41 years ago. A red Ford Pinto with a blue dirt bike. The story behind one of the most puzzling photos of Mount St Helens’ May 1980 eruption.
You’ve no doubt seen the photo circulating on the Internet, stripped of all context save for the date and location. You’ve also no doubt wondered who took the photo, what were they doing up there in the first place, and whether they made it out alive.
Richard “Dick” Lasher spent that Saturday night packing some gear figuring he’d head out first thing in the morning to get a look at the mountain before it blew. His plan involved hitching his bike to the back of his Pinto, driving up to Spirit Lake, then exploring the area via dirt roads on the bike. He’d leave before dawn and arrive at the lake right at daybreak.
Tired from packing, Lasher slept in an hour or two past his planned departure time. He swore in telling the story many years later that sleeping in that morning saved his life. Based on the angle of the photo and the surrounding terrain, it appears Lasher drove down toward Spirit Lake from the north, likely dropping down from U.S. 12 and the town of Randle into the forest roads of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. He possibly made it as far south as Forest Road 26 by 8:32 that morning. The time the volcano blew.
He pulled over and attempted to turn around seeing as the ash cloud was heading his way and fast. He jumped out of the car and ran up the hillside to get some pics, thinking he might just die for it, and hoping someone would find the camera at least as it was a phenomenal sight that filled the sky. The first picture he took was the one with the Pinto in the road and the motorcycle still in the back with that HUGE cloud going up in the sky in the background.
Had Lasher made it to Spirit Lake, he’d almost certainly have died. Spirit Lake met the full impact of the volcano’s lateral blast. The sheer force of the blast lifted the lake out of its bed and propelled it about 85 stories into the air to splash onto adjacent mountain slopes.
He made his way back down the mountain after being quickly overtaken by the ash cloud. He was completely blinded, and had to drive on the opposite side of the road steering by staying right on the opposite side of the road heading into oncoming traffic, but encountered nobody going up. The car choked out after a while and he rode his motorcycle out of the mountains back to the room he had rented.
So, yes, the photographer behind that mystery photograph did survive to see it widely disseminated. Whatever became of the Pinto and the bike, however, I don’t know.
by Daniel Strohl