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News / Clark County News

Motorists retrieve vehicles stranded by landslide on highway to Mount St. Helens

May 14 slide wiped out Spirit Lake Memorial Highway leading to the Johnston Ridge Observatory

By Sydney Brown, The Daily News
Published: July 17, 2023, 10:40am

LONGVIEW — Two months after a destructive landslide wiped out a bridge leading to the Johnston Ridge Observatory on Mount St. Helens, owners of the vehicles that had been rescued from the visitor center happily retrieved their cars Friday morning.

The Washington State Department of Transportation constructed a temporary one-lane road on Spirit Lake Memorial Highway near the Coldwater Lake trail system as part of a 30-day emergency contract to allow some access to the observatory.

A dozen visitors were rescued from the observatory May 14 after debris took out the 80-foot bridge that connects drivers back to the highway. No one was injured in the slide.

Roger Freeborn, a Hillsboro, Ore., resident who was one of the visitors blocked in because of the debris slide, said his car was in perfect condition when WSDOT escorted the vehicle owners to the observatory.

“Some birds left a few gifts on my hood, but other than that, it’s exactly how we left it,” Freeborn said.

The slide started around 8:45 p.m. May 14, when 300,000 cubic yards of sediment and other debris came rushing down from the hillside over the course of a half-hour, destroying the 80-foot bridge near Hummocks Trail that leads to Johnston Ridge.

Robert Cornejo-Garcia had driven from Eugene, Ore., to the observatory on a whim, hoping to catch the sunset over Mount St. Helens.

When he packed up and started to head back, he was forced to slam on his brakes and watch as water sped down the hillside. In the blink of an eye, he said, trees snapped and rocks went crashing into the river.

“It just took out the bridge right in front of me,” Cornejo-Garcia said.

He called in the slide to authorities and then did the only thing he could at the time — drive back up to the mountain and wait for helicopters to come get them.

“I got a little lucky,” Cornejo-Garcia said.

Since the slide, Cornejo-Garcia has been using his family’s car to get around.

Freeborn was driving down around the same time when he said he saw someone in front of the bridge “frantically waving” for him to stop. That’s when he saw the destruction.

“When you’re coming down that curve, you can’t really see the bridge, so, I mean, it was close,” Freeborn said.

Freeborn said he tried to file a claim with his insurance in the time he waited for the chance to retrieve his car from the observatory, but they told him they could not do anything because technically his car was not damaged.

In the weeks since the slide, several areas of the surrounding Coldwater Lake trail system remain open, said Gala Miller, Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s public affairs officer. A map of the closure area can be found on the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot National Forest website.

“I think there’s been maybe a misunderstanding, and people might think the entire area is blocked off,” Miller said.

People can still visit the nearby Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center at Coldwater between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily; the Forest Learning Center on 17000 Spirit Lake Memorial Highway; and the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake at 3029 Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.

The surrounding Coldwater Lake bike and walking trails are still open to the public, as is access to the actual lake and the Hummocks Trailhead.

Courtesy of Tim Uhler Video

Paul Mason, WSDOT area engineer working on the project, said they tentatively expect to finish up work on the temporary road by Aug. 8, if not sooner. They still have to pave the new one-lane road and add a guardrail.

“Not too much has changed beyond that we’ve been on-time to finish up this emergency work,” Mason said.

Miller said the work will not end Aug. 8 by any means. Officials will have to work with the U.S. Forest Service, WSDOT and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to find permanent solutions to the long-term effects of the slide.

It could take years to find that permanent solution, she said.

Mason said they are working to reestablish public access to the highway by early 2024.

Miller said they are adding more services at the Science and Learning Center, including fixing the permanent restrooms that had been affected by vandalism.

“We’re definitely seeing fewer visitors than we normally would during the summers,” she added.

The slide has not just affected tourism. Miller said the debris severed power and fiber optic connections up to the observatory, affecting some seismology equipment and leaving Johnston Ridge Observatory with no running water.

Freeborn said this has been a learning experience for him.

“The danger is out there,” Freeborn said. “I’ll definitely be paying more attention to the roads now.”

Freeborn got into his car Friday morning, packed and ready to go on his next camping trip.

“How can you stay away?” he said.