When a healthy young woman went hiking with some friends, no one could have predicted the terrifying chain of events they would face. Before long, she became sick and couldn’t stop vomiting. Her friends went for help, but it was too late. Now, others are being warned about what took this student’s life.
Susanna DeForest of Collegeville, Pennsylvania, was looking forward to a hike with three friends in Colorado. The 20-year-old graphic design student at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design had completed her sophomore year and was on the dean’s list. She had everything going for her when things went terribly wrong.
DeForest was an avid hiker, and she thought she was prepared as she headed out alongside her friends, hiking the Conundrum Creek Trail, which is said to be rocky and muddy but easy to follow and rated somewhere between moderate to difficult. The trek reportedly takes almost a full day to complete, with “5-8 hours to hike in and 3-6 hours to hike out, on average,” according to All Trails.
However, Susan DeForest wouldn’t make it that long. Instead, on a fateful Thursday night during the Colorado adventure, she became light-headed and suddenly started vomiting, according to Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Todaro, Daily Mail reported.
The three friends, also from Pennsylvania, set up a tent to get DeForest out of the heat and into a place where she could rest. But, her condition didn’t improve. While one of the friends stayed with DeForest, the other two headed out to seek help at approximately 8:30 pm, but they didn’t reach emergency officials until more than two hours later.
After being alerted to the “grievously ill hiker” in Conundrum Hot Springs around 10:45 pm, a rescue team from Mountain Rescue Aspen was dispatched. Unfortunately, they didn’t reach DeForest until the next morning. By the time first responders arrived at the scene, DeForest had died. They attempted to revive her while waiting for a helicopter to transport her to the hospital.
Sadly, their efforts were in vain. Due to poor weather conditions, the first helicopter reportedly had troubles landing. By the time a second helicopter was able to land, it was too late. Susanna DeForest was pronounced dead at 5 am the Friday morning after falling ill on the trail.
Although the friends had left a bit late in the afternoon for their hike, police say they had the proper gear, water, and food. They were adequately prepared to spend the night at the hot springs and hike out the next day. They seemed to have taken all of the appropriate safety measures and kept hydrated too. Alcohol and drugs were not involved, and DeForest wasn’t suffering a pre-existing medical condition. So, what went wrong?
In a Facebook post, Kate DeForest revealed that her daughter died from “acute altitude sickness” on the trail, which has an elevation of “8,000 to about 11,200 feet” and is almost entirely uphill. “Dear Friends, many of you already know this, but on Friday, we lost our daughter, Susie DeForest. She was hiking in Colorado and suffered acute altitude sickness,” Kate wrote. “Her friends who were with her did all they could to get help to her in time.”
Altitude sickness occurs when a person cannot get enough oxygen from the “thinner” air found at high altitudes. If you go too high too fast, you begin to breathe faster since your body isn’t getting the oxygen it needs. In severe cases, a fatal build-up of fluid in the lungs and brain can occur as a result. Symptoms include a headache, confusion, not being able to walk straight, and feeling faint. By the time these symptoms occur, however, the condition is already severe and might be deadly.
Luckily, altitude sickness can be avoided if you know what to do. The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to allow your body plenty of time to adjust to the decreased levels of oxygen in high-altitude locations. You should ascend very slowly. It can take several days for your body to adjust to decreased oxygen, so if you are traveling from sea level to a destination above 8,000 feet, plan your trip to gradually reach higher altitudes over the course of a few days.
This is where Susanna DeForest and her friends likely went wrong. “A good rule of thumb is to avoid ascending more than 1,000 feet a day,” according to Everyday Health. Remember, the elevation of this trail increased over 3,000 feet. “If you are traveling to very high altitudes, stop at 8,000 to 9,000 feet for a few days before moving on to allow your body to adjust,” the website further advises.
Since the highest point in Pennsylvania is Mt. Davis at 3,213 feet, ascending the 8,000 to 11,200 feet elevation of this trail in a day, although it’s slated to be hiked in that short time, is simply too much for someone not used to living at higher altitudes. It’s too late for Susan DeForest, but this information could save others from the same fate. If there’s an adventure-loving hiker in your life, this is a story they need to read before planning their next trip.