August, 1997. I awoke at Climbers Bivouac with first light. Just south of St. Helens’s massive horseshoe, the gouge left behind by the 1980 eruption, Climbers Bivouac “is a developed site with parking, tent pads, fire grates, and toilets, but no running water and no picnic table,” according to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument website.
Solo at 3600’, I didn’t heat water for coffee. By 5:30 a.m., I was off through the conifers before other climbers. Since the permit system began in 1987, all climbers must take Monitor Ridge, which rises like an indented spine just west of true south, traversing almost exactly the curved center of the horseshoe that is the newer, lower volcano.
The Cascadian snowpeaks have long been my sacred mountains. I grew up just east of Seattle. By the time I’d turned forty, having lived in southwest Montana and taken a few rock- and ice-climbing courses, I wanted to climb those peaks. Oddly, I began with the highest and hardest, Mt. Rainier, a preparatory mountain for Himalayan climbers. By the summer of 1997, I had only St. Helens left to traverse in my native state, which boasts five prominent volcanoes, part of what conservationist Grant McConnell long ago called the Cascades’ “long, stately procession.”
Less than a month earlier, I’d climbed Mt. Hood with an old friend. Within days, my father, suffering from ALS, was admitted to Overlake Medical Center. He couldn’t catch his breath and was placed on a ventilator. After watching him wriggle on the wrack three days and nights, my mother, brothers, and I elected to pull the plug. He lasted less than half an hour, dying peacefully on a sunny Saturday morning.
Around two months earlier, I’d tried Mt. Rainier via the Kautz Route, but its ice cliffs and deteriorating weather turned us back. So, these three volcanoes bookended my father’s dying and death. I felt lost from part of me as I climbed high.
Mt. St. Helens is known at “Loowit” to the Klickitat and “Lawetiat’la” to the Cowlitz. It’s a Sahaptin word that translates as “Smoker” or “Smoky.” In his poem, “Ghost Lake,” Gary Snyder extols the pre- and post-1980 volcano.
Loowit cooled in white
New crater summit lightly dusted
Morning fumarole summit mist-wisps—‘Hah’ . . . ‘Hah’
The large, sub-alpine lake that used to spread along its north-northwest base was always known in English as Spirit Lake. That is the subject of the second movement of composer Alan Hovhaness’s Mt. St. Helens Symphony (1982). As with other tribes near volcanoes, the Cowlitz expressed respect through taboo and distance, and St. Helens for millennia figured in an eternal triangle spat.
Shorter and shapelier than both Mt. Adams (“Pahto”) and Mt. Hood (“Wy-east”), and lying south of the Columbia River, it figured as the chaste maiden in between, forever the prize in the never-ending fight between lusty volcano-bucks. Nothing new about the eternal triangle.
Over a century ago, John Williams sustained and elaborated this triangular tension and affinity in 1912 in his second book devoted to Northwest volcanoes, Guardians of the Columbia. Loowit or Lawetiat’la turned into the name St. Helens after 1792, during the George Vancouver nomenclatural makeover and expedition. The Captain dispensed names of friends—Baker, Rainier, St. Helens—as favors, as flatteries. The power of local names breathed over centuries dissipated before 19th century cartographers and recently imported names.
Geologists long ago concluded that St. Helens was—is—the youngest of Cascadian snowpeaks, at approximately 40,000 years. In other words, it is new. If youth equals beauty, we’ve got the answer, since the pre-1980 St. Helens was usually judged the most beautiful of the region’s snowpeaks, the one most like Japan’s revered Mt. Fuji. If beauty means shapeliness and symmetry, the older St. Helens was the looker. Not perfect but closest to the Platonic idea of volcano, an abstracted bell shape whose Greek curves cling to the mind’s eye.
