MOUNT ST. HELENS
Aerial view of Mount St. Helens.
Courtesy of USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory
Sleep was impossible for me to come by the night of April 28, 1990, as darkness in my bedroom was broken only by the luminescence of a clock on a nightstand. All the while I had been tossing and turning, tossing and turning some more. It was now 1:47 am. Click. Make that 1:48. This cycle of sleep depravation was not new to me: far from it. It seems like each time you reach the realm of scattered thought, at that fragile point where sleep is so very near and precious, this thought alone will cruelly yank you back to the surface. So you try it again, since what other choice do you have than to feel like a zombie the next day? What frustrating punishment, since unless it is for something especially important, you seem to sleep like a baby. We've all been there.
Within only a few hours I would embark upon on another historic journey, fraught with danger and uncertainty, which would surely change my life. Again.
The first of two explosions rocked the entire Pacific Northwest the morning of May 18, 1980, as I stood outside my pad in the North Cascade foothills. The side of the manufactured home shook for several minutes with the initial concussion, much like an earthquake, but this was strangely different. It slowly dawned on me that Helen must have finally blown her top! Volcanoes will be volcanoes, after all. Girls will be girls.
Before the enormity of this concept had had time to fully register in my mind, a second thud rumbled and echoed out all across the region and beyond. St. Helens! It can only be Mount St. Helens! I ran inside and turned on the television. Carefully adjusting the rabbit ears to get a better signal, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Some talking head yammered on about something uninteresting and unimportant to anybody it would seem. Suddenly the RCA fluttered and went blank altogether. Something big was up. So I grabbed the rabbit by the ears and shook it really hard this time. Just as quickly as it had gone dark, the screen filled with the words: Please Stand By. When you see this, you know a major disaster has taken place somewhere in the world. This one just happened to be right here in our own backyard!
The picture changed to one of the strangest, most unrecognizable, unbelievable scenes imaginable. This beautiful symmetrical volcanic cone, once so much like Mount Baker, was being transformed into little more than a steaming heap of rubble. People were dead, lots of them. The initial earthquake had triggered the greatest landslide in recorded history as the bulging north side of the mountain collapsed. Spirit Lake disappeared, as did the old man of the mountain, Harry Truman, who simply wouldn't listen to reason. Hmmm. The lower Toutle River Valley was now awash in floating highway bridges, homes, timber, logging equipment - and human bodies as well.
A minor 4.1 magnitude earthquake had been recorded in the area of the mountain on March 20, 1980, signaling this eminent eruptive phase. Seven days later, on March 27, a thick plume of ash and steam exploded from the volcano's summit, rising to nearly a mile and a half over a newly opened crater. The same day 135 earthquakes were recorded on or under the volcano, ranging in magnitude from 3.0 to 4.7. Mount St. Helens came to life again on March 26, 27, 28, April 4-14, April 15-22, April 23 and then again on May 14. Even the very day before, on Saturday, May 17, she had shown signs of activity.
Complacency soon evaporated like the top 1,500 feet of Mount St. Helens as the lives of 57 people were lost, swept away, buried or incinerated by this great natural catastrophe. Like tens of millions of people around the world I watched this part of North American history unfold on television before me, in absolute jaw-dropping awe of nature's might.
Never in a thousand years could I have imagined on that sunny day back in May of 1980, the scenario in which I would find myself exactly a decade later: poised to commemorate this eruptive event in a special way. Opportunity knocked for someone; I was astonished at the possibility that this someone could actually be me!
During the fall and winter seasons a low-pressure center located near the Aleutian Islands intensifies and moves southward. When low-pressure moves out of Alaska and replaces high pressure off the Washington coast, the jet stream is forced south to a latitude roughly paralleling the Washington/Oregon border. By April, the low-pressure center has usually moved back into Alaska, moving the path of the jet stream to the California/Oregon boundary. However, this shift in weather patterns had failed to occur on schedule in the spring of 1990. It had rained for three days straight in the lowlands. With every inch that it rains at sea level, of course, a heck of a lot of snow is falling in the mountains.
Adding to my uncertainty concerning the weather and snow conditions, there was a more menacing threat to my next mountain dream. Significantly enough this one was geological, rather than meteorological in nature. The week before, the mountain had emitted the greatest amount of steam and ash since the 1980 eruption itself. It was considered a “semi eruption.” It was possible that officials would close the National Monument before we could even get there. It seemed ironic that while nothing "earth shaking" had happened in ten years on Mount St. Helens, here I was supposed to call ahead now to find out if the volcano was Closed for Repair.
