On Top of Old Smokey

A Photographer’s Race to Scoop Mount St. Helens

Tom Zimberoff
12 min readOct 31, 2022


©1980 Tom Zimberoff / All Rights Reserved

In the spring of 1980, scientists at the United States Geological Survey began to voice their concerns publicly about a long dormant volcano northeast of Portland and southeast of Seattle called Mount St. Helens. Considered a gem in the Cascade Range, a glacier-crowned peak rising majestically from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, it was a vacation magnet for anglers, campers, climbers, and just plain tourists. Volcano? Wait, what? Looming danger? Locals cherished and promoted its practically trademarked immutability: the “Mount Fuji of America.” The geologists thought it was likely to erupt.

A sequence of small earthquakes first got their attention; then hundreds of moderate explosions spewed steam from the summit. They placed sensitive instruments on the mountain and all around it: One side was expanding like a balloon. The earthquakes grew in strength and frequency, accompanied by avalanches of ice. When one big boom blasted an ash cloud more than a mile into the air, they didn’t have to work hard to capture media attention; their concerns were now very public indeed. That’s when I got the call to head up there from my agent, Sygma.

I made my way to a tiny town called Cougar, an idyllic community in Washington State, about 13 miles south from the base of the mountain. My…