Certainly St. Helens proved noisier in the 19th century than any other regional volcano, as it erupted off and on for twenty-six years, between 1831 and 1857. Burps from a baby volcano. In 1847, midway through this period, painter Paul Kane captured the puffing peak in a romanticized treatment, Mount St. Helens with Smoke Cone. This oil on canvas, owned by the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas, displays a wholly white volcano shadowed by a broad cap, like a wide white Chinese sun hat perched firmly over the volcano’s upper third, smoke over snow. The smoke cone casts a curving shadow over most of the peak.
According to Kitty Harmon, Kane “traveled throughout the Oregon Territory [between 1845 and 1848] and applied himself especially to depicting the land and peoples of the Northwest coast and the Columbia plateau before the oncoming invasion of white settlers.” Kane produced some 100 oils from 500 field sketches, but his St. Helens with Smoke Cone features no Indians. Just a softened landscape, the double-hatted volcano reflected in a broad lake that dominates the foreground.
That youngest of Northwest volcanoes also receives attention in James Gilchrist Swan’s regional history and ethnography, The Northwest Coast (1857), as crucial a 19th-century text about what became the Evergreen State as any. Swan was based in Willapa Bay from 1852 to 1855, but he ranged widely. While fishing in the lower Columbia one morning, he saw it. “Looking up the river, almost in a line due east, Mount St. Helen’s reared its snowy head high in the region of the clouds. The rapidly increasing morning rendered it visible, although a hundred miles in the interior.” Swan anthropomorphizes the landscape in a standard way, and his salute describes a part of the visual entitlement of Northwesterners, who have so many mountain lovelies to regard.
Climbing Monitor Ridge is straightforward, the route mostly less than a scramble and clearly marked. When St. Helens lost its head on 18 May 1980, its top 1300’ disappeared, so the high point along the horseshoe is 2549 m or 8363’. In altitude it’s more like an Oregon volcano. Just a long hike, a bit short of a vertical mile. I emerged from the woods around 5000’ and sifted through rocks. Higher up, the angle tilted slightly and my feet slid against pumice, like a scree slope. Mt. Adams, almost as broad and hunched as Mt. Rainier to the north, grew in size and clarity. Morning sun shafted past, lighting the world to the Columbia River and beyond. Pacing my breaths, I started counting volcanoes south of Mt. Hood, bright beads on a stately Cascade mound of jewelry. I regret not taking more than one geology class is college. In Basin and Range, the first volume in his remarkable Annals of the Former Earth, John McPhee calls geology a “fountain of metaphor” and I’ve long believed, as have many, that the earth’s story forms the ur-text of our own.
Pausing infrequently, I breasted the horseshoe by 8:30 a.m., gasping at the curving ridge and the new dome just ahead and below. Behind sunglasses and purple balaclava, I squinted against the lava dust and particulates of pumice blown up against the rim by updrafts. My watering eyes blinked to clear and I panned slowly right and left and ahead. I had never stood in such a scene. The foreground was Geology 095 in the raw, a piece of the continuous plot of eruption and erosion and subsequent dome building. A language guy, I love ‘stratovolcano,’ just like ‘stratocumulus’ clouds. These terms promise big.
The horseshoe tilts just east of north, its points ringing the breach. If extended, they would almost frame the diminished Spirit Lake: no longer subalpine blue, fringed with conifers.
According to the USGS, St. Helens erupted seventeen times between 1980 and 1991. Additionally, it erupted in October 2004, and off and on since then. The Lava Dome is 3450 feet wide and, at its highest point from the crater floor, over 1300’ tall. The Dome remains well below the yawning crater rim, and, according to the USGS “Volcano Hazards Program,” “By 2013 the two [new] domes had refilled about 7% of the crater.” Dome building occurs in its own time, not ours.
The post-European history of St. Helens involves a corporate land-grab and undue corporate influence over forests in the 20th century. Loowit, trivialized in name as St. Helens, was next up for acquisition. By 1864, only seven years after Swan’s book, The Northwest Coast, appeared in print, part of the volcano was given to the railroad. According to National Park Service historian and railroad apologist Alfred Runte, author of Trains of Discovery, “few people realized that the peak fell within the boundaries of the federal land grant awarded in 1864 to the Northern Pacific Railroad to help offset the cost of its construction.” “Offset” indeed.
