Skip to main content

After finishing a camper's breakfast of bacon and eggs, Catherine Hickson admired a snowcapped wonder to the west. This was the mountain about which she had read so much.

Ms. Hickson sat in the front passenger seat of a station wagon beside her husband, Paul. She was just 25, six years into a marriage that would not last, a geology student whose curiosity had led her south from Vancouver to this rock quarry facing Mount St. Helens.

It was May 18, 1980, a morning in which a volcano erupted and the landscape of southwestern Washington State was forever altered. The cataclysmic eruption killed 57 people, poured destruction on the surrounding countryside and changed untold lives, among them Ms. Hickson, who later felt fortunate to be alive.

Story continues below advertisement

She endured a harrowing escape from a cascading cloud of rock and ash. Her personal account, titled Mt. St. Helens: Surviving the Stone Wind, is being published this month by Tricouni Press on the silver anniversary of the eruption. A quarter-century later, Ms. Hickson is a world-renowned volcanologist, a field chosen for her by fate.

"It wasn't a horrific event for us," she said this week. "We didn't see dead bodies. At the time, it was just a terrifying but exciting event."

On a glorious spring morning in 1980, a clear blue sky offered a beautiful backdrop for the cone-shaped mountain. The couple took turns looking at the volcano through their telescope, noting a massive bulge on the north face.

At precisely 8:32:21 a.m., the earth began to rumble. Fifteen seconds later, a massive landslide roared down the slope. After six more seconds, the first rocks, some as large as a house, were hurled into the air.

A second landslide sliced through an inner lava dome, generating a tremendous explosion. Magma heated to about 700 degrees Celsius mixed with glacier ice and old mountain rock in an eruption of great force. A destructive surge roared down the mountainside, destroying all in its path.

The surge, which she calls a "stone wind," bowled over virgin stands of mature Douglas firs as though they were corn stalks. The old-growth timber would later lay along the debris field like so many spilled matchsticks.

Those who witnessed the eruption -- and lived -- have never forgotten.

Story continues below advertisement

"I looked up. There was a small poof of black ash from the summit. Then, very quickly, the whole side of the mountain started sliding away. There was an explosion from the middle of the side of the mountain.

"You could see the material cascading out, being thrown out. Black, dark, grey billowing clouds, this whole thing is growing unbelievably quickly. Two plumes, one at the summit and one halfway down, have now coalesced into one gigantic, roiling, boiling cloud of dark, dark grey material that is shooting out to the north."

Her husband snapped a first photograph about 25 seconds after the event began. He quickly shot another. A third and fourth showed a growing cloud, as did the fifth and sixth. The couple were 14 kilometres to the east, but after two minutes, when a seventh and final photo was taken, the growing cloud had obscured the mountain and, soon, the sky as well.

"At first, it was incredibly exciting. I was saying to myself, 'Wow. Amazing.' Then it was, 'Oh my god, we've got to get out of here.' "

They jumped into their dark-green Renault station wagon. Their Labrador retriever cowered on the passenger side floor well and their petrified Malamute dug in around the gear shift. They sped south.

"While we're driving, I'm looking out the window at the back and seeing this cloud," Ms. Hickson says. "It's this grey, billowing wall of material advancing down the road as if it's after us."

Story continues below advertisement

Rocks littered the road, a hazard created by a magnitude 5.2 earthquake.

"What's happening?" Paul Hickson asked, more than once. He dared not take his eyes off the road.

"Don't look," his wife replied. "Just drive."

For a tense 15 minutes, she felt as if the cloud -- "an unbelievable, towering plume of black ash, spreading into a mushroom cloud" -- was going to swallow the world. The sky darkened and lightning flashed. The scene was surreal, otherworldly.

A rain of mud fell. Thick globs of dirt obscured the windshield. Paul stuck his head out the window to navigate.

They came across other motorists who had been out that morning to watch the mountain. They formed a convoy, then got separated. Bridges were washed out and roads proved impassable. In the midst of this odyssey, they came across a family in a station wagon going the other way, intent on getting a better view. They warned them away.

Story continues below advertisement

After more than two hours, they at last reached a roadblock and safety. The body of their station wagon was speckled by a thick coat of muddy ash. The curious, who had driven as close to the mountain as lawmen would allow, gawked at the dishevelled couple.

A year later, Ms. Hickson wrote an honours thesis on the deposits left by the "stone wind." She then completed a doctorate at the University of British Columbia, later becoming the head of the Geological Survey of Canada's office in Vancouver. A research scientist for Natural Resources Canada, she is now in charge of a multinational project to reduce the danger posed by natural hazards in South America. The volcanologist's recorded telephone message includes an emergency contact number for any caller needing to report a natural disaster.

She returns to Mount St. Helens, which she describes as "an amazing natural laboratory," about once a year. She will not make a pilgrimage on the 25th anniversary on Wednesday. After all, the Internet makes it possible for her to check on the condition of her inspiration from the safety of her computer terminal.

Tom Hawthorn is a writer in Victoria.

***

Lots of activity

Mount St. Helens will be the scene of much activity this weekend.

Witnesses to the cataclysm in 1980 are to gather this morning at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, about a six-hour drive south of Vancouver, to tell their harrowing tales.

Entrance to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument will be free on Wednesday, the 25th anniversary of the eruption.

Castle Rock (pop. 2,150) takes its name from a 58-metre-tall volcanic rock formation. The city has a variety of small-town events planned to mark the anniversary, including a kazoo march, a volcano-building contest and a meet-and-greet with the volunteer radio operators who were active during the eruption.

anniversary.htm

The volcano can be viewed from the safety of your computer screen.

www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/volcanocams/msh/index.shtml

Incidentally, organizers have made emergency preparations. Should the volcano become active this weekend, the symposiums will be held at a hotel in Kelso, Wash.

-- Tom Hawthorn

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter