Neil Mathison

Volcano: An A to Z

Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 43, No. 4, (Fall 2008), 305-328.

We have been poor at assimilating the great lessons that geology teaches—the earth's ceaseless motion and immensity of time … I well remember the catechism I learned in grade school: Mt. Lassen, which erupted in 1914, is the only active volcano in the United States (Alaska and Hawaii were still colonial possessions at the time). – Stephen Jay Gould “Deep Time and Ceaseless Motion,” The New York Review of Books, May 14, 1981

A. Attitude and Altitude
We grew up under a volcano, my sister, my two brothers, my schoolmates, my future-wife Susan, and I. Massive, silent, snow-covered, ice-capped, at 14,000 feet it presided over us, although we rarely thought of it as a volcano. We saw it more like one of those great-uncles: distant, benign, reassuring by his constancy, evidence of something larger than immediate family. The Salish, who lived under it, called it Tahoma. Capt. George Vancouver, the first European to officially see it, named it Rainier. We natives called it “The Mountain.” Nowadays three-million of us live in its shadow. Even when we can’t see it – and in misty Pacific Northwest winters we often can’t – we’re cognizant of its presence. Maybe because its likeness is everywhere: on license plates, beer bottles, business logos, and at least two baseball teams. Maybe because it has become our trademark, the leitmotif for regional identity. Maybe because, at its 14,000-foot altitude, it’s impossible to ignore. We live in its shadow, and we’re mostly happy to live there. But it’s a Damoclean shadow: the United States Coast and Geodetic Service has designated Rainier the most hazardous volcano in the lower-forty-eight states. In the last thousand years, on sixty different occasions, Rainier rained destruction on Puget Sound: eruptions, earthquakes, ash, pyroclastic flows, mud, debris-laden lahars.

We grew up under a volcano not thinking it a volcano.

But it was.

And it still is.

B. Burroughs Mountain
Every other September or so I put on my hiking boots and pack my daypack and drive up to Mt. Rainier National Park’s White River entrance. There I ascend the highway to Yakima Park. Next to the Rainier National Park Company’s one-time lodge, now a cafeteria and gift shop, I begin the trail to Burroughs Mountain. I like this trail because of its open views and because you begin in flowered meadows but eventually climb well above the tree line and because it is a loop and you don’t have to retrace your steps. I prefer a counterclockwise route that gets you higher, faster, but also I like the drama of it. You don’t see the mountain until you complete the ascent up First Burroughs, and then, upon reaching a wide, flat, treeless plateau that tops the Burroughs summit (formed when a lava flow filled in a canyon), the mountain reveals itself: to the west Winthrop Glacier, to the east the chimney spire of Little Tahoma, dead ahead Camp Sherman, and above Sherman, Steamboat Prow at 9600 feet, and above Steamboat Prow, the massive 14,000 foot Liberty Cap white as a sailor’s hat. The soil on First Burroughs is gray and crumbly: it’s frozen most of the year. Only a few hardy wildflowers and heather can survive here, but there are marmots (relatives of ground hogs) and golden-mantled ground squirrels (which look like chipmunks) and hawks that ride the afternoon thermals. Sometimes a mountain goat steps tentatively out of the fog.

C. Composite Volcanoes
Mt. Rainier, like most other Cascade Range volcanoes, is a composite or stratovolcano made up of discontinuous layers of lava, ash, and tephra, tephra being the clast, rock larger in size than ash, that has been hurled into the sky and has fallen back to the earth. Because this mixture of lava, ash, and tephra doesn’t readily flow, composite volcanoes are usually steep-sided. The characteristic profile of a composite volcano is conical: think Fuji in Japan or Popocatepetl in Mexico or, before it blew its top, St. Helens in Washington State. Because their strata are of different materials, composite volcanoes are not only are subject to explosive eruptions – magma rising, pressure building, domes exploding in a hail of material that can rise twelve miles into the atmosphere – but are also subject to landslides and mudflows that can be triggered with or without seismic activity. The lava rock, weakened by geothermal chemistry, and the layers of frangible ash and lose tephra, augmented by ice and snow and mud, combine in a concrete-like slurry called a lahar that will speed down the mountain at up to forty miles per hour and up to distances of more than fifty miles. Near the volcano, lahars flatten houses, knock down three-hundred-foot trees, rip boulders from the ground. Farther downstream they entomb everything. Lahars are the leading cause of volcanic death. And the toll is grim. Tambora in Indonesia killed 92,000. Krakatau also in Indonesia 36,000. Mount Pelée in Martinique 30,000. Nevada del Ruiz in Columbia 25,000. And these are only the big ones, the famous ones, the recent ones. Since the beginning of recorded history, killer volcanoes have snuffed out more than 300,000 human lives. Today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, over 150,000 Puget Sounders live in the path of Rainier’s historical lahars.

