The Day Mt. St. Helens Blew

Our view of Mt. Rainier from Chinook Pass Photo credit:

Our view of Mt. Rainier from Chinook Pass
Photo credit:

Note: Inspired by memories of my younger days, this story is the second in a series looking back on my experiences growing up in Seattle.

It was May 18, 1980. I was standing on a snow-covered ridge south of Chinook Pass on a bright, sunny day with Mt. Rainier towering over the western skyline. Above us to the east stood Naches Peak, a 6,000 foot peak overlooking our snow camp. I was encamped with nine teenagers and one other adult – my friend Scott.

Scott and I were leaders of an Explorer Post in Seattle with nine teenagers including three girls. These were kids I had backpacked with a number of times. I had led backpack trips over previous summers with each of them as members of the group. They were all great kids, and like me, they loved the mountains. Now they were sixteen and old enough for their parents to entrust them to my care to teach them mountaineering.

Our practice slope for self-arrest practice near Naches Peak Photo credit:

Our practice slope for self-arrest practice near Naches Peak
Photo credit:

Our snow camping and ice axe training was the final field trip before our planned graduation climb of Mt. Rainier. We had hiked in from Cayuse Pass the day before, and we were busy kicking steps in the steep snow after breakfast. Scott and I were supervising ice axe practice from our vantage point on the ridge above our campsite. I looked west to take in the fantastic view, and that is when I saw what appeared to be a massive storm cloud, and it was clearly moving in our direction. I even thought I saw a bolt of lightning. That was strange.

Ash cloud of Mt. St. Helens soon after the May 18, 1980 eruption. Photo credit:  Joan Magin

Ash cloud of Mt. St. Helens soon after the May 18, 1980 eruption.
Photo credit: Joan Magin

It was a sunny day and the weather report had been favorable. I looked at my altimeter which would indicate an increase in elevation with any drop in barometric pressure. It showed no change from the day before. This was too weird. Nothing in my experience would account for a sudden weather change without a corresponding change in air pressure. All I knew was what I could see, and that was a colossal storm headed directly for us.

In my experience, when something is happening that you do not understand, do something now and ask questions later. I yelled out to the group, ‘That’s it, we are done! Coil your ropes. Pack up. We are leaving NOW!’ These kids could hike! We boogied down the mountain and within an hour we were back at the parking lot. It was about 10:00 a.m. as we headed down the highway. Droplets began striking our windshield, but there was no water. These drops just blew off our windshield. I soon realized those droplets were volcanic ash when, thirty miles down the road, we finally had radio reception. That was when we first heard that Mt. St. Helens had erupted at 7:32 a.m. that morning. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when I realized we had averted a major disaster.

Ash cloud looking north Photo credit: USGS

Ash cloud looking north obliterating Mt. Rainier in the background
Photo credit: USGS

By the time we arrived back in Seattle, the ash cloud from the eruption had turned day into night in the City of Yakima, and our camp had been directly in its path. I have no idea what happened to the day hikers who were out there when the ash started to fall. I only know how relieved the parents of my young climbers were when we called them from my house in Seattle to say we were all safely back in town.

A few weeks later, six of my young scouts reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. My reward was the satisfaction of seeing the elation on their faces. It was the 16th anniversary of my first climb of Mt. Rainier, and these kids achieved the same goal – reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier as a teenager. I could not have been happier for them.

I eventually lost track of these young people as they got on with their busy lives. Although we did not climb together again as a group, we will always have the experience we shared that day, the day Mt. St. Helens blew her top.


Dad, what are you doing?

A typical view of the Cascades on a gorgeous sunny day.

I want to start by saying I am nothing like my father.

“Hey! Who are you people?”
“We’re your collective subconscious of the people that knew both you and your father, and unless you are going to state that this is a work of fiction, you are going to have to start again.”

Hmm. Okay, let me start again by saying I never thought I was much like my father, but I will admit I see more and more of him in me as I get older. I was the child who favored my mother’s side both in looks and temperament. Over the years, however, I took on this look. It wasn’t so much a scowl as it was a deadpan expression, neither approving nor disapproving. That’s my dad. (My mother constantly scowled, so this isn’t about her.)

My dad’s sense of humor was dry, droll in fact. He and his clan could sit and tell whoppers all day and never so much as smile. I remember a family reunion when I was a young boy listening to my grandpa and his brothers tell whopper after whopper, and I was captivated. After one particularly outrageous fish tale, I asked in all seriousness, “Really?” That got a smile out of them, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I made their day.

