On Top of Old Smokey

A Photographer’s Race to Scoop Mount St. Helens

Tom Zimberoff


©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 arrival coincided with a growing gaggle of magazine and newspaper reporters, TV crews, and other photographers who quickly overran the place. We commandeered the only eatery as our de facto headquarters, where any one of us would routinely answer the proprietor’s telephone: “Cougar Press Club, who do ya want?”

Three weeks after that initial outburst of activity, the mountain’s and ours, we were bored, ready perhaps for a climactic fireworks display. And we were cynical about the scientists’ predictions. Mount St. Helens was behaving insolently, a pinnacle of portentousness, just teasing us with huffing and puffing. We began to wonder if its incipient series of burps and farts weren’t merely the rude demonstration of an appetite for drama already fulfilled; time now to go back to sleep. Nevertheless, and more than once during our exasperating stake-out, I was cold-cocked by the realization of my insignificance in the presence of this behemoth, paled to behold…