* * * * *
Interstate-5 buzzed with an unusual amount of traffic for a Saturday morning it seemed as Steve Peterson drove our one volunteer, my hulk of a weight-lifting instructor and friend, Ken Huck, and myself south toward the volcano. Rain fell hard in sheets against the windshield of my Grand Prix as I stared out the side window. Cars whizzed by in an unending stream on one side; telephone poles and fences like a blurrrr on the other. I had been far too nervous to sleep, especially after being told the night before that the Monument would remain open, yet only tentatively.
The mountain was buried in cloud and snow as we arrived at the trailhead. Joined by our guide, the Chief Climbing Ranger for the Monument on Mount St. Helens, this was certainly one of the most miserable and bleak places I had ever visited in my lifetime. I didn't know that a trailhead could be so awful. After gaining only about 3,000 feet in elevation, wading to our chests at times in new snow, we gave up, found a place and set up my tent. Ten minutes later and with little ado, Steve and Ken descended.
It took a while longer to get rid of the Ranger.
April 30, 1990/Day 2
What a restful sleep I had overnight. It felt really good. I awoke to clear skies and no wind. The temperature overnight dropped to +11 degrees. It was so very nice just to be here.
It was deathly silent as I ascended to the Crater Rim over new snow this morning, taking a direct route up a ridge and finally on to the summit. All within a few steps it went from complete calm to a howling wind on top. Feeling strong today, the climb from here went fast.
I've consumed upwards of 1 gallon of water today and have kept the stove going constantly. High, thin clouds are coming in from the west now. The radio said it was below freezing in Portland last night. It's quite cold again late on the second night, and yet my face and lips are fried with sunburn. This is a place of great contrast.
May 1/Day 3
May Day! I was awakened by a loud cracking sound. When the back end of the tent passed overhead, I thought I was done for.
Echoing an incident atop Mount Baker ten months before, when I was jolted awake by a tremendous clap of thunder over the summit plateau, my first thought on Mount St. Helens was that the mountain had exploded again. I was actually quite relieved to discover that the tent was just blowing away. Ties I had fashioned around “pickets” and “dead man” anchors upon my arrival there had come loose. After an uneventful night or two, things were picking up now.
May 2/Day 4
Chief Climbing Ranger on Mount St. Helens, Hans Canstrom, arrived at my door before sunrise. He wanted to go play. So we ascended to the Crater Rim and kicked around a while. On the way down we found a good place for my high camp, not far below the rim. We dug out a platform for the tent - there is no suitable place to install a snow cave this time. I had a good time up there with my new friend.
And yet sitting across from this Federal Official inside my tent, before leaving for the summit, as predawn light began to reflect blue against giant patches of ice lining the crater rim above, you could have heard a pin drop in there as I glared at him in silence. Things had been somewhat strained between us from the start. Perhaps we just didn't like each other, which is okay. Trying to make awkward conversation, he happened to ask me where I was originally from.
"Seattle," I said, a bit too curtly it seemed as my reply hit dead air. So I at least tried to pretend to act nice by asking him where he was born, although I could have cared less either way.
"Montana," he said.
Good enough. So that should have done it for this conversation. I silently prayed that he would just go away now.
"So how old are you?" he persisted.
"Thirty-two," I answered.
"Same here," he said. "What month?" he continued.
"July," I responded, as my glacial attitude finally started to thaw some.
"Same here! I was born in July, 1957," he said. "So, what date?" he ventured.
"July 21st," was my answer.
Comparing each other's driver's licenses in the open doorway of the tent a moment later, just as the sun crested a ridge and shone kindly upon Mount St. Helens' southern slopes, we discovered that we were born only one hour apart on July 21, 1957. Needless to say, we were stunned. I beat him into the world by that hour though.
May 3/Day 5
The weather is beautiful today! I carried the first 70 lb. load some 2,500 feet of gain to the new site. It was tough stuff carrying everything and dragging more behind me in deep snow. It was also quite fun! Still, I’ll probably carry loads in the middle of the night from now on, to take advantage of harder snow conditions.
