Jeffrey H. Ryan Hiker Author Photographer Speaker Podcaster Director

I am fascinated by threads. Especially ones that appear to be random, but reveal themselves as part of one magnificent whole.

In early spring 1980, a few months shy of my 23rd birthday, Mount Saint Helens became increasingly active. A series of earthquakes below her center indicated that she was about to put on a fiery show. 

My good friend Mick lived in Washington state. Drawn by the incomprehensible beauty of the Cascades he had moved to Seattle. He had told me of the hundreds of people that would travel to the ridges surrounding the volcano cheering for her to erupt. Every weekend the roads into the edges of the perceived danger zone would become clogged — a reverse lava flow of RVs and pick-ups packed with coolers, beer, grills and adventure seekers. The stillness of the wilderness punctuated by people chanting, “Blow, baby, blow” while the mountain periodically let off steam of her own.

On May 18, 1980, I walked across an auditorium stage to receive my diploma from the Dean of Ripon College. I vaguely remember the kind applause of my family and classmates. But my indelible impression is that of seeing a lanky guy in the back of the hall jumping up and down and waving his arms. There was no doubting what it meant. Mick, who had come to Wisconsin for my graduation, had gotten word that the great mountain had exploded — 1300 feet had instantaneously disappeared from her summit. The lateral blast traveling at more than 300 miles per hour, blew down and scorched 230 square miles of forest. If the people that had been cheering for the blast had not been moved further away by the authorities, they would have been casualties as well.

Picking up the thread

In August 1983, I saw Mount Saint Helens for the first time. I was on the Pacific Crest Trail with Mick and two other friends. I felt particularly good that morning and was out in front as I topped a ridge and saw a view so stunning that I dropped my pack and sat down on the spot. Spread out before me was a sweep wide enough to embrace Mount Adams, Mount Rainier and Saint Helens herself. The difference between the snow-capped peaks of the former and the low, gray/brown scar on the landscape was profound. I knew then that I wanted to stand on the summits of each someday — to experience what it felt like to be walking on the flanks of what I now knew were mountains of intense power.

A mountain of ash

Four years later, I went back. Earlier in the week I had summited Mount Adams (and later on the same trip, I would stand on top of Mount Rainier as well). Those climbs were unforgettable for a variety of reasons. But it was the climb of Mount Saint Helens that excited me the most. Only seven years after the blast, the mountain was still intensely raw. Hiking up out of a healthy, green forest to spend the morning ascending a giant ash pile may not sound fun, but I loved every bit of it. Every time I took a step, a wisp of ash would be released on the wings of the wind — another affirmation that nothing, even a giant volcano, is permanent.

The summit ridge had its own ever evolving story to share. Every few minutes fresh rockslides sent ash, sand and boulders down into the bowl. Far below, the crater’s dome emitted steam. Saint Helens was rebuilding and we were allowed into the show, if only for a moment.

Tugging the thread

Thirty years have passed since that magnificent day on the summit. I have often wondered how Mount Saint Helens has changed. I have heard that her rapid recovery from the blast has surprised scientists who predicted a much longer timeline for some species to come back. Reshaped or newly formed lakes are teeming with fish. The mountain’s flanks have largely greened up again. 

Last winter, I found some video footage we shot of our 1987 climb. Watching it after all these years made me realize that it was time once again to tug on the thread of Mount Saint Helens. I’ve got plane tickets and climbing permits all lined up (the original team will be reunited for the 30th anniversary climb). All that’s left is for the mountain to be woven into my story again.

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