D. Death
What is the calculus of death?

Not too many weeks ago my father-in-law Dick Cole died. More than a hundred people attended his memorial service. After the service, we gathered at our house – there were so many of us you could hardly walk from room-to-room until eventually we spilled out the front door and onto our front porch and into the cool March afternoon. We honored Dick. We celebrated his life. And the ritual comforted us.

Each evening the PBS News Hour broadcasts the photographs of the soldiers, sailors, and marines who have died in the previous days’ battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. I always stop what I’m doing and stand in silence until the last photograph flickers across the screen. I love these men and women. I love them for their ultimate sacrifice. I love them even though they are strangers to me and even though I doubt we have much common. I hope I never forget them. Often, however, it seems to me that their honor guards and their rifle salutes and their half-masted banners and their photos and my silences aren’t enough. They remain strangers, their names too easily forgotten.

After the 9-11 attacks, The New York Times printed a photograph and a brief memoriam for every one of the 2998 victims. I see this as very American, this recognizing of each individual, and I believe it to be one of the best attributes of our national character. But in the 2007 Indian Ocean Earthquake, in a matter of hours, a tsunami swept a quarter of a million people to their deaths, possibly the most people killed in a single day’s event in all of human history. So where were the silences and rifle salutes and half-masted banners for these sons and daughters? Who recited their names? How is it that so few of us bother to remember them? Are we predisposed to distance ourselves from a stranger’s death? Do we have some built-in protection against too much death?

E. Enumclaw
Enumclaw lies at the base of the Cascade foothills, a 10,000 person community, forty miles southeast of Seattle and forty miles northwest of Mt. Rainier. It’s midway between the volcano’s summit and the Space Needle. It was once a logging town. It’s still a dairy town. Now it’s evolving into a commuter town supporting the megalopolis growing out from Seattle and Tacoma. If it’s a clear day, when you drive around Enumclaw, you’ll stumble upon vistas of the mountain, startling by its size and its white grandeur. But mostly the town-site is flat. Here and there, amid dairies and horse farms, hemlock-and-Douglas fir-covered hills rise up as if they were islands rising in a meadow sea. In a sense, the hills are islands: glacial drumlins and scarps that stood above the river of mud that, 5,700 years ago, flowed down from the summit of Rainer. During that event, the mud in Enumclaw was at least seventy-five feet deep. The mud is why Enumclaw is flat. The event is known as the Osceola Mudflow. It’s the largest such event in Rainier’s history. One of the largest mudflows in the history of the world. Geologists believe that the Osceola occurred when the top 2000 feet of Rainier’s summit collapsed, probably, but not certainly, from a volcanic eruption, but possibly from an earthquake in combination with the weakening of the summit by hydrothermal chemistry – magma heating groundwater making it hot and acidic, converting hard volcanic rock into soft, clay-rich soil. In the high, glacial valleys nearer the summit, the mud depth exceeded three hundred feet. Imagine it. Mud hundreds of feet high. Mud floating house-sized chunks of summit breccias. Mud that would ultimately ground the breccias on scarps here in Enumclaw like icebergs in a mud sea. Mud rising as high as the tallest trees. Mud flowing faster than you could walk or run. Nobody knows how fast the mud actually flowed – was it fifteen or twenty or forty miles per hour? Could you hear it coming? Would it have sounded like waves breaking on a beach, like a hurricane of mud, like a freight train of mud? Mud that if you lived in Enumclaw then, and some Native Americans did, would entomb your lodge in less than forty minutes.