Later I carried up a second load, stashed it and continued the short distance to the Crater Rim. Part way up I changed my route to absorb more of the scenery; what an extraordinarily wicked landscape, backlit by a coal gray sky. The city lights of Portland and Vancouver twinkled below as I tufted through unbroken snow along the crater's edge. This was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had in the mountains.
May 4/Day 6
I awoke mid-sentence, sitting in front of the open tent doorway.
Having had countless instances of sleepwalking in the past, especially as a child, this was nothing new to my family or me. I had just never got out of a sleeping bag, found a tiny zipper handle and opened a tent door before, while camped alone on a major volcano. This seemed sort of extreme.
My parents and siblings would think little of it when I would go walking through the living room at night like some specter. They would simply tell me to go back to bed, and so I would. Talking in my sleep was a given. The problem now was, this time there was no one there to tell me to get back to bed, as one step out onto the ice in my socks and I would have died in a terrible way on the frozen slopes below, probably without ever waking up.
Already I had let my guard down, always courting one sort of disaster or another it seemed. But even in my sleep?
Tired out tonight, I decided to carry only one load up after sundown. By the time I returned at 9:30, after another long climb, the weariness had left me. I felt rejuvenated in fact! Another plus is that my climbing times are getting shorter with every carry now, rather than longer. What a pleasant surprise: I'm getting stronger, rather than weaker.
May 5/Day 7
I hauled the remaining gear up this morning in two loads, soaked to the bone in sweat. Another storm set in on the final carry. It was all I could do to stand upright while fighting to set up this China-Everest tent with its EIGHT poles.
May 6/Day 8
Snow is piling up high outside. Overnight I held up the N. side of the tent with my feet - my back braced against the other wall to keep it from flattening me.
May 7/Day 9
This morning offered another dull whiteout as several more feet of snow have accumulated.
The strongest gusts thus far raged through here at about 3:45 am. The tent went flat.
Exactly the opposite of Mount Baker, when a particular breeze was of a northerly origin on Mount St. Helens, it was often filled with airborne grit and pebbles large enough to put the hurt on you. Wind lifts sediment from inside the Crater and sends it over the rim and directly into anything or anyone in its path. When the breeze is howling at 80 or 90 miles an hour or more, the ash becomes like buckshot. Then you drink it when it mixes with your melted snow water.
I've consumed enough volcanic ash today to be officially considered a National Monument.
May 8/Day 10
It was below freezing at sea level again overnight, and below zero up here. An hour before sunrise I opened the door to find clearing skies. Boy was it was brisk out - minus 10 when I broke ice from tent.
May 9/Day 11
I went up again today with the Hasselblad and tripod for photographs. Steam rose and curled up from inside the crater, spilling up over my boots. All fear of falling inside the Crater evaporated like the clouds below.
May 12/Day 14
Steve Peterson, Jeff Batt, Nathan DeKay, and Mark Martinez walked out of the clouds at half past two this afternoon, carrying my re-supply. They had slept sitting up in the seats of my Pontiac throughout a driving rainstorm, and were now soaking wet.
They descended within ten minutes.
May 13/Day 15
This morning John Korn, Brad Sather and John Aaron arrived with more stuff. Climbing to within 1,000 vertical feet of here yesterday, they camped. They left within a few minutes, looking pretty beat. All their sacrifice is incredible . . . unforgettable.
Snow mounts ever higher over the tent tonight.
May 15/Day 17
After making breakfast at 1:45, I wrote a while and played music over lots of coffee. Then the sky cleared completely for the first time in six days! At 5:42 I began taking pre-dawn photographs at minus 9 degrees, continuing all the way through sunrise. Absolutely stunning scenery; beyond description in this arctic chill. Daybreak swept across Eastern Washington as Mount Adams was backlit in gold and black. Sunlight streamed over a ridge in the foreground . . . purple mountain majesties.
While looking out the tent door earlier, a tiny mouse came running across the snowfield right to me. It disappeared somewhere. How that little guy makes a living up here, I haven't a clue. I hope he or she is doing all right as it is super cold again tonight above another cloud sea. +6 degrees at 10:20. Dead sunset. Glad I didn't go to the crater rim this time.
Minus 11 inside at 1:22 a.m.
It may sound crazy, but I will admit to you that I spent quite a bit of time wondering and worrying about that mouse and even said a little prayer for it, hoping that it had survived the night. Never could I have imagined how.
