Four Must-Read Mount St. Helens Books

It seems like entire libraries have been written about the Mount St. Helens eruption. Here are four books well worth reading.

Let me just start by stating the obvious: this is far from a definitive list. It’s just a microcosm of must-reads. These are four books that provided particular insight. Some are out of print, but used copies are fairly easy to find. This is the stack I would personally hand to anyone wanting to learn all they can about that fateful day, who want accuracy, but who don’t want anything too technical or difficult.

You should purchase a box of your preferred tissues to go along with these books. You’ll get to know some of the people we lost up there. And it’s hard. But I feel we owe it to the dead to remember them, how they died, and to try to prevent the same thing from happening to others.

There are incredible stories of survival here. At times, there are frank discussions of terrible injuries. What a volcanic eruption does to a human body is truly grim. So be mindful of that. Take breaks when you need to.

The best part of all of these stories is that science prevented catastrophic loss of life and human suffering. And we learned so many lessons that helped save lives when other volcanoes erupted.

Mount St. Helens is one of the most fascinating volcanoes in existence. These books do her justice.

#1: Mount St. Helens: A Sleeping Volcano Awakes by Marian T Place

Yes, I’m leading with a children’s book, and yeah, I’m recommending it for adults. This is the book that tiny me got after staring in awe at the destruction of a huge, solid mountain. I don’t know how many times I devoured this book as a kid, but it was many lots. It introduced me to the people who risked their lives, and sometimes lost them. It taught me the basics of volcano science. It ignited a life-long obsession with volcanoes in general, and Mount St. Helens in particular.

I re-read it recently as an adult, and let me tell you: Marian created a book that is just as fascinating to an adult as a kid. She knows the science well, describes the events clearly, and keeps your attention gripped from start to finish. By then, I’d read USGS Professional Paper 1250, and realized this is basically the layperson’s version of that paper, trimmed to its essentials.

This is an exceptional place to start your journey into the science of the May 18, 1980 eruption.

The rest of these aren’t numbered, because they’re all equally good. I present them in the order in which I read them.

Mt. St. Helens: Surviving the Stone Wind by Catherine Hickson

In the spring of 1980, Catherine Hickson was studying to become a sedimentologist. Then she and her husband Paul decided to take a short trip down to see the waking volcano in Washington State. They set up camp just east of the mountain, and prepared to enjoy a long weekend of nature with perhaps an ash plume or two. It was Friday, May 16th. Two days later, they’d be fleeing for their lives after watching the dramatic flank collapse and lateral eruption. The blast cloud came perilously close to engulfing them as they fled. Mudflows cut off escape routes, and ash pelted their car and darkened the skies. They and their dogs escaped, but only just.

That’s how Catherine became a volcanologist.

Her book chronicles the volcano’s awakening, their heart-pounding eyewitness account of the cataclysm, and her return to Mount St. Helens that fall to study its deposits and subsequent eruptions. She explains the science behind the events, complete with comprehensive color diagrams. And she lushly illustrates her book with a delightful abundance of full-color photographs, some of which can’t be found anywhere else.

Catherine is one badass volcanologist, and this book is worth far more than its purchase price.

In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens by Richard Waitt

USGS geologist Richard Waitt was one of the first scientists at Mount St. Helens when she awoke, and perhaps the first to treat survivors’ stories as a rich source of information about the dynamics of the eruption. His paper about the survivors in Professional Paper 1250 is fascinating and informative. Now, after decades of work with the survivors, we have this incredible book.

Part scientific treatise, part eyewitness chronicles, and all engrossing, this is one of the most valuable books even written about a volcanic eruption. It’s a brutally hard read at times: not all of the “survivors’ stories” are about people who lived. Many of the people who did make it out were grievously injured. The psychological wounds are profound.

But their insight is so invaluable, and Richard is incredibly good about keeping the stories factual, scientifically relevant, and also compassionate. The only sensationalism comes from the fact that being caught in a VEI 5 eruption is inherently sensational. He doesn’t dramatize anything, and the book is better for it.

One of the best aspects of this book is the fact he includes eyewitness accounts from sources most people wouldn’t think to include. For instance, there’s an entire chapter of accounts from the air. Reading the recollections of people who were flying commercial routes in ordinary aircraft was intriguing!

So yeah, you’ve gotta add this one to your library.

A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston by Melanie Holmes

I haven’t finished this one yet, but I recommend it without reservation. Melanie wrote this book at Dave’s sister Pat’s urging, and it is so, so good.

We learn so much about Dave, whose work on Mount St. Helens was critical in helping the public understand that she was a deadly danger. She makes the legend’s oh-so-human qualities shine. I didn’t think it was possible for me to like him more, but I do.

He was shy, and anxious, and determined, and driven, and inspiring. I want to hand this book to every teen who thinks they’re too small or frail or fucked up to do science, who think they aren’t smart enough, or good enough. Because Melanie shows us that Dave was far from a superman, but he was able to succeed.

She is so good at showing his scientific work as well as his personal life. She shows the little coincidences that brought him to Mount St. Helens at such a critical moment in history. And she goes on to show how, despite his horribly early death, his legacy lived on.

Everyone interested in Mount St. Helens and/or a STEM career needs this book. It’s such a phenomenal tribute to a thoroughly awesome human being. And it is a beacon to those who want to do science but are afraid they’re not cut out for it. Just, you know, have a few boxes of tissues handy, because dang.

So, there ye go: a list of sensible proportions to feed your interest in America’s most charismatic volcano.

Mount St. Helens after the eruption. Credit: Dee Molenaar/USGS
Four Must-Read Mount St. Helens Books