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Mount Saint Helens

Return to Mount St. Helens

In retrospect, I was destined to climb Mount St. Helens before I even saw it.

In early 1980, the great volcano started rumbling and spewing ash. As late winter turned to spring, the earthquakes and mini eruptions increased.

May 18, 1980

On the morning of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens exploded with a devastating lateral blast. The day is unforgettable to me because even as Mount St. Helens was unleashing its fury, I was walking across an auditorium stage in Wisconsin to receive my college diploma. It was my first cosmic connection with the mountain. I could hardly know that we would intersect many more times.

Three days later and nearly fully recovered from hangovers, my friend Mick, my brother Scott and I crammed everything I owned (plus Mick’s cat) into a powder blue VW Beetle and started a road trip back to Maine. Somewhere in Indiana the ash cloud of Mount St. Helens caught up with us. If a sign of the devastation made it this far, we knew it must have been hellacious at ground zero.

A View from the PCT

One of the life altering decisions I had made in college was creating a pact with Mick and another campus mate that we would hike the Pacific Crest Trail someday. On April 1, 1983, we stood at the border of Mexico and started walking north. By August, we were hiking through southern Washington. On one astounding blue sky day in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, I topped a ridge and took in an unforgettable view. To my right, jutting into the sky, were the white slopes of Mount Adams. On the horizon in front of me, Mount Rainier rose above the clouds. To my left, another commanding peak appeared. One that was once part of the glacier-clad trio, but now stood out as a completely grey dome. It was Mount St. Helens.

The scene was so stunning that I yearned to burn it into my memory

I dropped my pack to the ground and sat next to it. The scene was so stunning that I yearned to burn it into my memory. Thinking my camera might help in that regard, I pulled it out and squeezed off a few valuable shots. (In those pre-digital days of shooting slides, I needed to weigh the potential cost of taking every photo. Every shot I took meant one less opportunity until I could restock my film supply.) What I couldn’t have known at the time was that I would return four years later to climb all three volcanoes in the scene.


A View from the Summit

In 1987, Mount St. Helens was opened to climbers for the first time since the blast. That August, in the midst of a mountaineering vacation, I did the 10-mile round trip to the top. Boy, was I glad I did. The experience of emerging from one of the few stands of old growth forest that remained into the moonscape of grey ash was surreal. The landscape was inpermanent and raw. Dust blew around our feet. Rockslides tumbled into the crater. The only thing that stood out in the enormous field of grey was Spirit Lake — a water body that had doubled in size in the moments after the blast. The brilliant blue surface was mesmerizing. A mat of enormous Douglas Firs that had been mowed down by the lateral volcanic blast was tucked against the far shore.

We spent an hour on the summit taking in the scene and pondering how long it would take the area to rebound (“more than my lifetime, at least” I thought), then we scrambled down through the ash in search of other adventures.

But Mount St. Helens wasn’t finished with me yet.

Jeff Ryan on Mt St Helens

An Invitation from the Past

In March, 2017, I was looking through videos of past climbing and hiking trips. I popped a tape into the machine. Suddenly my much younger self and hiking mates were on the screen, climbing up through a pile of ash.

I knew what I had to do. I hit the “pause” button and dashed off an email to my friend, Ed. Within two hours, we booked tickets for the 2017 Mount St. Helens reunion tour.

If there were a medal platform for “the greatest decisions I’ve ever made”, this trip would make the top three. Being surrounded by Mother Nature’s resurgence for two weeks was incredible. Standing on the summit 30 years after the first time was certainly a thrill. But exploring the mountain from all sides was an even more powerful force of hope and inspiration.

Log Mats on Windy Ridge

A Hopeful Future

It is a facsinating time to visit Mount St. Helens. The marks of the blast are still there (notably the mat of logs floating on Spirit Lake 37 years afterward), but the most noticable scars are diminishing by the year and even by the day. Mountain goats have reclaimed the high peaks of the outer blast zone. Elk herds graze the meadows below. Acres of branchless dead trees, stuck in the ground like telephone poles are being overtaken by healthy young firs.

I hiked around the backcountry with a sense of wonder and an enormous smile. Months later, I am still filled with gratitude. Seems like Mount St. Helens had a reason to want to stay in touch.

I can’t wait to go back.

Find out more about Jeff and his hiking adventures at where you’ll also be able to get hold of his most recent book Blast: My Return to Mount Saint Helens (as well as his other hiking adventure books).

About Jeff

Jeff Ryan Photo

Jeff Ryan, a Maine based author, speaker and photographer, has a contagious passion for exploring the outdoors, particularly on foot.

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