For over a century the Northern Pacific owned a quarter of the pie of St. Helens, the southwest square mile of which originated at the crater. The Northern Pacific was a staple in the burgeoning visual menu of Northwest tourism, since, according to Runte, “Mt. St. Helens, visible from the trains approaching Portland, Oregon, was featured as ‘the great SugarLoaf’ of the Pacific Northwest.” Food metaphors focus our desire for contact, for eating a mountain. Quickly St. Helens was packaged for the tourist gaze. It still is.
The fact that a quarter of the volcano was owned by a railroad for over a century strains belief, more evidence of the absurdity of checkerboard ownership, that pattern of abstraction favored by wonks in power positions who never set foot on the ground. The 1864 Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant proved the largest in U.S. history, since the railroad was subsidized to the point of securing every other section (i.e. odd-numbered sections, or plots) in vast grants that stretched many miles each side of the track. In theory the railroads spiked land values; in practice, this system of mixed ownership quickly proved a nightmare for management. It reflects atomistic thinking that couldn’t be more destructive of ecosystems.
By 1970, St. Helens, this land-grant quarter of the pie transferred to the holdings of Burlington Northern, Inc., the new railroad corporation. Two years to the day after the big eruption, Burlington Northern decided “to deed its property on the summit of Mount St. Helens . . . to the federal government.” Presumably this chunk of volcano held little commercial value for the railroad, and after the explosion, when Congress was finalizing the monument, Burlington Northern seized a solid PR opportunity by gifting the chunk to the Feds. Ironically, most people recreating around St. Helens never knew about the gift or the long corporate ownership before it.
In 1982 Congress created the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (110,000 acres). It was only half the size called for by the Mt. St. Helens Protective Association (216,000 acres), recommended by the local grassroots lobby during the 1970s, and much closer to the 40,000-acre monument proposed by the timber lobby. The old story of corporate interests besting the public interest.
The Monument is managed by USFS, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which makes it one among a handful of anomalies in the national monument system: the National Park Service (NPS) administers the vast majority of national monuments. Behind this status lurks a history of interagency rivalry (NPS vs. USFS) for control of designations like wilderness areas.
When I was growing up my family camped at least once at Spirit Lake, and I remember day trips. One morning in the late 1960s we drove the three recently paved miles from the lakeshore campground to the road end, the usual asphalt loop. St. Helens loomed above and to the left and right, consuming the field of vision.
I wanted to climb but lacked fitness and experience. My desire singled me out; my father, a hiker in his youth, no longer hiked and certainly didn’t want to stomp upwards in snow. But I was not ready, as Gary Snyder had been in 1945, at age 15, with an old Mazamas guide. So decades passed before I returned that August morning. And when I returned I climbed a different—but not different—volcano. Many require new optics to judge the newer, “misshapen” volcano a worthy successor to the old white knockout. For some, a sense of loss lingers, as it’s hard to let go of that old symmetry.
When I visited in my youth, I did not know much of anything about the growing conflict between recreation and the timber industry. Weyerhaeuser had been logging the hell out of the low-altitude forests particularly stretching west, in the Toutle and Lewis River drainages and elsewhere, for decades. Back in the day of unchecked clearcut, patches of St. Helens’s green shirts were shorn long before she blew her top.
Meanwhile, generations of campers had discovered the outdoors at Spirit Lake lodges and campgrounds, and some got vocal about those skirts being denuded. Alan Guggenheim in his 1986 history, Spirit Lake People, tells this story among others. The Mt. St. Helens Protective Association re-constituted itself in 1977; the same year, the RARE II process (i.e. second Roadless Inventory), began, and incredibly enough, it recommended no wilderness designation for the volcano or its environs (and ultimately, its wilderness recommendations were largely voided through court challenges). But then St. Helens took matters into its own hands, effectively tilting the conflict in favor of preservationists.
