couple of hundred feet. The water also rushed up the surrounding hills. These had been covered in trees which, as the blast expanded outwards, got snapped off at their bases. These stripped tree trunks got picked up by the water and washed back in to the lake as the water retreated. The result is that there are now thousands of tree trunks floating on the surface of the lake making a raft. This moves with the wind so its location on the lake surface changes all the time but it always covers a substantial portion of the lake.
The lake also covers the previous location of a lodge that used to serve visitors. The owner of the lodge died in the explosion and the raised level of the lake now puts it above the lodge’s original location. The owner had been advised to leave but he had lived there all his life and he wasn’t interested in going. He was one of the many people to die that day.
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.
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.