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Back to the Blast
You think the volcanic hiccups of Mount St. Helens this past fall were interesting? A witness to the devastation of 1980 revisits the epic eruption. By James Balog


Photo: Mount St. Helens
In early September 2004, writer-photographer James Balog shot a series of photographs from the crater rim.

I have hiked 4,500 vertical feet (1,372 meters) by starlight and headlamp to photograph the crater of Mount St. Helens at dawn. Below me yawns a raw mineral landscape: the black dome of cracked lava that forms the crater floor; a mile-wide, horseshoe-shaped rim; and walls built from thousands of years of accumulated eruption debris. Above is empty air where a mountain once stood—and then simply blew itself apart.

A wide-angle lens would severely distort such a vast landscape. Instead, I photograph a panorama of many individual images, planning to composite them later. On this early September morning of 2004, seismic instruments are already measuring micro-earthquakes that within a few days will be confirmed as the sounds of lava squeezing up the volcano's throat. The mountain's intentions will become clear enough in a few weeks, when it erupts for the first time in nearly two decades. At the moment, though, I am content to visit the epic theater where the eruption of 1980 redefined what the human race thought it knew about nature.

When morning came to Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, David Johnston awoke at a ridgetop observation post known as Coldwater II. It was a gorgeous spring Sunday, the kind that makes people fall in love with the Cascade Mountains: temperatures in the 50s, clear skies, creeks gushing snowmelt, and flowers bursting down in the valleys. Johnston, 30, stood a wiry five foot nine with blond hair and a beard that was as de rigueur among earthy scientists then as it is now. His camp was simple, consisting of a pale brown government-issue Ford Pinto station wagon, a little cream-colored aluminum camping trailer, a laser surveying device used to make measurements of the peak from safe distances, a time-lapse camera that metronomically clicked off a shot every 30 seconds, a couple of collapsible camp chairs, and a surveyor's tripod. As the crow flies, it was just more than five miles to the summit caldera.

In the glittering alpine light, his was a spectacular and—for the moment, at least—lucky view. Beginning in the valley 1,200 vertical feet (366 meters) below Coldwater II, an unbroken expanse of old-growth forest, rock, and glacier vaulted more than a vertical mile up, to the 9,677-foot (2,950-meter) summit of St. Helens. The mountain's volcanic cone was perfectly symmetrical, invested with the Zen grace of Japan's Mount Fuji.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had established Coldwater II, situated at the foot of St. Helens's northern flank, 17 days earlier to monitor the smoldering volcano. Johnston, along with his friend and protégé Harry Glicken—a hyper 22-year-old budding volcanologist—and a rotating cast of other scientists had been keeping vigil at the post. Glicken had been there full-time for two weeks and had seen little more than the dull gray of an overcast cloud layer. One of the researchers, Richard Waitt, then 37, would tell me years later, "It was boring as hell up there and most of the time you froze your ass off." Well aware of the fact that the seismographs were showing vibrations indicative of molten magma moving within the volcano, Johnston was nervous about the site's safety but had agreed to take over the post from Glicken until another geologist came on duty in a day or two.

On March 20, the very first quakes had begun vibrating under St. Helens. Then, a week later, small eruptions of steam and ash let loose. These events, called phreatic eruptions, continued on and off throughout the spring. Right from the beginning, the glaciers on the peak's northern flank began cracking into a maze of crevasses, and it soon became obvious to the USGS crew what was happening: Up around 8,400 feet (2,650 meters), magma—1,800°F (983°C), glowing red-orange, and malleable as taffy—was being injected into a chamber somewhere within the north side of the cone. As the chamber filled, the mountain ballooned outward in a great tumorous feature, which became known as The Bulge.

A crew of aerial spotters, one from the U.S. Forest Service and one from the USGS, circled the summit 24-7. By May 2, the USGS had set up a measurement network to keep tabs on The Bulge's growth. Helicopters dropped off geologists at various spots high on the cone, where they hammered steel fence posts into dacite and andesite outcrops. Lacking funding for better gear, they bolted 35-cent yellow highway reflectors to the posts. Then, from down in the Toutle River's North Fork, at Coldwater II, and from another station, called Coldwater I, they shot laser beams up to the reflectors and measured the time it took for light to make the round-trip. Readings were phenomenally precise, measuring The Bulge's growth down to the centimeter. The results were jaw-dropping: The Bulge was swelling outward at the rate of five to eight feet a day. Every five days the mile-wide mass would protrude at least 25 more feet (8 meters). It was, as USGS volcanologist Dan Miller told me afterward, a "colossal rate of distension, unlike anything we'd ever seen before on volcanoes." The mountain would either erupt to relieve the pressure or The Bulge would become so steep it would collapse and slide into the valley. It was like watching a party balloon being pumped too full with helium: You know something has to give, but when? In a week? Two weeks? Two months? No one knew.

Photograph by James Balog

Read James Balog's full story about the eruptions of Mount St. Helens, then and now, in the December 2004/January 2005 issue of Adventure.


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, December 2004/January 2005

Back to the Blast: Twenty-five years later, James Balog returns to Mount St. Helens


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