When Mount St. Helens Erupted 40 Years Ago This Photo Was Snapped and The Story Is Movie-Worthy

A photographer's harrowing photo of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens captures a plume of volcanic ash filling the sky, its shadow falling over everything... except his Ford Pinto.

On Sunday May 18, 1980—20 years ago on Monday—an earthquake sheered away the north face of Mount St. Helens in Skamania County, Washington, creating the largest landslide ever recorded as a high-pressure mix of molten rock, gas and steam exploded outward from the volcano. The eruption was the culmination of nearly a month of steam explosions (known as phreatic blasts), earthquakes and pyroclastic flow from the volcano, which had previously lain dormant for more than a century. A column of volcanic ejecta rose more than 15 miles into the atmosphere, eventually spreading ash over 11 states and parts of Canada, while rapidly melting mountain snow set off a wave of deadly mudslides.

The famous photograph of the ash plume rising from the eruption of Mount St. Helens is on display at the nearby Johnston Ridge Observatory in Washington state's Gifford Pinchot National Forest. According to Hemmings Motor News, it was taken on May 18 by Richard Lasher, who had packed outdoor gear into his Pinto the night before, planning to use the hitched Yamaha IT Enduro dirtbike to seek out views of the volcano down forest roads.

A late departure meant Lasher had yet to reach his destination by the time the volcano erupted at 8:32 a.m. Pacific—a lucky delay for Lasher, who had planned to drive to Spirit Lake, which was devastated by the ensuring landslide, causing a wave 600 feet high and a susbsequent avalanche of uprooted trees and super-heated volcanic debris.

Lasher's photograph, taken when he pulled over to photograph the ash cloud, is among the closest images we have of Mount St. Helens' initial explosion.

An aerial view of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. Corbis Historical

"He jumped out of the car and ran up the hillside to get some pics, thinking he might just die for it," Gary Cooper, a former coworker of Lasher's, told Hemmings. "The first picture he took was the one with the Pinto cocked in the road and the bent motorcycle still in the back with that huge cloud going up in the sky in the background."

Partially protected by the ridgeline in the foreground, Lasher avoided the initial explosion of volcanic ash and the more than 600 degree wave of heat it blasted out. However, the rain of ash made driving almost impossible, eventually disabling Lasher's car as he drove down the zero-visibility mountain pass. He traveled the rst of the way on his dirtbike, leaving behind the Pinto.

The next day, Lasher rode his motorcycle back up into the mountains to take more pictures, but was intercepted by a helicopter and arrested. Lasher, since retired (and unavailable for comment), survived his close encounter with the deadly explosion, but as many as 57 other people lost their lives.