Jim Hill raises his arms above his head and brings his hands to a point, forming a frame for Mount St. Helens—a straight 5 1/2-mile shot from where he stands on the crest of a trail above Johnston Ridge Observatory near Toutle, Wash. (pop. 730).
Like other volunteer guides, Hill has perfected the gesture to answer one of the most common questions from first-time observers of the famous mountaintop crater: "How tall was the volcano before it blew?"
The role of tour guide comes naturally to the retired schoolteacher and principal. Now 71, Hill remembers when he could see Mount St. Helens' picture-perfect, snow-capped tip from the kitchen window of his home in Chehalis, Wash. (pop. 7,057).
Thirty years ago, Hill had climbed the peak in the Cascade Mountains 21 times, often camping, picnicking and even sledding on the slopes with his wife, Sandy, and their three sons. He and his oldest son, Greg, had planned to scale the summit again on May 18, 1980, the day the volcano erupted and propelled a churning pillar of ash and rock into the stratosphere.
Instead, the father and son watched the deadly and destructive volcanic eruption unfurl its fury from a safe distance—on the slopes of Mount Rainier to the north. In an instant, Hill's mountaintop playground was gone.
"I grieved for a long time. I was trying to absorb how the places I'd been had changed that quick," Hill says, snapping his fingers.
"Experts were saying that it would never come back," he adds. "I was still in love with the way it was. I still am. But over time, that gave way to re-falling in love with the way it's coming back. In many ways, it's more exciting."
Outdoor enthusiasts like Hill are returning to Mount St. Helens, much like the healing power of nature gradually is bringing new life to the mountain's ravaged terrain.
While the volcano remains strikingly barren, Mount St. Helens has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last three decades—primarily because humans have let nature take its course. Scientists say the mountain is a testament to how plants and animals return, even after a catastrophic disturbance.
As Hill walks along a path in what has become the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, he points out signs of regeneration: bursts of alpine wildflowers and herbs, patches of scrubby willow and alder, a chipmunk scooting over the rocks and a herd of grazing elk below.
Some species escaped the eruption. While an estimated 7,000 deer, elk and bear died in the worst-hit area, a scattering of burrowing animals, frogs and salamanders survived. Snow protected some small trees and plants. Now, millions of plants and animals, representing thousands of species, are flourishing—from microbes to mammals and fungi to flowers.
Even the language used to describe the mountain has changed. At first it was a dusty, lunar landscape. "All the greatest minds at the time spoke of destruction, chaos, the end," says Tom Mulder, 56, the monument's manager. "But now its transition, recovery, natural cycles."
Visitors also have returned to Mount St. Helens. Up to 250,000 people take in the spectacular view at the observatory each year, and about 13,000 hike to the crater rim to see the newest lava dome that began forming when the volcano reawakened in 2004.
Mount St. Helens erupted without warning at 8:32 a.m. on a clear spring Sunday, after a 5.1-magnitude earthquake unleashed a chain-reaction cataclysm that killed 57 people and shattered the mountains pristine symmetry.
The violent explosion knocked 1,300 feet off of the 9,665-foot peak, triggered the largest landslide in recorded history, laid waste to 230 square miles of forest, and choked 14 miles of river valley with mud. Winds blew the towering plume of ash eastward, turning day into night in Yakima and Spokane, Wash., and spreading fine particles of volcanic ash as far as the Northeast.
Kristine Cochrane-Bell remembers wearing an ash mask for several days afterward while delivering newspapers in Camas, Wash. (pop. 12,534), south of Mount St. Helens, when she was 13. Now director of Johnston Ridge Observatory, she has a ringside seat to the volcano's greatest legacy—the 110,000-acre national monument, which provides an outdoor laboratory for scientists to study what happens when a natural environment is blown asunder.
Congress decreed the hands-off approach in 1982 when creating the monument and declaring that almost half of the scarred blast zone was to remain essentially as is.
"For most of the scientists and staff, the important thing is we've been able to look at a slate wiped clean for the most part biologically and geologically," says Cochrane-Bell, now 43. "These are the stories we haven't been able to learn anywhere else."
As a result, Mount St. Helens has become the most thoroughly researched volcano on Earth, providing data for more than half of the world's published studies that examine how plants and animals respond to volcanic blasts.
Today, scientific revelations provide significant insights into how to predict eruptions, prepare for natural disasters, and restore land after a massive disturbance.
"Every time we turn around, something new is happening," says Jeanne Bennett, 47, executive director of the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute. "We have learned to expect the unexpected.
"Take the mountain lupine. The purple wildflower was the first to grow in abundance on the incinerated plain below the crater. That was a surprise. It's relatively large seeds weren't known to travel great distances on the wind; yet they did. The lupine helped create soil for other plants to grow, and its blooms continue to captivate—coming, going and coming back again."
"We're out there asking: 'How do plant and animal communities form?' 'Which species return and why?'" says John Bishop, 46, a biologist at Washington State University in Vancouver.
Every discovery has refined theories about how devastated ecosystems recover. "The thrill in 20 seasons has not gone away," says Bishop, who has studied Mount St. Helens since 1990. "Really, it gets bigger every year as you realize the importance of what's happening."
To mark the eruption's 30th anniversary, overseers of Mount St. Helens have developed new interpretive exhibits, including digital seismic monitors and a hands-on Feel the Rumble display. Hikes are scheduled, and conservation projects are booked.
In another 30 years, scientists expect to see the beginnings of a forest in what was wasteland below the crater. And for generations that follow, the volcano's otherworldly beauty is guaranteed to fascinate.
Helen and Allen Kruger, of North Kingstown, R.I. (pop. 26,326), remember trees strewn like toothpicks when they first visited the mountain nearly 20 years ago. Last year, on their third trip, they saw patches of flowers and bursts of vegetation coloring the once gray landscape.
"This is the most magical place," says Allen Kruger, 75. "It makes you want to come back."
That's what happened to Jim Hill as he tromps once again around his beloved, unpredictable mountain. With each footstep, he bears witness to the capacity for rebirth—Mount St. Helens and his own.
"I thought it was absolutely never going to come back," he says. "It was a desert. But now I'm hooked."