Mount St. Helens is an active stratovolcano located in Skamania County, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is 96 miles south of Seattle, Washington, and 50 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon.
NEAR THE TOP of Mount St. Helens, where the 1980 volcanic eruption blew the top of the mountain off 35 years ago today, the barren rocky landscape was streaked with rivers of hard, black basalt lava flows, and cloaked in thick grey clouds. It was eerie, very calm and there were no visible signs of life.
You could easily mistake this for a devastated region. The May 18, 1980 eruption was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States. Fifty seven people were killed, 250 homes, 47 bridges and many miles of railways and highways were destroyed. But if you saw only death and destruction, you would be missing the real story of Mount St. Helens.
The power of the Mt St. Helens volcanic eruption. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
The Mt St. Helens hike was a tough and extraordinary experience. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
I discovered two important things on that mountain, both due to the caring attention and knowledge of our passionate and dedicated guides.
From all of the guides, and especially John Bishop, a botany professor from the University of Washington, I learned to see the new life that is taking root on the mountainside. With his help, I saw tiny plants clinging to the ground, lupins, willow, Indian paintbrush. I saw a lark, a few insects, several waterfalls.
A cairn marks the trail on Mt St Helens. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
I also saw cairns of rock, made by other hikers. And although the day was overcast and cloudy, the sun shone through just for a moment and I saw the shining turquoise-grey waters of Spirit Lake.
I stopped for a moment, alone, and absorbed the incredible quiet. I suddenly felt the landscape pulsating with life, and began to sense the sacredness of this mountain and this region of the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
Though the volcanic eruption was massively destructive, wiping out the entire ecosystem of the mountain, the Mount St Helens story is not about death and destruction: it’s about transformation and rebirth.
Life is returning to the region, though it is very different than what was here before. This is a story about the resilience of the human spirit, the cycles of nature and the transformative power of life.
A flower blooms on Mt St Helens, a sign of life. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
The other important thing I learned was about my own resilience. As I was huffing and puffing up the mountain, a lanky mountain steward named Ron, who was with us as a guide, gently taught me to walk with a resting step. He told me that all experienced climbers use this step: you take a second to rest your front leg, and let your weight land on your back leg.
I started to use this step, and coordinate it with yogic breathing. Soon, I fell into a meditative rhythm, and with Ron’s help and encouragement, I caught up to the fast hikers who were way ahead of us. And not only did I catch up, but I was neither sweaty nor out of breath.
At the end of the day, when we were back at the bottom of the mountain, we took the time to say a heartfelt goodbye to our guides, John Bishop, Amy Tanska, volunteer programs director of the Mt St Helens Institute, and volunteer guides Lindsay, Linda and Ron. He told me that he saw how I was transformed, and that after I found my rhythm, I radiated. Much like Mount St Helens, as new life blossoms on the formerly barren mountainsides.
Flowing water, moss and willow trees are signs of life on Mt St Helens. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
Thanks to Corning Incorporated for giving me the opportunity to be one of only about 200 people who have ever hiked up this particular side of Mount St Helens.