F. Fuji
Of the thirty-six woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, who lived from 1760 to 1849, the most famous is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” In this print a wave extends its tendrils over two slender boats just rising up from a trough. But the boats don’t center the print. What centers the print is the small, perfect cone of Mt. Fuji, which Hokusai placed at the bottom of the trough. What draws your attention is Fuji’s solitude. Perhaps solitude is inherent in volcanoes. Like us, they are individuals. The stand apart from sister mountains. Perhaps this is why we identify volcanoes with our own solitary existences. My favorite Hokusai is “Mount Fuji in Clear Weather,” also known as “Red Fuji.” In this print Fuji is larger, its lower slope rising from the bottom left to its summit at the top right. The dominant colors are rose, green-blue, blue-black, and white: the base of the mountain is green-blue; the sky is a darker blue scalloped by white clouds; the top of the mountain is blue-black and streaked with white snow. But it’s the middle of the mountain that draws your attention: the middle is rose, illuminated by an off-print sun rising. I love it because it reminds me of Rainier. The rising sun. The rare, rosy dawns. What I call Rainier’s maraschino mornings.

G. Graveyard
Rainier is a graveyard.

My friend Jay Ulin who was once a climbing guide on Mt. Rainier recently invited me to an ash-spreading in honor of Jay’s friend and well-known climber Dick McGowan. The ceremony was held at Camp Muir, which is at the 10,000 foot level on the mountain and which is the kick-off point for climbers’ final summit assault. Then those able would carry Dick’s remains on his final climb so as to spread Dick’s ashes on the summit. The mourners drove up to Paradise Inn, at 6,000 feet. From there they climbed to Muir. I didn’t join them – I didn’t know Dick– but someday I’d like to hike up to Muir with Jay. I’d like to hear his tales of 1960s mountaineering, his accounts of his forty-four summit climbs. I’ve seen no statistics but I suspect there must be a number of ash-spreadings on Rainier – if you’re a Puget Sounder, especially if you’re a climber, the mountain is a holy place. But Rainier is a graveyard in other ways. Over 500 people have lost their lives on its slopes: climbers, skiers, hikers, snowboarders, aviators. The National Park Service projects that each year two more people will die. The worst single incident occurred in 1946 when a US Navy transport carrying Marines from San Diego to Seattle, in bad weather and with no visibility, flew into the South Tahoma Glacier. The thirty-two men are still on the mountain, entombed in South Tahoma’s ice.

The writer William Vollmann begins his essay “Three Meditations on Death” with the sentence, Death is ordinary. I suppose it is. But the only dead person I ever saw dead was my father who died in his bed at the age of eighty-three. I don’t recall feeling ordinary about that. Of course Vollmann’s point is that death is so common it should feel ordinary.

Most climbers die in rockfalls or avalanches or just falling – down a snowfield, off a cliff, into a crevasse. Often they die in inclement weather, when the risks of avalanche, exposure, or just not being able to see where they were going are greatest.

But when I look at Rainier, I don’t think death.

And that, it seems to me, is one of its paradoxes.

H. Haiku
I’m not a student of haiku. But I like the form, its Zen-like puzzle, its illusory simplicity, its ability to illuminate what lies between thought and words. The Mt. Fuji volcano has inspired countless Japanese haiku artists. One of the most beloved Japanese haiku masters Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) penned several about Fuji during his lifetime. Here are two:

clouds for roots,
Mt. Fuji's green foliage,
the shape of a cedar

over one ridge
do I see winter rain clouds?
snow for Mt. Fuji

I. Ice
There is more ice and snow on Mt. Rainier than on all the other Cascade volcanoes combined. It is the most glaciated U.S. peak outside of Alaska and hosts twenty-six different glaciers. If volcanism raised Rainier, ice sculpted it, gave it its rugged, cowboy-hero face, and ice is why it gleams so whitely over Puget Sound even on the hottest summer days.

Like Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Fuji” Rainier might be viewed from the perspective of each of its twenty-six glaciers. From the Nisqually, on the mountain’s south side, the peak is almost conical; from the West Side Highway (now closed to automobiles), where the Kautz, Tahoma, and Puyallup glaciers descend, you see the craggy, vertical, wide-shouldered face of the Sunset Amphitheatre, which, as its name suggests, looks like an amphitheatre; in the northwest quadrant of the park, the Mowich, Edmonds, and Russell Glaciers border the precipitous and blasted scarp of Willis Wall; from the North, the Winthrop and Edmonds flow down either side of Steamboat Prow; from the east, my favorite glacier, the Frying Pan, skirts the chimney-like stack of Little Tahoma, while from the southeast, the Cowlitz and Ingraham reach all the way to the summit where Columbia Crest leans west into the wind like a steam locomotive, Disappointment Clever its coal car, Little Tahoma its caboose. There is in the mountain’s symbiosis of fire and ice something animate, something always on the edge of danger.

