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A peek at the peak

Mount St. Helens glowed in the sunshine last week as it loomed above the old Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. However, the peak is likely to be hidden in clouds this weekend, when officials mark the 39th anniversary of the volcano's blast on May 18, 1980.

The easternmost six miles of Spirit Lake Memorial Highway — from Coldwater Lake to Johnston Ridge — reopened to the public Wednesday after its winter shutdown.

Reopening of the highway, also known as State Route 504, occurs the same week as the 39th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980, which killed 57 people, laid waste a vast stretch of forest and sent a cloud of ash across the globe.

The highway ends at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which is named after David Johnston, the young U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist killed while monitoring the volcano that day 39 years ago.

Each year, the state Department of Transportation coordinates with the U.S Forest Service to open the highway to travelers headed to the Johnston Ridge Observatory in time for the annual May 18 event commemorating the lethal eruption.

This year’s commemoration will include a book launch event for “A Hero of Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston,” by Melanie Holmes. It is published by Illinois University Press.

Holmes’ book is the first full-length biography of Johnston, who was immortalized by an iconic photo showing him in a checkered hunting jacket and grimacing up at the volcano from the old timber line parking lot. He compared the steaming and bulging volcano, which sputtered back to life on March 20 that year, to a keg of dynamite with the fuse lit.

Holmes will sign copies of her book and lecture about Johnson from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Observatory.

The Observatory, which tells the story of the May 18 eruption, is on a ridge directly opposite the crater blasted out of the mountain on the morning of May 18. The Observatory also opened Wednesday and its hours will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The ridge is 4,300 feet above sea level, and the state closes the road to the location every winter because of snowfall.

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Contact City Editor Andre Stepankowsky at 360-577-2520.

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