Round St Helen’s as it exploded – in a Cessna!


Round St Helen’s as it exploded – in a Cessna!

Well actually it had exploded a couple of days before but it was still smoking profusely!

It was 1980 and we were heading up the coast to Washington in our VW camper van. We had one tent, three kids and one mother-in-law.

We weren’t supposed to have the mother-in-law with us at this point but she’d stayed on. Liz’s father had died a couple of months before and she’d come out to stay with us in California. We were using every holiday to travel and had a big one planned out up the West Coast to Canada. We were going to camp around with no particular itinerary and make our way up the Cascades to Oregon and Washington. I wanted to check out a bit of mountain Kerouac country. Jack had been up those mountains with the bears, fire-watching, doing his zen, writing poetry and he’d written about it in Desolation Angels – one of my favourite books. The plan was that we dropped off Liz’s mum in San Francisco to fly home but I guess she couldn’t face the thought of going home to 4emptiness. She stayed with us.

It put a slightly different tinge to the journey but she was welcome.

As we were heading up the coast Mount St Helens blew up. It pulverised three thousand feet of solid rock to create a massive crater that you could have put Mount Snowden into. It erupted with the force of a nuclear explosion. There was devastation, ash clouds, deaths and witness accounts. It was probably the mostly closely monitored eruption in history. The news was dominated by it. So we thought we’d wander over and take a look.

We drove down the road as far as we could. Everywhere was flattened. Huge hundred foot pine trees were blown over and stripped of all their branches. Everywhere was covered in thick ash. The place looked like the surface of the moon.

We arrived at these barriers that stopped you going further and a couple of stern faced troopers standing there in case you thought you’d try and edge round them. You could see the road further down was covered in big dunes of ash and in the distance there was the mountain complete with smoking crater. I would have like to have managed a little bit nearer but they were worried that it was going to erupt again. There was a lot of seismic activity.

By the side of the barriers the local people were using all their entrepreneurial savvy to exploit the tourists, like us, who were flocking to the area. They were selling plastic bags of genuine Mount St Helens ash for a dollar a bag (complete with authentication certificate). As the stall was set up on a mound of ash and the whole area was covered in the stuff for twenty six miles, this seemed like a fairly unlikely business. We could have filled the van with it in ten minutes of shoveling. The strange thing was that they were doing a roaring trade.

What attracted my attention was a little flyer nailed on to the stall. It was advertising a fly past, close-up of the mountain.

I took the directions off the busy stall-holder and we set off for the airfield. We negotiated a very reasonable price and the pilot, who was very keen to show his photos and tell us of what it had looked like when it had exploded; decided that he could pack us all into his little plane. We thought it was best that we all went. It we went going to go up in smoke it was better to do it together. Sounds a bit mean now.

So it was that me, Liz, Mother-in-law and three children took to the sky in what felt like a moped with wings, build with paper and string and powered by a paraffin heater. It chugged through the sky and hardly seemed to make any headway. That was good because it enabled me to take loads of great pictures.

From up in the sky you could see the mighty pines flattened in lines by the force of the detonation. They looked like match-sticks. There was mile upon mile of ash and devastation. The lake – Spirit Lake, once so clear and beautiful was a muddy brown, damned wreck, full of mud and fallen trees. As we crawled closer we could see the extent of the explosion. The huge crater gaped and billowed smoke. We flew right into it. The pilot was having fun. He gleefully told us that if it went up again at that moment we would be instantly vaporised. As we peered into that open maw spewing smoke that seemed a little bit scary.

It didn’t go up and we returned to land. An amazing experience. It wasn’t quite Kerouac’s experience of the cascades, not exactly Zen-like, but it was one of the most awe inspiring journeys of my life (even with the mother-in-law in tow).