J. John Mathison
My father John Mathison attempted to climb Mt. Rainier in 1952. He made it to within three-hundred feet of the summit before his party had to turn back: one of the party (not my father) suffering altitude sickness. I remember my father returning after the climb, bewhiskered, sunburned, his face still smeared with sunscreen, wearing his army-surplus climbing knickers, and carrying his army-surplus alpine backpack. He hadn’t made it – but I felt no less proud of him than if he’d been an astronaut returning from the moon.

Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump are generally credited as the first two people to climb Rainier. When they reached what they thought was the summit in August, 1870 (now called Point Success) they subsequently saw a higher point (now called Columbia Crest). Because it was five pm, because the climb had taken much longer than they expected, because they had to spend the night in the mountain’s crater anyway, they opted to ascend the real summit the next morning. They had no tent and no warm clothing but they discovered a snow cave warmed by a sulfurous steam vent. “We passed a most miserable night,” Stevens later wrote, “freezing on one side and in a hot steam-sulfur bath on the other.”

The first woman to climb the mountain was Fay Fuller, daughter of a Tacoma, Washington newspaper publisher. Ms. Fuller was twenty when she climbed Rainier in 1890 accompanied by four men and no other women, which scandalized Tacoma society, as did her climbing outfit of ankle-length wool bloomers, a jumper blouse, a full-skirted coat, goggles, a straw hat, and an alpenstock made of a shovel handle with a spike on the end.

Every year over 8000 people attempt to climb Rainier: about half make it, the rest turning back mostly due to bad weather. My brother Charles Mathison, a climber with a number of Cascade summits to his credit, summitted Rainier twice and on his third, failed attempt spent a night in a snow cave. My sister Charlotte Guyman and her husband Doug have also reached the summit, neither of them climbers; it seems to me their accomplishment is something else, more like running a marathon or cycling from Seattle to Portland, something you do to lengthen your list of accomplishments, something that does honor to you but less to the mountain. There’s something in our culture that drives us to catalog accomplishments, to compete constantly (even when we’re supposedly relaxing), to set aside too little time to savor what we experience. I liked the way the Mountaineers used to climb Rainier: beginning early in the spring they climbed the lesser Cascade peaks, Mt. Si, Mt. Pilchuck, graduating in early summer to St. Helens and Adams and sometimes Baker, culminating in July with the ascent of Rainier.

I have not climbed Rainier, which is not to say I wouldn’t try, although at my age of sixty-one such an attempt would not be casually undertaken. But my not climbing the mountain hasn’t made the mountain a lesser thing in my life.

The mountain is rooted in me.

And I in it.

K. Klapatche Park
The high meadows of Mt. Rainier are called “parks.” Klapatche Park was the first I ever reached by my own muscle and sweat. Back then, in 1960, the trail began on the West Side Highway, now closed to auto traffic, and it was short, only two-and-a-half miles in length, but in that distance you ascended nearly 2000 feet. I was twelve-years-old when my dad and my ten-year-old brother Charlie and I set out on this hike. (The next winter I would write a one-paragraph essay about our ascent, which my seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Barr, would read aloud to the class, one of the first public performances of my writing.) The hike followed a pattern familiar to Rainier hikers: it began in a dense and dim conifer forest, where the ground had been softened by millennia of fallen needles and fallen trees and where the firs and hemlocks and cedars rose as high as two-hundred feet. Then the trail began to climb in a series of switchbacks to where the ground grew stonier, the tree trunks, now Alaska yellow cedar and noble fir and white bark pine, more slender, and the sunlight brighter. Eventually, in a last steep pitch, the trail ascended into the first meadow, cupped below the mountain’s skirt, dotted with tarns and stunted Engelmann spruce and noble fir and the brilliant herbaceous green of the meadow grasses and sedges, which, if you looked more closely, were flowered with color: red paintbrush, blue lupine, yellow avalanche lilies, cream-colored bear grass, and purple asters. We lunched by a tarn that mirrored the mountain’s face. Insects droned a sleepy August fugue. Running water played a background counterpoint. Resins from the trees and the fragrances of wildflowers perfumed the air. Later we followed the trail up a talus slope to St. Andrews Lake, situated well above the tree line, where cairns marked the trail across stony fellfields. In less than three miles we had passed through four life zones – Canadian, Hudsonian, sub-alpine, and alpine – the equivalent at sea-level of walking from Seattle to the Arctic Circle. Over the next few years my brother and I would hike to many other parks: Van Trump, Indian Henry’s, Summerland, Spray, Berkley, Grand, Indian Bar – all would be wonderful. None would offer the unique joy of being the first. The first alpine park earned on our own, the first where we set a hiking goal and achieved it, the first where we walked where few other people would ever walk, the first afternoon when we lolled in the hard-earned glory of an August alpine meadow.

