Early Mt. St. Helens Eruption Photos

6-St. Helens.layersI felt like Mt. St Helens came to life March 27, 1980. In fact, St. Helens experienced earthquakes since March 16, 1980.  I lived in the Portland, OR area when St. Helens demonstrated the first visible effect of the earthquakes. Geologists and volcanologists had been monitoring the mountain’s activity for months, however, due to cloud cover it had not been visible.  From that point on, there was visible daily activity.
On March 29th, a pilot friend called and said, “I think we can actually see the mountain if we get up there before daylight.” Mark, my pilot friend, Ben, and I left Portland, OR before dawn March 29, 1980. This is how the mountain appeared as we arrived about 1/2 hour before sunrise:

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Shortly thereafter an eruption began and lasted for about 20 minutes. There were no other planes in the air while we photographed.  On our way home, we noticed at least three other planes heading toward the eruption. Due to heavy cloud cover, no one had been able to get in the air to photograph Mt. St. Helens early eruption activity. To the best of my knowledge these might be the earliest photos of early eruption activity.

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Sunday, May 18th, 1980: I photographed the major eruption from Sauvie’s Island, Oregon.

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Ironically, I had been camping near St. Helens the week before. My girlfriend had a bad feeling on Saturday, May 17th, 1980. Since she didn’t want to go back, I attempted to return to alone. After packing, I started my truck. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I changed the battery, the starter, everything I could think of before finally giving up. God was watching out for me as our makeshift camp spot disappeared in the eruption the next day. The May 18th eruption lasted 2-3 days

*My truck started just fine Monday morning when I attempted to start it before work. I had no problems with it after.

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These images of the blast zone and the crater were taken two to three years after the May 18, 1980 eruption.

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41 thoughts on “Early Mt. St. Helens Eruption Photos

  1. WOW!!!! Awe-inspiring photos, my friend! Natural disasters are dangerously beautiful, powerfully humbling all entities, human or otherwise. I wasn’t born yet, but my parents lived in Helena, Montana and still have the can of ashes they collected off their car following the eruption. Thank you for posting!
    Cheers,
    Tyler 🙂

    • We were quite lucky. We were living in Lake Oswego at the time and driving Hwy 30 to Sauvie’s I’ll never forget. It was lined some places 2+ deep of people watching this incredible eruption, which was creating it’s own weather. As you watched the ash clouds boil up out of the mountain, you could see lightning everywhere in the cloud.

  2. I remember this well, I was living in Pasadena,Ca getting ready to move to Utah. It was such a spectacular event. My ex-wife got pictures from Kalama, I remember telling her it looked like it was right my the street. What really was fascinating was seeing the aerial photos, I just marveled at how if the explosion had gone the other direction it would have taken out Portland and Vancouver in a serious way. I definitely saw God hand in that. Then to top it all off a few years ago, when I was managing a GNC Vancouver, I had a guy come in looking for a particular item, come to find out he was on the back side of the mountain when it blew. The fishing group he was with all of them where killed except him. It was crazy. God spared his life too. I’m so thankful we serve the God we serve.

  3. Mike, those are amazing pictures. What an experience you had. Someone was definitely looking out for you. My wife Mary and I were talking the other night and we think we may have met you at the Pacific Logging Congress back in 1993 or 94 in Snowqualmie. We had released our first children’s book “Forest Trees and Wood” and were there promoting it. Were you at that conference?

  4. Whooo! These are incredible photos. What if ii had given it all up the morning you were flying over? Looks like you were pretty close. It’s hard to believe its been some 33 years ago.

    • Well, if it had been of the magnitude of the May 18th eruption, that would have been it. I had a couple of friends from college that worked with the forest service. The were both experienced mountaineers, climbers and back country search and rescue personnel. The volcanologists drew a circle around the mountain that they called the Red Zone. This was some time after our flight This was the restricted area. No one was allowed in. Well, my friends job was to periodically cross country ski, some 20+ miles or in their case snow mobile to the base of the mountain, and then climb it in the snow, and basically kick people off the summit. If you wanted to get to the summit that’s what you had to do. They said that there wasn’t a trip in that they made that people weren’t on the summit. So, when it blew I believe that 30+ people died. They were convinced that at least some of them were on the summit when that happened.

    • As we were circling the eruption we were noticing black chunks of material being blown out of the crater quite a ways in the air. As they came down on the flanks of the mountain, they started avalanches in the snow. Later when we examined the slides, we realized these were chunks of rock about the size of a pickup and they were being hurled out maybe a couple hundred feet in the air.

  5. What a great post Mike! Love this mountain and am bummed I wasn’t in the area when that happened!

    I don’t like to say this often, but thank God for trucks that suddenly don’t start! 🙂

    Peace

    ~V

    • I am quite convinced you are right. If I wasn’t a believer before I sure was on Monday when my truck fired right up. Interestingly, much later I had the opportunity to fly with Weyerhaeuser to photo the area in one of their helicopters. The ridge (my girlfriend who is now my wife) we were camped on, was totally obliterated. It was directly in the path of the explosion. Every tree was totally blown miles away.

  6. Great story and photos. The eruption was one of those events where you will always remember where you were when you heard the news — and in some cases, you heard the eruption as it happened (my father heard it even as far away as the interior of British Columbia). If memory serves me correct the sound heard wasn’t from the mountain breaking apart, but rather the sound of Spirit Lake instantly vaporizing as the pyroclastic flow hit it.

    It’s still a humbling experience to visit the area, especially when you can do it alone and take in the silence in the midst of all that destruction.

    • It certainly was one of those events. I enjoy hearing people’s experiences from that time. Everyone tells a slightly different piece which is so interesting to hear. I think humbling is the perfect word for it. When we stand on nature’s doorstep and see the magnitude of destruction and creation she is responsible for, I feel quite small and minute.

  7. wow..what an experience you had there…I can’t believe you felt from this close ..it seems like a movie to me…I am glad that you came out safe 🙂 Lovely pics and amazing story I must say

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