A towering plume of ash rises in the distance of the photo, swirling with menace and threat, lightning arcing within it. As if to accent the peril, the canyon of trees that frame the gray clouds themselves have gone dark toward their tops, occluded by unseen looming clouds of ash. One shaft of morning light still reaches the lower branches of the trees, splashing over a cut of greenery and the least probable thing in the photo: a red Ford Pinto with a blue dirt bike hitched to its bumper, angled across a forest road.
Even if you haven’t been up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory near Mt. St. Helens, where one of the most puzzling photos of the volcano’s May 1980 eruption is prominently displayed, 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. We did too, so we set out to dig for what answers we could. Some came easy; others not so much.
To begin with, pretty much all of the Pacific Northwest knew that Mt. St. Helens was about to erupt. Settlers in the area saw it erupt in the mid-19th century, and by early 1980, seismologists were monitoring a massive bulge on the volcano’s north slope. Authorities had begun evacuating area residents from their homes as a precaution, though they couldn’t keep campers from ringing the base of the volcano, especially over a sunny mid-May weekend.
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 Yamaha IT enduro bike to the back of his Pinto, driving up to Spirit Lake, then exploring the area via dirt forest roads on the bike. He’d leave before dawn and arrive at the lake right at daybreak.
Lasher, according to Gary Cooper, one of his former co-workers at the Boeing plant in Frederickson, was a “very old school quiet type” but ended up telling the story of the Mt. St. Helens photograph to a number of friends and coworkers over the years. He’s since retired and disconnected his phone number and Facebook account. Nobody we’ve reached who knew him seems to know how to contact him anymore, and another of the three Richard Lashers in Washington with whom we spoke knew of the photo but didn’t know of the photographer. That said, enough of the story is out there and repeated from multiple sources that we feel confident in telling it here.
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.
Had Lasher made it to Spirit Lake, he’d almost certainly have died. According to John P. Walsh’s description of the eruption, 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.”
Had Lasher made it even over the next ridge, he’d almost certainly have died. According to Cooper’s telling of the story, “Luckily for him, and he did not realize until later just how lucky, he was on the opposite side of that ridge in front, because the entire forest was flattened from the ridge down, and he was in the lee side and protected from most of the blast.”
He did, however, realize that he had to get out of there in a hurry. Though the volcano blew out a pyroclastic flow almost due north and Lasher found himself more northeast of the blast, one map shows that temperatures near where Lasher found himself rose to 680 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the same map, most of the 57 people who died that day were positioned to the north or northwest of the volcano, but at least four of them were in Lasher’s vicinity.
He pulled over and attempted to turn around seeing as the ash cloud was heading his way and fast. In his hurry he bent the forks on his motorcycle. 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 phenomomenal sight that filled the sky. 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.
(Cooper or Lasher may have conflated this part of the story with the fate of Robert Landsberg, a newspaper photographer who, upon realizing he wouldn’t be able to escape the eruption after photographing it, carefully rewound his film, packed away his camera gear, and laid over the gear to preserve his shots.)
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 bent motorcycle out of the mountains back to the room he had rented.
That, however, wasn’t the end of Lasher’s story.
The next day as soon as he could, he rode his motorcycle back up into the now really hot zone with his camera to get what pics he could. He was well into the red no go zone, when a helicopter saw him, and came right down and landed in his path. He was surprised to be arrested on the spot and flown out in the chopper and to jail. They left his motorcycle lay on the mountain. They also kept him in jail for a few days without letting him call anyone or even plead his case. When he finally got out, he again went back up there, (Not sure how) and was able to get his motorcycle back and I think later his car as well.
Some of those photos, according to Cooper and fellow former co-worker Steven Firth, focused on those who didn’t make it out alive and on the automotive wreckage they left behind. Both Cooper and Firth recalled Lasher showing them photos of burned-out vehicles with puddles of melted plastic underneath.
So, yes, the photographer behind that mystery photograph did survive to see it widely disseminated. Whatever became of the Pinto and the Yamaha, however, we don’t know, so if you have a red Pinto hatchback with a lot of volcanic ash in the seams, get in touch with us.