L. Landscapes
Mt. Rainier dominates Puget Sound. If you doubt this, sit on the shore of Lake Washington’s Seward Park on a sunny afternoon and view the mountain rising over the small city of Renton at the lake’s southern end. You can’t help but feel its power. It seems to me that here and elsewhere in the American West our vast spaces unite us: high desert, wide basins, broad seascapes, and snowy alpine summits, wherever your perspective, what you see is a great expanse of geography.

How you see this, however, has much to do with who you are. Jonathan Raban, in his book Passage to Juneau, observes that Captain George Vancouver saw the Northwest landscape at odds with the younger officers in his crew. For Vancouver, who had come of age during the Enlightenment, landscape was significant in how it would lend itself to husbandry. Of the Puget Sound country, Vancouver wrote, Our attention was immediately called to a landscape, almost as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly finished pleasure grounds of Europe. But Vancouver’s younger officers were swept up in the then burgeoning Romantic Movement. In their journals they recorded towering escarpments, rocky cliffs, tumultuous tidewater passages, geographies filled with awe and dread – and decidedly uncivilized. Archibald Menzies, the botanist who accompanied Vancouver, wrote of an anchorage in Desolation Sound: … there was a beautiful Waterfall which issued from a Lake close behind it & precipitated a wide foamy stream into the Sea over a shelving rocky precipice of about thirty feet high, its wild romantic appearance aided by its rugged situation & the gloomy forests which surrounded it. (I have visited this place and today it is much as it was when Menzies observed it.) Raban concludes that it was as if “Menzies and Vancouver, aboard the same ship at the same time in the same place, were on separate journeys through two landscapes.” Wallace Stegner notes in his collection of essays Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs that the first European landscape artists never succeeded in capturing the aridity and scale of the West: they unfailingly made it look like Europe or the Hudson River Valley; the grandiosity of the West escaped them even though it lay just beyond the back side of their easels. Stegner goes on to say that nothing prepared Northern Europeans and Atlantic Americans for the American West, not their common law, not their belief in man’s stewardship of the earth, not their faith in the yeoman farmer. If place shapes us, and I believe it does, it is also true that our other life experiences shape how we see place, where we were raised, the prevailing views of our compatriots, our religious inclinations, and even the language we speak.

M. Memories, Photographs, Mowich Lake
My family has spent so many weekends and taken so many photographs at Mt. Rainier, I often lose track of what is memory, what is photograph. One of my earliest memories is of Longmire Campground where my father, my Aunt Harriet, and I, perhaps the weekend in June 1949 when my brother Charlie was born, had a picnic. Was this also a photograph?

But I have for certain a Kodachrome slide of my mother, Natalie Mathison, in the same campground taken in 1951. She’s standing at one end of a picnic table and she’s cooking on a green Coleman camp stove. She’s wearing a pale-yellow cotton dress; her jacket is wool, a Hudson’s Bay checkerboard pattern of red and white blocks identical to a jacket my father had; her hair is done up in a knot of double black braids; she is thirty-three. Behind Mother, you can see my parent’s walk-in canvas and plywood trailer that was painted gray on top, had a thin red waistband stripe, and a dark green bottom and a profile that was rounded in front with a rear-end swooping out in back like a ducktail haircut. I can hear the bacon sizzling and feel the morning sun on my face and hear my brother chasing through the campsite and hear my father admonishing him to kick up less dust, but what I hear and smell and feel is certainly a memory, not a photograph.

Selected Works

Fiction
When is it too late? A divorced spouse demands an annulment.
A navy sailor faces choices and challenges on a Vietnamese river during the war.
Essay/Memoir
Mathison explores how his seagoing ancestors may have drawn him to the sea.
Essay
This essay explores what it means to live in the shadow of an active volcano.

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