Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson

I have a memory of being very, very young and looking towards a distant Mount St. Helens, still smoking some ten years after its eruption. My impression at the time was that it looked awfully small.

Returning to the Pacific Northwest after a hiatus of 25 years, all of which was spent on the flat Midwestern cities and plains (corn for miles!), I have enthusiastically thrown myself into the landscape and geography of Western Washington.

How serendipitous that a book like Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens should be published to coincide with my return.

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Heck of an ash-hole (that will be my only pun, I promise). (image from goodreads.com)

Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 with a lateral blast that decimated a landscape, turned day into night, and took 57 lives. It is a piece of history intertwined in the hearts and minds of longtime Washington residents.

The book examines the tragedy from the perspectives of loggers and the logging industry, scientists, environmentalists, and politicians. As is always the case, the eruption of Mount St. Helens is not an event that can be plucked from historical context and evaluated in a vacuum. Competing interests, corporations, imperfect science, and of course, money, all contributed to the final product that was the 1980 eruption.

A compelling element of the story is the establishment of red and blue zones around the volcano as it began to signal its indigestion in March 1980. This delineated areas around the volcano that were deemed dangerous and off limits to the public. The roadblocks were inadequate and expensive to man, and any moderately crafty person could find a way around.

The uncertainty involved in volcanology made it difficult to justify roadblocks and restricted zones to the state government. The mountain might erupt someday with unknown force in an unspecified direction. This ambiguity is a hard sell to voters and adventurous looky-loos.

The sudden appearance of a bulge on the mountain’s northwest face, growing at alarming 5 feet per day, only complicated matters; nobody knew what it meant.

Then the mountain exploded. Devastation ensued.

Eruption tells the story of the players involved in the blast. Some were killed as they fished along the Green River or held their ground at the Spirit Lake Lodge. Dave Johnston stood on a ridge (now home to Johnston Ridge Observatory) and transmitted his famous last words (“Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!”) before the blast took his life.

The book spends a little too long on the history of the logging industry, taking us back to the very beginning of the ubiquitous Weyerhaeuser Company that logged the lands around Mount St. Helens, but the history remains interesting nonetheless.

More than anything, this book will inspire you to go see the mountain for yourself. I’ve been on the south side of the mountain (The Ape Cave is a delight). I’m planning on visiting the Observatory in a few weeks.

I get to see Mt. Rainier every day on my morning commute. It amazes me that something that looks as permanent and unchanging as a mountain can change so abruptly and with such force. The Mount St. Helens eruption ripped 1300 feet from its summit and destroyed millions of trees, forever altering a landscape. The truncated mountain sits there now, and like a sleeping monster, inspires our awe and our respect.

*Aftershocks

– Although popular culture might have you believing that lava is the biggest threat in the aftermath of an eruption (it certainly is the sexiest), the resulting mud flow, known as pyroclastic flows or lahars, are the true threat. Mudflow is what killed 30,000 people in the Nevado Del Ruiz eruption. If Mt. Rainier erupts, the lahar could flow all the way to the Puget Sound.

– I am annoyed whenever a book title includes “the untold story.” Obviously the story was told to someone, otherwise the author wouldn’t know it. And it’s a little presumptuous (see: White Trash: The 400 year Untold History of Class in America).

– I have been typing “Mt. St. Helens” forever, but according to the book title, I should be spelling it “Mount St. Helens.” Too much abbreviation is bad chicken soup for the soul.

– Longview. Castle Rock. Winlock. Cougar. Toutle. Kalama. Toledo. Vader. Ape Cave. Randle. Mossyrock. Although I have only lived in Washington State for a little over a year, Southwest Washington is the region I know the best due to my family living in the rustic, one-horse (just kidding! There’s lots of horses! And bison!) town of Vader, population +/- 600. I was beyond thrilled to hear about the little towns surrounding Mount St. Helens where key characters lived their lives.

– There are several documentaries on YouTube about Mount St. Helens. This short 1980 documentary might be the most adorable.

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