1980: The Mountain Blows its Top

Oct 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

Keith Ronnholm at Lake Washington in Seattle, July 16, 2002.

Mount St. Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980, killing 57 people and causing $1.1 billion in damage. KEITH RONNHOLM, then a 28-year-old graduate student in geophysics at the University of Washington, was camping at Bear Meadow that day, ten miles northeast of the volcano. He escaped in his car, but not before shooting a set of famous photos that ran on the cover of Nature. "About 8:30, I looked at Mount St. Helens and saw the entire north side flowing, sliding down. Within 15 seconds the eruption cloud was a mile high and a mile wide. The cloud hit a ridge in front of me and swirled up and over it like a wave hitting a breakwater. At one point, I was literally under a mushroom cloud, with lightning bolts coming out of its stem. These days, whenever I go somewhere, I look at how I can escape. It's not that I'm paranoid. But I have an awareness that the earth is not steady—that we're tiny creatures who are very susceptible to nature's whims."

Interview by Fen Montaigne

Filed To: Snow Sports

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