May 18, 1990/Day 20
Today was a most extraordinary day! This was one of those special gifts from above, when you feel perfectly right with yourself and your surroundings: a superb blend of body and spirit. Complete solitude ... the crunch of snow and the thunderous echo of history beneath your feet. Hiking to the Crater Rim I found myself all alone there.
At 8:31 a.m. I knelt directly on the edge of the Crater Rim and offered an emotional prayer for each of the men, women and children whose lives were taken in the eruption. Back on my feet again for the most important moment and photograph of the expedition, wiping a stream of tears from my face, then adjusting the tripod and aiming the Hasselblad camera directly into the crater, the sky was mystically beautiful as it graduated from pale to dark blue on the horizon. The Crater's outer ridges showed dramatically through the lens, reaching behind the lava dome as if embracing some deadly treasure.
Held in shadow at right and bursting forth in warmth and sunlight at left, at middle right in the frame was Mount Rainier, as if waiting for its own turn of destruction. At precisely 8:32 according to my watch, I clicked the shutter release.
Beginning at 8:32 a.m., exactly ten years to the moment before, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake triggered a cataclysmic eruption sending a pyroclastic cloud forward at up to 500 miles per hour. With a force of 27,000 Hiroshima bombs the blast devastated a 210 square mile area north of the mountain, creating a monumental hole where the top of Mount St. Helens once stood. Right where I now stood a decade later. Less than 10 minutes after the explosion the ash column from the volcano had risen to a height of 12 miles in altitude. What goes up must come down, and this sediment was eventually carried to the Columbia River, where it interrupted the channel to ocean-going ships.
Steam rose gently from the heart of the shattered volcano, and here stands a monument to that day when the mountain shook.
May 19/Day 21
Clouds covered Mount St. Helens to a depth of 12,000-feet before they expanded and rose to meet a low-pressure center, which had stealthily moved onshore overnight. Now it began to snow, ferociously. The timing of the weather had been perfect for May 18 and no matter what happened to me from there, I had no complaints. At least the film was safe, as was my story.
After shoveling snow for hours today, I am exhausted tonight. It's getting rough up here after midnight. The tent went level on me again.
It is snowing very hard at 2:44 am.
May 20/Day 22
There I was in the pre-dawn hours, a tiny figure set inside a glass dome, like the ones Santa gives out to good little children. Just shake it up and snow will begin to fall. Shake it more vigorously and you can start a real snowstorm in there. Rather than a happy kid peering from the outside in on Christmas Day, suddenly I was looking from the inside out with my hands on the glass.
Another violent storm had slammed into Mount St. Helens. Waves of hail attacked my tent vertically and horizontally and back again in terrific turns, as another avalanche shuddered down beside the campsite. When a particularly vicious blast of wind and snow arrived from the west, the poles contorted and twisted and everything began to collapse. As another round of huge hailstones pounded down on the canvass, quickly plastering the entire affair with heavy ice, I exited the north side in an attempt to save my own life. Frantically hammering away at the roof before trying to replace the anchors, all of this proved to be useless; my headlamp started to flicker on and off.
Hypothermic, soon I was forced back inside and to the soaking wet confines of the tent. At first I sat on my sleeping bag shivering uncontrollably in a small puddle of water. It was already obvious that I wouldn't last another six days up there under these conditions. Not and stay alive. My long sought-after special-use permit from the officials at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument had been for four weeks, yet this was only my 22nd day on the volcano.
In an instant the wind dropped to almost nothing. This is always the scariest part, just like with Mount Baker. Heavy, wet snow started to fall from there, slowly at first. All within another few heart-stopping seconds it had turned into another raging blizzard. As miserable as it is to get out into the weather and shovel snow from your tent, sooner or later you must in order to survive.
I set the alarm for a second time, awoke and got out and completed my chores. Then I set the alarm for half an hour.
The third time out was a bit more difficult, and yet all in all, I believed that I was still holding my own against the storm. So I set the alarm for 45 minutes this time, thinking an extra 15 minutes of sleep would help on 'Round Four.'
With the fourth sounding of the alarm it was all I could do to get up and out into the suffocating storm. No longer could I ignore how the surrounding snow level had risen five feet or so relative to the tent; it was now set inside a hole.
After shoveling away as much snow as possible anyway, I returned inside colder and more claustrophobic than I had ever been. As soon as my fingers would work well enough to do so, I zipped the tent door closed only half way in order to reduce the risk of complete suffocation. Shaking all over again, after managing to set the alarm again for 30 minutes I fell back asleep the instant my head hit the wad of wet clothes that served as my pillow. Out like a light.