My father was kind of a loner. I don’t mean he didn’t have a lot of friends. It was more like he didn’t connect deeply with others. The one exception in his life was his mother. My grandma was the most caring, nurturing woman I knew growing up, and my father was absolutely devoted to her until the day she died. Other than that, he was typically kind of distant. And more than anything, I wanted to impress him. I think I did in some ways, but he never said so.

I remember one time coming up to him in the basement workshop where he was running the table saw. I was in junior high school and I approached him with my report card, my first one with straight A’s, and I said “Hey dad, what are you doing?”
“I’m building some shelves. What’s up?”
“I got my report card. You want to see it?”
He took the envelope and pulled out the slip of paper with the column of A’s, read it over briefly, and gave it back to me. Then he said, “I’m glad you got all A’s. I just wish it wasn’t so easy for you.”
When he saw the stunned look on my face, he said, “Mike, I would rather you had to work your butt off and got all C’s than to see you get all A’s without putting out much effort.”

To say my father was stoic would be a tragic understatement. But in all fairness, he was a product of his upbringing. He never got anything without effort, some might say superhuman effort. He was born in 1919 and grew up in Selah, a rural farming town in central Washington. He graduated high school (barely, from what I’ve been told) in 1937. There was no work except picking fruit in the summer, which he did. Later, he took a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the federal work programs during the Roosevelt years. Then, in 1939, he joined the Army to get out of the middle of nowhere.

My father was always well-read. He knew war was imminent. I think he knew before anyone in the country was even speaking about it. He landed a good job as a clerk at the Presidio in San Francisco because he was the only one in his unit that could type. He could have remained there and prospered in his new role, but he wanted to travel. He told his CO he signed up for a post in Manila, which he took. Anyone who knows a little history will know that was a bad decision. It was just over a year later that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Japanese troops next invaded the Philippines, and my father was on the island of Corregidor when it fell. Atrocities like the Bataan Death March followed, of which my father was a part. He always told me, “The lucky ones died first.” I didn’t understand that until years later when I read numerous accounts from the war.

My dad didn’t talk about the war until he was in his 70’s. His whole life was about living and getting the most out of each day. For him, every day not hiking and climbing in the mountain wilderness areas so near to our Seattle home was another day lost. He signed up for swing shift or graveyard shift as much as he could during his thirty years at Boeing in order to get up and take a day hike before heading to his job. Vacations were for weeklong mountain expeditions, and he retired at the age of 60 in order to spend all the days he could in his beloved mountains. As it turned out, he outlived most of the POW survivors from WWII. He gave up skiing at age 82 when he learned he had Parkinson’s disease, which he determined was what caused him to keep falling down. He still went for day hikes with his pet beagle for a few years until it became too risky to go alone. Both he and his wife, my stepmother, began displaying signs of dementia, and my stepsister moved them back east somewhere when he was 85. There was no love lost between me and my stepsister, so I lost track of him when he moved, and I have no idea when he passed or where his remains are. It doesn’t really matter, because he would not have remembered me by that time.

I remember on a four day hike in the Cascade Mountains I found an unspent .45 caliber bullet, which I picked up. That evening around the campfire, my dad said, “Let me see that bullet you picked up.” I handed it to him. He inspected it, and then tossed it into the campfire. “Dad, what are you doing?” I hollered. We looked at each other wide-eyed for a moment. Then we both jumped up and took shelter behind a log. About thirty seconds later, BOOM! We looked up and the entire campfire was blown out. We quickly ran to extinguish coals that were burning holes in our tent fly and the clothes we had laid out to dry. He never offered an explanation, and I never bothered to ask. It was the most spontaneous, goofy thing I ever experienced with my father.

To know my dad was to know and love the outdoors, which I did from a very young age, something I tried to pass on to my own children. I was 15 years old when I completed the Mountaineers Basic Climbing Course with my father. I climbed Mt. Rainier for the first time that summer of 1965, a milestone for any outdoorsman in the Pacific Northwest.
And that was the legacy my father passed on to me. More than anything, he taught me to survive. Granted, on Maslov’s hierarchy, survival is pretty basic, and there is much more to life than surviving. On a somewhat higher plane I will admit I have acquired some of my father’s sense of humor. And often to my surprise, I find myself quoting my father – some of his philosophy, as well as some of his brain farts. Here are a few that come to mind:
“Show me a man who plays good pool, and I’ll show you a man with a wasted youth.”
“Humility is something you have until you find out.”
“A good loser is someone who loses consistently.”
And whenever I asked where we were or where we were going, my dad always said, “We’re taking a shortcut.”

Looking back, I can recall sort of smiling when my daughters asked me, “Dad, what are you doing?”

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