Photographing the Eruption of Mount St. Helens from 10 Miles Away

Here’s a fascinating video about the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, which was preceded by one of the largest landslides in recorded history. Amateur photographer Keith Ronnholm had set up camp that day at Bear Meadows, roughly 10 miles northeast of the mountain.

At around 8:30 in the morning, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake triggered a massive landslide that wiped out the north face of the volcano, with the entire surface moving at up to 115 miles per hour. Pat Forgey of the The Daily News has an interesting account from Ronnholm’s perspective:

Looking up, Ronnholm saw a lot more than what he’d come for. “The entire north face of the mountain, what was called the ‘bulge,’ was sliding down,” he said. At first forgetting he’d come to take photos, Ronnholm hesitated getting his camera. “I thought, ‘I’ll never get it focused in time, this is all happening too fast,’ ” he said.

Standing third ridge removed from the mountain, Ronnholm thought he had a good spot to view the geologic event of a lifetime. He began snapping pictures with his 35mm Minolta as a lateral blast shot out of the volcano and swirled and boiled toward him. Ronnholm said he was not worried.

Thanks to the photographs of the event captured by Ronnholm and a few other photographs on the scene (notably Gary Rosenquist), scientists have been able to reconstruct what the landslide looked like.

Photographer Gary Rosenquist captured a series of photos of the massive landslide during the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption.

Photographer Gary Rosenquist captured a series of photos of the massive landslide that has aided scientists in reconstructing the event

At the end of the video above, we see a rendering of what it looked like, created by filling in the gaps found in the photos captured that day. Here’s another one:

Ronnholm, Rosenquist, and their photographs survived because the landscape deflected the volcanic blast around 1 mile short of their location. As we shared back in 2011, another photographer named Robert Landsberg wasn’t so lucky — he died protecting his film and photographs.

  • Christian DeBaun

    Big brass ones to stand your ground and keep shooting.

  • Richard

    I was north of St. Helens on the southern flank of Mt. Rainier when St. Helens blew. It was the most amazing thing I think I’ve ever seen in my life. The ash cloud took over the entire southern sky, it was huge, no doubt bigger than a nuclear bomb. I had to wait a week to get home to Eugene; i-5 was closed because of the ash. That first video of the slide is incredible. I doubt I had my Olympus XA with me on that climb although I might have. Stupid me for not shooting it.

  • danainnyc

    This is without doubt some of the most scientifically valuable evidence ever filmed of a volcano. This is right up there with filming the comet fragments slam into Jupiter. You can’t say enough about this footage. For the scientists who seek to provide some warning for these events it has opened new avenues of research. For all of us who were able to witness a mountain collapse and a volcano burst forth it is an awesome sight. Much gratitude to the brave (and lucky) photographers who stood their ground and kept shooting.