It must have been the 10" layer of snow covering the bottom half of my sleeping bag that brought me fully awake several hours later. Just as the batteries on my headlamp completely died as I went to turn it on, I knew my light would go out if I didn't try to descend soon. In any case, by my 50th day spent on a volcano in the past nine months, I was considering taking up a less severe sport. Tennis? Golf? Fishing perhaps? Yes, I had always wanted to learn how to fish. Fish is a good meal.
I tuned into my emergency two-way radio. One channel seemed to have some faint chatter going on in the background. Scrapping the usual, formal introductions, I made a broadcast: "This is Glenn Williams calling anyone at Amboy Ranger Station. Do you read me?”
Holding the bright red radio up close, I said, "Does anyone hear me?”
Just in case I was transmitting, but unable to receive a signal due to the severe weather conditions on my end, I continued: “This is my twenty-second day spent camped on Mount St. Helens. I've been up here taking pictures for a book. Now, I'm concerned about more avalanches. I am also worried that this spell of bad weather will continue, or get worse. So I've decided to make a break for it. There's a total whiteout now and all of the ridges will probably look the same below. The reason for my call is this: if I don't make it to the parking lot or the ranger station within a few hours after dark, than I am lost up here somewhere.
I’ll see you soon, hopefully. Keep a light on in the window for me. And have the coffee on. I may need it. St. Helens to Amboy Ranger Station, this is Glenn Williams over and out.
Canstrom Williams, Williams Canstrom out" as was the required radio sign-off for the U.S. Forest Service.
The transmission never reached the Ranger Station, but it did reach a lake far to the west and south of the volcano, where the fish were biting. One of the people casting their line that day happened to have a CB radio on as he reeled in another trout. When an urgent-sounding call came over the speakers in his truck, he put away his gear and tried to follow the message I was sending from just shy of the top of Mount St. Helens.
The way he understood it, a solo climber was lost on the volcano, and there had been an avalanche. This Good Samaritan jumped into his rig and raced off like a wild man toward Amboy, Washington, over 100 miles away. I would sure like to know his name, since I have some large, framed photographs waiting for him. Hopefully, he returned to the lake and caught more fish!
After packing up the camera case, some precooked food, an emergency blanket, the medical kit and a few other items, I sat there hoping the weather would offer even a vague reprieve. Minutes soon turned to hours and with time running out on the day it was time to descend, despite the weather and depth of snow, and now, the late hour as well. There was a substantial possibility that I would not live to see another day.
As the sun began to set, two climbers emerged from below and to the left of my slightly down-sloping campsite - which only ten years before had been a rumbling, boiling mass of volcanic mud and ash - while rambling on about something in Monument Service jargon. There was Hans Canstrom, and Gary Kapezysnki. Hans looked up from their conversation and smiled at me all too incidentally, as if I had been camped by a lake or at a KOA campground the entire while. This time I managed a smile back.
The Ranger Station at Amboy had received a frantic phone call from one kind and concerned fisherman.
Their struggle in reaching my campsite became more evident as I wrestled a 75-pound pack onto my back and followed them down from my campsite, high on the Crater's south side. Wading up to our chests at times through fresh snow in a blinding whiteout, miles of it, clearly I would have been post-eruption casualty number one had I tried to go it alone much longer.
Arriving home quite abruptly it seemed - courtesy of a midnight ride by Steven Peterson - I sat right back where it had all begun just over three weeks earlier, wrapped up in those same blankets, staring out the window of my penthouse apartment in North Seattle. Unlike the Mount Baker Expedition, I was in pretty good shape though, having lost only 25 to 30 pounds.
And so ended the expedition with one exception: the tent and some of my gear was still up on the mountain.
Of Mice and Men
The rest of my belongings were salvaged from the mountain two weeks later by our original team of three: Steve Peterson, Ken Huck and myself, amidst that same horrendous blizzard. Once we reached the tent in a complete whiteout, guided by my now thoroughly ingrained memory of those slopes, I unzipped the door and took a look inside at what would have become of me. Just as I poked my face inside, that little mouse came bounding down my left arm and zipped off across the snowfield in a bluuurrrr!
So this is where she had been all the while, after all that worrying about her, safe and secure somewhere inside my tent. That was good with me, because mountain mice are almost always nice mice.