National Geographic News
A photographer records ash collecting one week prior to eruption.

National Geographic magazine writer and assistant editor Rowe Findley recounted his experiences at Mount St. Helens.

Photograph by Rowe Findley, National Geographic

Michael Jourdan

National Geographic News

Published May 18, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo "First I must tell you that I count it no small wonder to be alive."

So begins National Geographic staff writer Rowe Findley's gripping firsthand account of the events leading up to the massive May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. The blast, which has been compared to the force of 500 Hiroshimas, resulted in the deaths of 57 people and the devastation of 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) of land around the crater.

Findley's deeply personal story, first published in the January 1981 issue of National Geographic, describes how, in the week running up to the disaster, he and others were drawn into a "strange kind of Russian roulette" with the mountain. While Findley lived to tell the tale, others were not so lucky, and the article includes richly drawn character studies of some of the mountain's casualties:

Harry R. Truman: Truman, who had lived for more than 50 years in the shadow of the mountain and claimed he could talk to it, refused to leave even when signs pointed to disaster. In a statement that "raised the adjectival use of profanity to a new high," Truman explained to Findley why he was staying put. "It's a part of me, and I'm part of that ______ mountain," said Truman. "If I got out of here, I wouldn't live a _____ day, not a ______ day."

Reid Blackburn: A 27-year-old photographer on loan from the Vancouver Columbian to cover the story for National Geographic, Blackburn "had the incisive eye of the born portrait photographer, capturing a face precisely when the mask falls away to reveal an instant of truth." He set up cameras 8 miles (12 kilometers) from the mountain, considering it to be a reasonable margin of safety but, when the volcano exploded, his base camp was covered in four feet of ash and debris.

David Johnston: "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it," cried Johnston, a 30-year-old geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, announcing the beginning of the cataclysm on May 18 from a base camp just 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the crater. Johnston knew the dangers—he'd previously described Mount St. Helens as a powder keg with a lit fuse—but he still volunteered to aid in researching the activity at the volcano. "He was a marathon runner in excellent condition," explained USGS helicopter pilot Lon Stickney. "David figured he could get down into the crater and back out again faster than any of his colleagues." Johnston's body was never recovered.

There's little doubt that the experience had a lasting impact on Findley. In a 2002 interview conducted by the National Geographic Archives, Findley characterized the week leading up to the eruption as being "like the end of another life." He also explained why he and others took such risks to report on the events at Mount St. Helens—it was all part of the job. When you're on a story, he said, "you do things that ... would be totally out of character for you if you weren't on a story."

While Findley may be best remembered for his reporting from Mount St. Helens, he had a long and storied journalistic career. Describing himself as "a man whose spirit moseyed West while the rest of him skedaddled East," Findley joined the staff of National Geographic in 1959 after answering a blind ad. His knowledge and love of American Western history made him a natural for his many assignments in that region over the next 31 years. He covered 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) for the book Great American Deserts. He retraced the journeys of the great 19th-century photographer of the West, William Henry Jackson, and took a ride along a stage of the legendary Pony Express. Findley retired in 1990 after receiving National Geographic's Distinguished Service Award. He died in 2003.

Myrna Scherer
Myrna Scherer

Fascinating subject after all these years about something so beautiful and deadly.

Rick Maschek
Rick Maschek

Back in 1980 I broke my thumb skiing in Southern California so thought I'd watch the St Helens eruption form the top of Mt Hood but too many clouds when we got to the summit so we hiked into the north side of St Helens. We encountered a few other people in the woods (including Reid Blackburn) on our way in. Going over areas that had been previously clear cut but replanted, we were careful not to step on newly planted seedings. The bulge was growin at a rate between 5-10' at the time. When we ran out of food we decided to hike out. That spot is now under over 50' of ash.


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »