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A Photograph: Mt. St. Helens. 1995.

mt st helens


Making a Digital Photograph. 1995.

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About the Photograph

I climbed Mt. St. Helens on my fortieth birthday in 1995 for my Digital National Parks Project With a New Eye. I think I purposely chose the date to prove to myself that I could actually still climb a real mountain at 40 years old.

My friend Toby Malina was gracious enough to gather some friends from the Seattle area to help us carry my BetterLight/Dicomed 4x5 Scanning back, 4x5 Sinar X camera, tripod, Mac laptop (and back-up equipment) to the top. It’s a 3,000-foot elevation gain over about five miles, so we didn’t want to get up there and have something not function. We also knew that the weather, the wind, and the climb itself could conspire against the scanning camera. I had never photographed Mt. St. Helens—my first visit was shortly after the eruption, and I simply couldn’t get very close.

We started our climb in the early morning, setting out through a forest for about a mile before we got to the volcanic area. The entire rest of the day–and it took us almost all day–we hiked through gray ash and rock. The trail was marked by posts that the Forest Service had sunk into the ground, because there was no way to make a footpath. The ash was always moving; even the rocks shift in the wind.

The hike up was essentially a scene of gray on gray, with the last 200 feet to the edge of the mountain rim being so steep that we slipped backwards with every step forward. I made photographs on the way up with a handheld Kodak DCS 460 of some scenes I just couldn’t resist—mostly the rock and light and clouds—but we didn’t stop to set up the 4x5.

I was among the last to struggle to the top, and humility was far more my mood than victory. But the view was so overwhelmingly beautiful, and fatigue changed to amazement in an instant. After I had been in gray ash all day, it was quite amazing to be able to look over that crater rim, see the play of color and light, revealed geologoy, mineralization and oxidation, with yellows and oranges where I really had expected to see only more gray.

There was volcanic ash everywhere, but the afternoon light had started to warm its gray color. The air was mostly still, with some occasinal gusts. The wind had dropped, leaving just enough haze to define the rain off in the distance. The play of space was absolutely breathtaking.

My instinct at first was to get as close to the crater rim as possible, but we kept hearing avalanches and seeing dust plumes around the edge, so we backed off about three feet from the rim to set up. There was a rather disheartening moment when one of the fellows who had been helping carry equipment said, “We have to get off the mountain in 15 minutes to get back in the daylight.” I had just been climbing all day long, and I said, “Well, I’ll do my best, but I’m going to spend at least an hour up here.”

Later, we paid the price for staying on top: we walked down in the twilight, and it was completely dark by the time we reached the forest. On a black trail with only a pitifully small flashlight, we walked on and on, reminding me of that old Ted Orland quote about the “remaining distance to the car being the square of the weight of your pack.” Eventually we saw a flashlight winking through the trees. It was my good friend Gay Hunter, park ranger and marathon runner, who had hiked down long since and had come back to look for us. At that point I was not feeling too impressed with myself and my mountain-climbing prowess, but the view at the top was worth it.

st helens crew

from the video "A Photographer's Journey"

Mt. St. Helens was one of the hardest days of my life. We spent most of the day in gray ash and rock. When I got to the top, it was all worth it. I looked over the top of that crater and into a play of color and light that I could barely believe. It had oranges, reds, greens and yellows where I expected grays. It was an amazing sight. I knew I could capture with the digital camera so much more than I ever could have captured with film. To be up on top of a volcano looking into my color PowerBook and seeing the image on the screen, turning my head and seeing the real volcano, that's a treasured experience. And it made for better photographs.

The Climbing Crew, Mt. St. Helens. 1995.

Toby Malina, Drew Cluley (in the distance), Colin Amundsen, David Buhler,
Evan Schrier, Gay Hunter, my camera, precipitous edge.
Technical notes: Camera: Kodak DCS 460.


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Last updated on September 25, 2019 . Mail comments to: info@sjphoto.com
Photographs and Text Copyright ©2019, Stephen Johnson. All Rights Reserved.