Washington Travelogue: Day 2

Mt. St. HelensI drove to Mt. St. Helens today after breakfast.  It was a spectacularly sunny, clear day.  You could see the mountain with the gaping hole in its side as soon as you got off the highway, looming mysteriously over the landscape.  A few miles down, Mt. Adams became visible for a few minutes, and it was amazing to see two snow-covered behemoths towering above the farmland. 

I stopped to take pictures of the mountain at the Visitor’s Center, and then paused at the edge of the blast zone 14 miles out from the peak.  You could see the change in the landscape – smaller trees, not so lush.  As I drew closer and closer to the mountain, the trees got smaller and smaller, the shrubbery wiry and low to the ground.  This was not a happy ecology.  At Coldwater Lake, the water was teal with glacial silt, and the signs told visitors not to pick up any ash.  Yes, there were still ash deposits clearly visible almost 30 years after the blast. 

Stump sheered off by blast from Mt. St. HelensAs I ascended the final ridge before the massive peak, a shocking change occurred.  Until then, there was greenery everywhere.  Admittedly, the trees were small and rather stubby looking, but they were there.  But now, they weren’t there.  Instead, there was rubble, and the gray trunks of many trees smashed to the ground by the blast.  And as the rental SUV climbed higher, there were stumps of trees that had been sheered off at ground-level, their massive trunks turned instantly into sharp splinters in the force of the initial blast, adding their wooden debris to the superheated steam pouring forth from the volcano.  In all, more than 230 square miles of forest were destroy by the eruption.

When I reached Johnston’s Ridge, I looked down into a deep valley before the heart of the volcano, and saw complete devastation.  Huge hummocks of rock littered one side of the valley from the landslide that triggered the explosion.  One part of the ridge was sheered off at the top by the larges landslide in recorded history.  The top of the mountain disintegrated during an earthquake, and the landslide buried the valley and kept right on going over the section of Johnston’s ridge that was right in front of it and into the valley on the other side.  Part of the landslide was deflected by the taller sections of the ridge and poured instead down the river valley.  In a matter of minutes, the river that once filled the valley below the peak was gone – buried so deep it would never run again.  These days, a much smaller melt-water river cuts through the ash and rubble deposited in the valley, snaking its way downward from the glaciers of the peak. 

One fact I found completely amazing was that the explosion triggered by the massive landslide actually outpaced the landslide.  The landslide was clocking in at more than 100 mph, and the explosion that followed it was over 300 mph.  So it ran right over and past the landslide, exploding trees in the near vicinity, knocking them flat on the further ridges, and burning the forest where it stood a few miles out.  When the slower landslide hit the ridge and filled the surrounding valleys, it pushed Spirit Lake 800 feet up the side of the mountain, where the water picked up all the flattened trees and washed them back down into the rubble-strewn lake bed.  The heat melted the glaciers, of course, and so mudslides began pouring down from the volcano, which was also emitting a large column of ash.  All in all, it was quite a show. 

Even after the violent eruption in 1980, the volcano remained active, pouring out a slow-moving lava which eventually formed a new cone in the center of the caldera, and evidencing other volcanic activity well into the next century. 

All in all, it was a wonderful, informative day, and I was so exhausted by the end of my volcano visit that I fell into bed right after supper!



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