The Plinian column from the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens towers into the sky. This is an aerial view from southwest. Mount Adams is in the background (right).

One of my first memories is of Mount St. Helens. I was 3 1/2 years old. My baby brother had been born just 8 days before. My dad had been out in the pasture spraying tansy that beautiful morning when the sky darkened and he saw ash clouds billowing in the sky.

He headed into our newly built family home near Salkum and told my mother that the mountain had blown and they needed to head up to a nearby hill to watch. 

“We can’t go now,” my mom said. “I’m nursing the baby.”

Apparently the historic nature of the moment eventually prevailed, as we loaded up in the family car and headed a mile up the road to “Democrat Hill,” a high point on Schoen Road north of Salkum with a clear view of the mountain.

I remember the clouds boiling and roiling across the sky. The temperature suddenly dropped. Other cars were parked there as our neighbors gathered to watch history unfold. 

Over the last few weeks there have been a lot of great stories with living memories of the eruption and exploration of how the mountain has recovered. I received some remarkable stories. 

Les Badden of Ridgefield reads this column in the The Reflector and said it brought back memories of his time as a news photographer for KGW Channel 8 in Portland. In March of 1980 they sent their Skywatch helicopter over the mountain to see if they could get a microwave signal from the moving chopper back to the transmission tower in Portland’s west hills. It was in the infancy of live microwave transmissions, so a technician would hold the antenna, known as a “Stinger,” out the open door of the station’s well-used Hiller FH1100 aircraft.

While flying they spotted a very large hole with black ash on the snow around it on the summit. 

“Needless to say, our newsroom lit up like a wildfire, sending everyone running in all directions,” Badden recalls. After landing, he headed out with a reporter by vehicle for the mountain via the community of Cougar. They were stopped for hours at a roadblock in Skamania County. They finally convinced a deputy to let them through, on the condition that they would park their vehicles pointed down the mountain with the engines running, “just in case.”

However, after the eruption two months later, Badden said it was “pretty alarming in reflection knowing now that if the eruption had happened that day we would all be dust.”

On the mountain they met up with volcanologist David Johnston, who was clearly shaken as he stepped out of a different station’s news chopper.

“We all need to get off the mountain now,” Johnston told them, his eyes echoing the urgency in his voice. “There are large bulges on the north side and things are changing rapidly.”

They interviewed Johnston again in the days ahead. After Johnston died in the eruption, Badden remembered him as the ultimate volcanologist.

“There were even times when we questioned his lack of Dr. Spock ears,” Badden said, but adds, “He had a sense of humor.”

Another memory came in from Steve Temme. He remembers that in 1980, La Center was having a hot air balloon rally. He was aloft at 7:45 a.m. on Sunday, May 18. 

“We watched history happen at about 500 feet over Lockwood Hill east of La Center. AWESOME,” he writes.

Jim Lematta of Ridgefield worked for an Oregon helicopter company in 1980 that donated its services to remove equipment from a Boy Scout camp at Spirit Lake. Gov. Dixie Lee Ray had no objections, but the Skamania County Sheriff was worried that an eruption might cause a huge tidal wave in Spirit Lake. Eventually they agreed to keep the helicopter running while workers prepared to haul out the equipment. Over four hours on May 15, they got the job done. Three days later, the eruption buried the site and caused far worse desolation than the worst-case scenario of a tidal wave that the sheriff had envisioned.

“Looking back, those at the Boy Scout site would not have survived,” Lematta said. “I always considered we were very fortunate to have done the job three days prior.”

I also heard from several folks who remember that the biggest impact felt in western Lewis County was a week later. The May 25 eruption — also on a Sunday morning — sent ash northwest toward Centralia and Chehalis. 

Don Smith said it was a beautiful morning as they prepared for church on May 25 when the sky went dark. 

Ash clouds rained volcanic dust all around. He called the pastor and suggested he cancel church. After looking outside, the reverend quickly agreed. 

Smith remembers at least a half inch of ash on his roof. For many weeks after, every gust of wind would blow more ash off the trees. Washing off the roof was quite a chore, he said.

Lorraine Pratt also remembers that day. Her mother-in-law called to say that if she had any windows open, she should close them immediately.

“We went outside to look, it looked very strange,” she remembers. “It was snowing ash, except the ash was very soft and warm. It ‘snowed’ ash most of the day.”

She recalls it as a unique and neat experience, but notes that shoveling ash from the sidewalk was no fun.

I’ll conclude the memories by turning again to my brother Todd, born 8 days before the eruption. It’s interesting to trace one person’s life against the volcano. Todd’s memories include the vial of ash our mom collected for him; youthful visits to the destruction zone; watching life slowly return to the desolate landscape; and his work on state Route 504 in 2001, helping put the final piece of the “new” highway to Johnston Ridge in place. He also helped give our German relatives a tour of the mountain when our cousins visited many years ago. Todd hopes to make it to age 100 and have his five children take him to the visitor center to give an informal talk on the eruption centennial.

I would be even older, but if I’m around and able, I’ll be there to listen to my 100-year-old kid brother. And if not, that’s OK. The lore of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruptions will outlive us all. 


Brian Mittge and his family live outside Chehalis. Contact him at brianmittge@hotmail.com. 

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