Two mountains, not at all alike in dignity.
Mount Rainier is stately, lounging in the lush Washington wilderness surrounded by a courting bevy of roads, vista points, and campsites. The mountain seems peacefully at ease. There’s a calmness to Rainier, at least from a distance. But as you get closer, at every new viewpoint, the scratches of glaciers and fury of avalanches high on the mountain hint at a sleeping danger.
Rainier is a volcano after all. 14,410 feet tall and less than sixty miles from downtown Seattle, the mountain hasn’t erupted in 120 years. It makes the list of the world’s 17 most dangerous volcanoes–mostly because in an eruption those glaciers would turn into massive mudflows (lahars) rushing down the several river valleys radiating out from the mountain. There are more than 150,000 people in the Puyallup River Valley, to the north and west of the mountain.
Further south, down one of the few roads heading to the mountain, St. Helens sits like a broken cup on a shattered plate. While Rainier is flanked by lush forests, St. Helens is ringed by destruction of its own making. Fifty miles north of Portland and almost a hundred sound of Seattle, Mount St. Helens is famous for its 1980 eruption. The May 18, 1980 eruption was presaged by two months of small earthquakes and steam–which also prompted a prudent evacuation of the area. Still, 57 people died in the eruption and the environmental damage was immense. The mountain threw up a fifteen mile high eruption column, spreading ash into the atmosphere and drifting down into eleven states. Mudflows from the mountain reached as far as the Columbia River, fifty miles southwest.
Mount St. Helens is beautiful in a broken, terrifying way. You can see the scars easily, it will take more than a few decades to cover them. Respect me, Mount St. Helens groans, see what I have done.
Mount Rainier is beautiful too, but the terror is more subtle. You can’t see any scars, though they’re there beneath the trees.
Respect me, Mount Rainier whispers, imagine what I will do.
Click on any of the pictures to check out all the photos from my roadtrip. Or click here.