Climbers remember Mount St. Helens eruption 33 years later

Saturday marks the 33rd anniversary of one of the biggest news stories ever experienced in the Pacific Northwest.

When Mount St. Helens erupted, 57 people were killed and the surrounding landscape was left in ruins. The eruption also sheared off the top 1,300 feet of the mountain, dramatically altering its appearance.

No group noticed the mountain's change more than climbers. The eruption caused an irreversible separation between them: those who summited the mountain before the blast and those who summited afterward.

Joe Whittington and Zac Reisner are two men who've done both.

We caught up with them on a cold, dreary day at Johnston Ridge Observatory. Much of the mountain was hiding in the gray sky. That might be fitting for Whittington and Reisner. It allowed them to imagine the mountain as it used to be.

"It was totally symmetrical," Whittington said.

"I've actually seen it look like that," Reisner said, pointing to an old photo of the mountain before the eruption.

Reisner first climbed it in 1966 -- the first of three climbs he made before the eruption. Whittington first summited in 1978. Both men summited the mountain early in their climbing careers and both recognize they stood on ground that's now nonexistent.

"When we were on the summit, we were some 1,400 feet higher than the top of the mountain today," Reisner said. "That's sort of a special privilege in a way, I suppose."

"No one's ever going to do that again," Whittington said. "It's just not going to happen."

Because of the mountain's literal loss of ground, it became the rare exception to a common saying for climbers that seems a little foreboding on a day when weather hides a clear view.

"When the weather turns bad and the conditions get ugly, we have a saying," Whittington said. "Well, it'll be there next week. We know that's not always the case now."

The U.S. Forest Service and Mount St. Helens Institute just recently unveiled a new website. It includes a deep collection of information about the mountain, its eruption and recovery.