Heavens Gate is a ridge point that can be as easy or difficult as someone wants. One can drive almost to the top or hike cross country for over a mile followed by technical rocks on the north face. Neither option was my interest today. I planned to drive to the parking area near the top, then head north on the main ridge trail, then hike down and around to the base of the north face and climb it up to the lookout. There wouldn’t be much of a test of my endurance today, just a lot of fun on the rocks.
The weather was threatening with gray skies and moderate winds (the sunny photos you see are from another trip). Still there were quite a few people on the easily accessible mountain top, but on the north side I would see no one after leaving the parking lot. On the foot of the north face I could look up and see a patchwork of open runs I could go up hand over hand intermixed with rocks that were way beyond my abilities. Though it was well into summer, there were still several patches of snow to add to the beauty and fun of the day.
I started up and found the going pretty straight forward having only to stop and backtrack a few times. Of course I had to make my usual plant investigations that cause me to stop so much on a hike or climb no one would ever want to go to the mountains with me. The very thin soil on the ledges and small flat areas are cold and frozen much of the year and rarely in the light. Thus the vegetative habitats support species that are typically found higher than the 8,400 feet of this mountain. Some of the noteworthy species here are the matted Saxifraga bronchialis, Chaenactis alpina, Draba longiflora, Carex phaeocephala, and Carex leporinella. It didn’t take long to get to the top so I worked laterally and up and down a little for fun and just to check things out.
Finally on top to stay I headed over to the look out and enjoyed the views from this special place. Heavens Gate is perfectly positioned as an island surrounded by two of the deepest canyons in North America each with high mountains beyond including the Salmon River Mountains and the incredible Wallowa Mountains of Oregon. And of course the backdrop to the south is formed by the spectacularly wicked looking figures of He Devil, She Devil, The Tower of Babel, The Ogre, The Goblin and many other creepy rocks. How did this place get the name “Heaven” being situated next to such evil neighbors? I don’t know the reason, but it must be the aptly named heavenly view. Before walking back to the car, I decided to walk south on the ridge for a little more exploring at the timberline.
Walking down the broad back of the ridge over the jumbled boulders and ledges I passed through a mostly dead forest of whitebark pine, but the wildflowers made it all beautiful with wonderful displays of globe penstemons, Indian paintbrush, phacelia, yellow buckwheat, fleeceflower and more. The highlight was a sedge, Carex multicostata. While not much to look at, it’s a very uncommon species and this was the first time I have seen it since I started identifying plants in 1984. It was while enjoying this abundance in such a beautiful setting that my day dramatically changed.
It started with some yelling and shrieking. Then the noise built dramatically and was soon cut out by some sort of yelling chant. I thought it must be a bunch of brat kids goofing off. What else could it be? The commotion was right in my intended path and I didn’t think much of it so I continued on. Getting a little closer I could see some sort of banners and pickets on poles waving in the open tree tops. That seemed odd, but I know some Boy Scout troops have such things. The noise increased in both volume and desperate intensity. It was getting unreasonable now and this was a high use scenic area where people come to enjoy the views and peace of the mountains. I would go up there and have some words with their adult leaders, who should never allow this to happen. But soon things got much weirder.
Walking a little closer I got my first look into the frenzy. I was shocked. I saw an old woman, then another and another. They all were old women. I was witnessing some sort of religious drama of the bizarre kind. One woman was rolling in the brush shaking while making a vibrating noise with her lips. Another was kneeling off to the side shaking and crying. One was bending up and down at the waist while screaming some prayer or scripture. It went something like, “OH JESUS, YOU ARE THE WATER, THE LIFE. YOU ARE ABOVE ALL YADDA YADDA YADDA. One was sitting on a log swaying back and forth speaking in tongues. There were 13 of them and each one was displaying their own individual insanity. I had seen enough. I stooped low in the brush and backed up very slowly and cut across the ridge at a right angle away from the revival. The parking lot was a welcome and comforting site. If hell broke loose any more, I could jump in the car and lock the doors.
Who were these overly dedicated zealots and what were they doing here? Near the foot of the mountain there is a little town called Pollock. Near here there is some sort of outpost or church or something that looks like an old west post fort from the old cowboy and Indians movies. Plastered all over are signs praising Yahweh and condemning Allah and the devil. The highway cleanup signs in the area indicate this “Yahweh’s 666 Warning Assembly” is into serving their community. I’m only guessing, but I think some of these members invaded the mountains today. I’m not sure why they chose Heavens Gate, but perhaps they thought it meant they were closer to heaven. Unfortunately for the rest of us infidels this piece of heaven was turned into hell on this day.