Volcanoes and History
Cascade Range Volcanoes - "Volcanoes and History"

First Ascent of Mount St. Helens, Washington
August 26, 1853

Excerpt from: The Columbian, September 24, 1853, of an article written by Thomas J. Dryer and originally appearing in The Oregonian, September 3, 1853.

-- The Columbian newspaper scan found at the Washington Secretary of State Website Database, 2007

The Summit of Mount St. Helens.

...     The next morning at break of day [August 25, 1853], Messrs. Wilson, Smith, Drew and ourself, took three days' rations, together with such things as were deemed necessary to aid us in the ascent, and left camp for the summit, distant about four miles in an air line. We found the route a continual steep ascent, with the exception of an occasional descent over a precipitant ledge of rocks. About two miles from our camp we descended a high ledge to the bed of a small stream, which we followed until we struck the lava at the foot of the bare mountain -- where vegetation ceases to make its appearance. The portion of this stream which we traveled has a fall of at least one thousand feet to the mile, and a much greater one higher up.

The appearance of the mountain upon a nearer approach is sublimely grand, and impossible to describe. The blackened piles of lava which were thrown into ridges hundreds of feet high in every imaginary shape, with an occasional high cliff of primitive formation, seeming to lift its head above the struggle to be released from its compressed position, impress the mind of the beholder with the power of Omnipotence, and the insignificance of human power when compared with that of nature's God. Above all stands a tower of eternal rock and snow, apparently stretching its high head far above the clouds and looking down with disdain upon all beneath. The glaring sunbeams upon the "snows of a thousand winters" serve by contrast to make the immense piles of lava appear blacker than they otherwise would.

We commenced the ascent at once on the south side by climbing up the cliffs of lava towards a small cluster of spruce trees which stand a short distance from the line of perpetual snow. Aftr several hours' hard toil we reached this point, and finding a few sticks of dry wood, kindled a fire and made our camp for the night. We here supplied ourselves with water by melting snow.

We found the night cold and extremely uncomfortable -- our party did not find much repose, and as the eastern sky commenced to show the approach of day [August 26, 1853], we left the camp and pursued our way upward. The higher we ascended, the more difficult our progress. Suffice it to say, that by constant and persevering effort, we were enabled to reach the highest pinnacle of the mountain soon after meridian. The atmosphere produced a singular effect upon all the party, each face looked pale and sallow, and all complained of a strange ringing in the ears. It appeared as if there were hundreds of fine toned bells jingling all around us. Blood started from our nose, and all of us found respiration difficult. -- With this exception, we all felt well. It would be futile to attempt to give our readers a correct idea of the appearance of the vast extent of country visible from the top of this mountain. The ocean, distant over one hundred miles, was plainly seen. The whole Coast and Cascade ranges of mountains could be plainly traced with the naked eye. The snow covered peaks of Mts. Hood, Rainier and two others seemed close by. These form a sort of amphitheatre on a large scale, diversified with hills and valleys.

The crater has been represented to be on the south-west side of the mountain, which is not the case. We took the bearing from the top with a compass, and found it to be on the north-east side. The smoke was continually issuing from its mouth, giving unmistakable evidence that the fire was not extinguished. There is much more snow on the north than on the south side; on the latter it is bare in spots, while on the former it is hundreds of feet deep. We examined fissures in the snow several rods across, which extended a great length along the side of the mountain; and on throwing a stone down heard it strike a long distance from us.

After spending sufficient time to see what was to be seen, and building a pyramid of loose stones on the highest spot of level earth and ashes, we commenced our descent, and reached our camp at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, tired and worn out in body and boots. At dark we reached the timber, and camped for the night. The next morning [August 27, 1853] we left our encampment on the mountain for home, which we reached in four days. ...

NOTES: Comments by Harry M. Majors, appearing in Northwest Discovery, August 1980.

  • Mount St. Helens was the first major peak along the Pacific Coast to be climbed.

  • The 1853 party was led by (and perhaps sponsored by) Thomas Jefferson Dryer (1808-1879), a Portland newspaperman who founded and edited The Oregonian. Three other men in the party consisted of John Wilson (1826-1880+, an employee of The Oregonian), ? Drew (possibly the Oregon Indian Agent Edwin P. Drew, or possibly militiaman Charles S. Drew), and ? Smith.

  • The "small stream" which they followed was Swift Creek.

  • The August 25 campsite would have been located about midway between point 5985 and timberline.

  • Dryer's "Mount Rainier" was actually Mount Adams. The "two others" were Mount Rainier and Mount Jefferson.

  • The 1853 description of Mount St. Helens' crater "is the earliest close-range description that we have of an active crater on Mount St. Helens. Dryer, who expressly took a compass bearing to it, states that the steaming crater was situated "on the north-east side," though he fails to specify how far down from the summit it was. Even allowing for the magnetic declination of 1853, this "crater" could not have been the previously active dome of Goat Rock, which lies true north of the summit. (In this location of an active vent on the northeast side of the peak, Dryer is corroborated by the 1850 account of activity.) Sometime after 1875, this northeast crater -- whichw as active during the 1842-44 eruption -- cooled to the point where it became concealed beneath a covering of snow and ice."

  • Neither the 1860 nor subsequent ascent parties mention a "pyramid of loose stones" left by the Dryer party.


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