On the 200th anniversary of our country’s birth my cousin Dale and I joined one of the last mass climbs of Mount Adams in south-central Washington. I left from work on the Friday afternoon, drove to Yakima to pick him up, and we went to a campground outside Trout Lake to spend the night. Of course the excitement and the noise of all the other campers kept us awake all night. I don’t remember getting any sleep at all.
We were rousted out for the climb around 3:00 in the morning. We received some orientation and instructions and lined up to begin the climb. One of the instructions was to stay in line and not to pass those ahead of us. We were young and strong. Many of those ahead of us were neither, so the temptation to violate that rule was strong.
We reached tree-line just before dawn, and that morning provided one of the most spectacular views I will ever see. We watched the ghostly pale peak of Mount Saint Helens emerge from the night, turning raspberry pink, then dazzling white. Before it erupted, Saint Helens was nearly perfectly symmetrical. As we strapped on our crampons and struggled to keep our places in line, we watched Mount Saint Helens in the distance, a graceful and beautiful mountain that later proved to be powerful and dangerous.
On the morning of May 18th, 1980, I was scheduled to meet my parents for breakfast at a designated restaurant outside Everett. I was a bit reluctant for this meeting, since I intended to tell my conservative Presbyterian parents that my girlfriend and I were going to move in together. I didn’t anticipate them being pleased with the news.
But that morning as I drove up I-5, I couldn’t for the life of me find the restaurant where we were to meet. It turns out that it had been sold and the name had been changed since any of us had been in the vicinity. I ate alone that morning. That was the day Mount Saint Helens blew.
Living in Seattle, I witnessed the eruption by television. It was hard to comprehend the power of the volcano by watching it in a little box in the living room. Even now, viewing the video records of that event trivialize its magnitude.
We see a tremendous explosion as the north slope of the mountain slumps away. A billowing cloud of ash spews out of the mountain, reaching 12 miles high in less than ten minutes and drifting to the east to land in 11 states. Eastern Washington was smothered with up to six inches of snowy ash. But unlike snow, ash doesn’t melt away.
Events like the Whitworth College graduation ceremony in Spokane had to be cancelled when Mount Saint Helens came to call. My brother’s mother-in-law, my Kindergarten teacher, stepped out of her house in Othello with a camera to take a snapshot of the mammatus clouds of ash descending upon her.
My parents, eating breakfast by themselves in Everett, decided to head home quickly by way of Stevens Pass. The radio news kept telling them that the ash clouds were going to completely disrupt activities and travel in Eastern Washington. But they kept driving until they came to a State Patrol roadblock: the highway was closed beyond this point.
My father had lived his whole life in this country. He knew every road and trail. While other travelers turned back to Wenatchee to compete for the limited number of hotel rooms, my dad left the main road and picked his way southeast towards his home on back roads and smaller highways. Ash closed in, blanketing the highway and making it difficult to see beyond the bumper of the car. The day turned dark as night, although it was close to noon. Somehow, dad was able to make it home without running off the road, colliding with other scoff-laws or ruining the engine of his car. We spoke by phone that evening.
It took fifteen hours to complete the 1976 climb to the summit of Mount Adams. Our view was spectacular: we could see mountain peaks as far away as Canada and southern Oregon. The Pacific Ocean was visible beyond placid Mount Saint Helens. I figure we were seeing around 800 miles. Sunlight glancing off the glacier was burning the bottom of my nose.
It was on the descent that my lack of proper equipment became an issue. The first three miles was a sit-down-and-slide affair, and you can get going rather fast. We had been instructed to bring an ice-axe with us to control the slide. I didn’t have an ice axe, so I brought a wooden staff with a stubby metal hook at the end. It was used at one time to throw high-power electrical switches in the Taunton substation on the Milwaukee Road. I had picked it up in the brush on one of my hikes as a boy. It may have saved lives in its day on the railroad, but the thing was a worthless ice-axe. I tucked it under my left armpit, sat down and leaned back, kicked off on my slide and the staff yanked itself out of my hands and went skittering down the mountain ahead of me while I slid out of control. Another hiker snagged the staff and handed it back to me when I passed.
It took only three hours to make it back to camp. We didn’t have to stay behind the people ahead of us on the descent. I drove back to Yakima, where Dale’s wife refused to let me drive home. I had been awake for 52 hours already, but I thought I could make it to my own bed before sleeping. She was adamant and I slept in Yakima.
The slide down Mount Adams and the eruption of Mount Saint Helens took place before I went to live in Ireland. My prize souvenir of that experience was the Wheatstone English Concertina I came home with. By the time I had settled myself in a little Spokane house with an old friend, I had begun picking out tunes on the concertina. No teacher. Nobody even knew what that thing was. Nonetheless, in a few months I was fairly accurate at a few tunes and working on building my repertoire. I was trying to earn a living as a graphic artist, so naturally I had to record the explosive growth of my skills as a concertina player (although in reality, as you will see in the illustration, that explosion was unexpected). Mount Saint Helens was my model.