We continue our explosive explorations with Richard Waitt's In the Path of Destruction. In this edition: photographing a volcano becomes fraught when it's attempting to murder you, and other stories.

Chapter 12: Northeast

At Bear Meadow, 11 miles northeast of Mount St. Helens, several people got the photographs of a lifetime. It was a perfect location for viewing the eruption without getting killed.

Gary Rosenquist fortunately already had his camera set up on a tripod and the volcano framed when the eruption started. He sprinted to the camera and began shooting as the slide started. He kept shooting until the film ran out and he and his companions realized it was time to GTFO.

Joel Harvey describes what the eruption cloud was doing just before they fled:

Harvey: It hit a ridge and went up. Hit a ridge, went up, ridge, up, etc.

They were smart enough to only grab the camera, leaving tent and camping supplies behind. As they fled, a blurry low-level shock wave swept by them. A few minutes later, the ash cloud swept over them, engulfing them in darkness, dropping mudballs and rocks. They grew so disoriented they had to stop for a time, at risk of driving off the road in the murk if they pressed on.

Harvey: "Smelled like a chemistry lab, and a weak sulfuric acid stung my eyes."

So, that's what it's like to be stuck in an ash cloud, in case you ever wondered.

Gary's photos show how quickly the landslide and eruption evolved. You can see the sequence here at this USGS page.


Keith Ronnholm, a geophysics grad student, was also at Bear Meadow that morning. I have a signed print of one of his photos! What I never knew was that he took those pictures in his underwear. I suddenly appreciate them all the more! His decision not to pause for pants has served him well, because his photos are about as iconic as Gary's.

People, you have to buy this book just to read about Keith trying to pull up his pants and put on his shoes while continuing to shoot an eruption so energetic it was hurling stuff as big as houses. And his description of the unfolding eruption is both prose-poetic and wonderfully precise. You can .

Here's a charming little shot of Keith holding up one of his photos with lovely Lake Washington behind him. He's got on pants this time. (This is the print that I have - if you get the chance, pick one up and just stand with your nose to it. The texture of the blast cloud is just entrancing.)


FM DJ during a break in the music: "Mount St. Helens has exploded! All roads are closed! Yakima airport's closed! Now back to music."

Priorities, amirite?


Jerry Wheeler to fellow camper: Mebbe should go nao?

Fellow Camper: Naw, we can get in camper.

*eruption cloud grows reallyreally big*

Fellow Camper: Run away!

Excellent idea, my good man.


Vern Hodgson and Bernadette Chaussee were about 17 miles northeast when St. Helens blew. They had a few extra minutes to photograph events before things got scary enough for them to flee. They stopped a few miles down the road to let some campers know about the eruption.

Vern and Bernadette: You should probably run away like us.

Campers: What, us worry?

It's getting darker by the moment, pinecones and ash clumps are falling, and these folks aren't worried. *headdesk*

I wonder how they felt when the rocks started falling...


Vern is breathing ash, and observing that as he breathes it, more and more is sticking to his mouth and throat. He observes himself beginning to suffocate.

Vern: ZOMG we r ded!

Bernadette: "Here's some towels."

Vern: Mebbe we r not ded.

If you're stuck in an ashfall, don't forget to cover your mouth and nose with something you can breathe through, whether that's a shirt, towel, sock, etc. If you can dampen your makeshift filter, that will help it catch more of the nasties.

You'll also probably think of Pompeii. Many people in this book, and several in this chapter, have. It's okay. Don't panic. It may seem like the end of the world, but if it was, you probably wouldn't have had time to think "OMG this is totally like Pompeii!" Like all the folks in this chapter, keep plodding on until you reach safety.

Then come tell me your story, because how awesome is it that you just survived an eruption?!

Photo of my copy of Richard Waitt's In the Path of Destruction, which has a black and white photo of Mount St. Helens erupting.

The full list of ITPOD posts is available here. If you want to forge ahead, you can pick up your own copy of In the Path of Destruction here. Purchases through that link help support my blogging, so thank you!