De facto wilderness exists because of the Restricted Zone inside and just beyond the horseshoe. You can’t hike in there unless you’re a volcanologist or botanist or climatologist or some lucky, high-placed journalist. No official wilderness exists in the vast, mostly barren amphitheater before me that few are allowed to pass.
With the taste of pumice grains on my tongue, I’d quit the rim by mid-morning and started down. I met a steady stream of hikers, happy to have had the giant horseshoe spectacle to myself. I savored the shade offered by the firs in the day’s rising heat, put my tent away, and drove down to Ape Cave, a mile-long lava tube cave where I sauntered, in dim light, with others. By late afternoon I drove north on I-5, heading for my parents’ home, the same one where I grew up, now emptier.
A decade later, I sat up when I found an article in the Great Falls Tribune: “Push to remake Mount St. Helens as national park.” It turns out that the Forest Service, after the summer season of 2007, decided to close Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, “the only year-round visitor center with a clear view of the steaming crater.”
The reason? According to journalist Chester Allen, the Center “has $2 million of deferred maintenance and is too expensive to keep open during a time of steep budget cuts for the Forest Service.” A sadly familiar refrain. This decision set off political shock waves, including some impetus to fold this USFS-managed national monument into the broad National Park Service system. The change never occurred, though. Presumably the USFS was not about to give up the place to the NPS. After a four-year hiatus, it reopened in 2012 as the Mt. St. Helens Science and Learning Center at Coldwater Ridge. The Monument remains under USFS jurisdiction.
That controversy, half a dozen or more years ago, proved to be only another page in a long story of interagency rivalry. Most don’t know that wilderness designation originated in the first generation of the Forest Service. By the mid-20th century, the Forest Service was regarded by many as the handmaiden of the corporate timber interests; the NPS was thought to be the agency advocating for preservation of public lands. In the history in the Northwest, the Forest Service lost out to the National Park Service in the cause of wilderness preservation and designation. Therefore in this de facto wilderness, snowmobiles and ORVs, for instance, are allowed on select Forest Service roads.
Eight years after my climb, at a professional meeting in Eugene, Oregon, I listened to Gary Snyder read from his collection of poems, Danger on Peaks. Like many, I stood in line for a quick chat and autograph. The title comes from the Mt. St. Helens sequence of nine poems, which opens the book. Those poems have obsessed me. St. Helens was such a turn-on for Snyder, the teenager from Portland, that he climbed all the volcanoes in one summer then St. Helens three more times in the 1940s. The first four poems evoke the older, shapelier volcano. The final four speak of the newer, lower, misshapen one, after Snyder returned in 2000. He concludes the set in “Enjoy the Day,” stating, “went up behind a mountain hemlock / asked my old advisors where they lay / what’s going on? / they say / ‘New friends and dear sweet old tree ghosts / here we are again. Enjoy the day.’” A powerful paradox bridges aesthetics and geology, since what we regard as beautiful becomes, of course, irrelevant in the midst of geologic processes—an eruption, for instance.
Driving to Bellevue after my climb in 1997, I listened to Hovhaness’s Mt. St. Helens Symphony, and the “Dawn Hymn” in its “Volcano” movement moved me to tears in its unfolding.. From the first time I’d heard it, this music sunk deep inside me. Hovhaness describes the “Dawn hymn” as a “hymn of praise to the youthful power and grandeur of the Cascade Mountains—the volcanic energy . . . rising, piercing the clouds of heaven.” I thought about my father, newly gone.
What to make of a diminished thing? During my quiet time on the rim, I blended old and new volcanoes even as I looked inside myself for glimpses of my late father and my former self. The place was same, only different. Just like me.
At Loowit, the new masks the old. But that smaller rising dome proclaims afresh the baby volcano and reminds everyone of the business of volcanoes. In such business, deep time reorders human time, thereby warning us all of our tiny place.