Return to Mount St. Helens

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Nine years ago I had two different assignments to photograph as the twentieth anniversary of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption approached. One was of a fellow, who at the time of the blast, was a young, care-free tree planter on the south side of the mountain. The whole thing was a rush for him. It seems like it was kind of exciting and fun.

The other gentleman was also working in the woods, but on the north side, just miles from the peak. He and his co-workers were sitting in their camp smack dab in the middle of the blast zone. His story of being blown down as trees snapped in half around him, the skin being seared from his body, the ash destroying his lungs, his fellow workers dying almost instantly, his struggle to survive and his miraculous rescue has stuck with me. I can’t really look at that mountain and not think of him.

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Yesterday we risked the chance of rain and snow and packed Big Red up as far as we could go on State Route 504. Johnston Ridge Observatory wouldn’t be open for another few days, but my folks were in town and we thought we might get one of those days where the clouds cracked and the sun seeps through every few minutes.

I’ve climbed to the rim on the south side several times in recent years, but I hadn’t been back up toward the observatory since my trek with the tree planter. It was exhilarating. Despite the stories of death and evidence of destruction, I’ve never been any place that makes me feel so alive. Maybe it was the brisk air, the threat of snow or the entertainment of watching a three-year-old search for elk with binoculars. Maybe it was the intermittent views of the mountain still shrouded in snow. Maybe it was stories of those two fellows who’d been in the woods on that Sunday morning still floating around in my mind.

Twenty-nine years ago, that valley and region was a mess. More than 57 people were dead and the land was seemingly barren, sitting under three feet of ash. But on Monday, with each turn in the road revealing a spectacular view of the mountain, or a boisterous, raging river, a little frog in a lake or a herd of elk huddled beneath twenty-year-old trees, I felt a tiny piece of that energy and it made me quiver.

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all images © Tim LaBarge 2009

One Response to “Return to Mount St. Helens”

  1. Laurence Cruz says:

    clearly you don’t need no mo’ writers to do your assignments with, Chief! this is lovely. i watched a documentary about the big eruption on monday the 18th here in LA and it took me back to the day i went up there probably in 2002. awesome doesn’t begin to do it justice. yet, the night before the anniversary, i was on the phone to a friend when the whole house rumbled — courtesy of a 4.7 earthquake centered near LAX. the interconnected beasts may be sleeping, but they are very much alive, up and down this cusp of the ring of fire.

    thanks for putting this site up — i will come back occasionally.