The Photographers Who Braved Mount St. Helens

 When Mount St. Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980, a freelance photographer named Robert Landsberg was four miles from the summit and was documenting the event. Robert had been visiting the babbling mountain since April, and had made dozens of successful hiking and climbing trips to various vantage points to capture the changing volcano that had been erupting over the past several weeks.

On Saturday evening, May 17, Robert camped near the volcano and wrote in his journal, "Feel on the brink of something." Apart from his gut feeling, there was nothing on the scientific instruments that volcanologists have placed in the vicinity of the volcano to measure everything from the speed of the eruption to sulfur dioxide emissions and ground temperatures that would indicate a coming catastrophe. Could give. ,

The next morning, Robert got up early and walked a little further down the road, stopping less than four miles west of the volcano's summit. He had his camera mounted on a tripod, aimed towards the smoking mountain, when part of the mountain collapsed exposing the high-pressure magma chamber. Molten rocks and ash burst from the side of the mountain and an avalanche of hot gases, ash and pumice fell down the mountain at a speed of one thousand kilometers per hour, destroying trees and everything else for hundreds of square kilometers.

Eleven miles away, photographers Keith Ronholm and Gary Rosenquist had set up camp at Bear Meadows. Seconds after the earthquake struck at 8:32 a.m., William Dilley, a member of Rosenquist's party, saw through binoculars that the northern edge was moving away and shouted that "the mountain was going." Rosenquist picked up his camera and took several photographs in rapid succession.

These photographs, taken within a period of approximately 40 seconds, will later be stitched together to create a timelapse of the eruption, helping scientists reconstruct the sequence of events during the first minutes of the cataclysmic eruption.

Rosenquist's team survived because the explosion was deflected off a hill standing about a mile away between them and the mountain. But Robert Landsberg was not so lucky. He was very close to the explosion.

As the cloud of ash and hot rocks descended upon him, Landsberg, realizing he had no means of escape, tried his best to photograph the eruption until the last possible moment. Landsberg then put the film back in its case, placed the film and its camera in his backpack, and then placed himself on top of the backpack in an effort to protect its contents. Seventeen days later, Landsberg's body was found buried in ashes at the bottom of his bag.

The film was partially damaged by heat and light leakage, but was otherwise intact. The photos were published in the January 1981 issue of National Geographic.

Two photographers died that day. The other photojournalist was Reed Blackburn who was working for a local newspaper as well as National Geographic magazine and the United States Geological Survey. Blackburn was assigned to remain on the mountain until May 17, the day before the eruption, but as fate would have it, he decided to spend a few more days. Blackburn was camped near Coldwater Creek, 8 miles from the northern edge of the mountain. The area was completely destroyed by landslides and pyroclastic flows.

Blackburn's body was found the next day inside his car, buried in ash up to the windows. Blackburn was still sitting on the wheels and the car was facing away from the mountain, as if trying to escape before being engulfed by the superheated cloud of ash and burning pumice. Every window in the car was blown out except the windshield. The cloth on the roof of the car had opened and was hanging down due to the ashes.

Blackburn's camera was so damaged that none of the images he captured could be saved, but decades later an undeveloped roll of film he shot on the mountain before the eruption was recovered by a photo assistant at The Columbian. Gai, the newspaper in which he worked.

Reed Blackburn's photo log book shows that he took five shots that morning, four of which were taken during the explosion. Photo Credit: The Columbian

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