Natural Perspectives: Feeling low in the mountains

Vic has a saying that every good party ends with a trip to the emergency room. I haven't been able to embrace that philosophy. But if he's right, then we must have had a heck of a party at Mammoth Lakes. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Vic led yet another birding trip recently, this one to Mammoth Lakes for some mountain specialties such as the very hard-to-find white-tailed ptarmigan. Vic and I drove up Thursday, a day ahead of the rest of the group. Crossing the Mojave to get to Lone Pine can be a long, hot, tedious drive. I think Mojave is an old Spanish word meaning "I didn't know our planet could get that hot!"

Sometimes I'm really into the desert, but not on this trip. I just wanted to get across it and reach the mountains. In the past, we have visited Randsburg, a living ghost town that is a favorite with photographers. We've also stopped at Fossil Falls, where huge rivers that ran during the Pleistocene carved fantastic formations into black lava. Those wet millennia were more than 10,000 years ago, and the falls are now bone dry.

We stayed in Lone Pine on Thursday night, continuing our drive north Friday. We've seen the museums at Manzanar and Independence, both very worthwhile stops. But we passed them by this time. The only stop I wanted to make on this trip was in Bishop at Erick Schat's Bakkery for some of the Russian raisin pecan bread.

We like to explore new areas where Vic might lead students or birding clients on future trips. This time, we took a side foray up Rock Creek, reached via the Tom's Place exit from Highway 395. We happily meandered west into the Sierras alongside the creek up to Little Lakes Valley and Rock Creek Lake. At the end of the road, we turned around and headed down to Rock Creek Lakes Resort and the Pie in the Sky Café for lunch.

The café was just a tiny lunch counter with seven stools. Burgers and hot dogs were grilling outdoors. We heard that the place is famous for its pies. But out of the dozen varieties listed on the blackboard, a third were gone already. And it wasn't even noon yet. I got the last piece of chocolate chip pecan, and Vic got the last piece of banana cream. They were heavenly.

Even though proprietor Sue King had baked 43 pies that morning in her cramped kitchen, they were almost all gone by noon. We were told that on weekends, they sell out by 10:30 a.m. The waitress said that one lady had paid $40 that morning to have a whole pie shipped FedEx to her home. Pie in the Sky Café is going to become one of our favorite summer stops.

After lunch, we did some scouting for birds around Crowley Lake, finding white pelicans, common loons and an abundance of sage thrashers. Finally, we headed to Mammoth to check into the luxury condo that we had rented at Silver Bear Condominiums. By sharing a two-bedroom, two-bath condo with two other people, we got this deluxe lodging with fireplace and fully equipped kitchen for only $90 a night per couple. We had a very late lunch at Base Camp Café in Mammoth, after which I laid down for a nap at the condo.

I never got to sleep. I was hit by pain in my left arm and jaw, and it felt like a St. Bernard was sitting on my chest. And I was having trouble breathing. I know enough about heart attacks to know that these symptoms warranted further examination. Women don't always present typical heart attack symptoms anyway, and I wasn't about to dismiss this out-of-hand as indigestion.

Vic took me to the emergency room at Mammoth Hospital. They put me through a full battery of tests, and I came up with low blood oxygen levels, an abnormal ECG and elevated troponin levels. Troponin is a protein that is normally not present in blood, but appears only when heart tissue is damaged. They admitted me to the hospital and held me until the next day, monitoring my blood every four hours.

To make a long story short, I wasn't having a heart attack, nor was it indigestion. My lungs just weren't taking in enough oxygen at that high elevation, probably due to allergies, asthma and lungs that were damaged 10 years ago from a severe allergic reaction to Vioxx.

My chest pains stopped as soon as they gave me oxygen in the ER. But about 2 a.m., a nurse came in and said the admitting doctor wanted me to have a nitroglycerin patch. I asked what for. She said it was for chest pain. I said I didn't have chest pain any more. She said the doctor wanted me to have it anyway. I asked what the side effects were. "Headache," she replied as she slapped on the patch. She came back several hours later and asked how my chest pain was. I still didn't have chest pain, but now I had a headache. I declined the offer of a second patch.

I'll skip right over the part where a nurse tried to take blood and went right through my vein into tissue on the other side and, of course, couldn't draw any blood. I'll also skip over the part where this same nurse changed out an IV bag about 20 minutes after hooking it up because she had put on the wrong bag. With those exceptions, the care I received there was great.

Finally, all my blood values returned to normal, and by 4 p.m., I was ready to be released. Coincidentally, that was when Vic's first day of birding with his students ended and he was able to take me back to the condo.

I spent the next day happily ensconced in a rocker-recliner reading a good book while Vic led his group on a climb to find ptarmigan. They drove up to a small boat dock on the shore of Saddlebag Lake at an elevation of 10,800 feet, where they boarded a tiny ferry that took them across the lake. They arrived at the edge of a wilderness area in the Inyo National Forest. After a fairly rugged hike through beautiful terrain, gaining another 1,000 feet of elevation, they found a hen white-tailed ptarmigan with two chicks. Mission accomplished.

Vic and I spent one more night at the condo and headed home Monday. I had a follow-up visit with my doctor here in town, and she confirmed that my episode was just due to low oxygen, which had caused some minor and quickly reversible damage to my heart tissue. Was that a great party, or what? Frankly, Vic has fonder memories of this trip than I do.

Speaking of remembering, Vic wants me to remind everyone that the Bolsa Chica Science Symposium will be from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Grace Lutheran School, 5172 McFadden Ave. You can hear the latest results from scientists who have been monitoring the lowlands at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. This once-a-year event is free and open to the public. Don't miss it.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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