A 20-year-old Montgomery County woman died last week after falling ill on a hiking trip with friends in the Colorado mountains.
Collegeville native Susanna DeForest and her friends were well-prepared for their trek, but as they got closer to their destination — natural hot springs — DeForest started to feel sick, Pitkin County Sheriff's Deputy Anthony Todaro said. Her condition quickly worsened and by the time responders arrived early Friday, it was too late.
Authorities in Pitkin County had not released a cause of death Tuesday afternoon but said DeForest had no known medical conditions. DeForest's mother said in a public Facebook post that her daughter suffered acute altitude sickness.
"Her friends who were with her did all they could to get help to her in time," Kate DeForest said. "We have made a trip to Colorado to see her one last time and visit a place she loved here."
Sometime Thursday, the women started out on the Conundrum Creek trail, a popular spot near Aspen that is known for its natural hot springs, Todaro said.
The 8.5-mile trail begins at 8,700 feet and ends at 11,200. It is heavily traveled and moderately difficult, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the trail is part of the White River National Forest). For most hikers, it is usually a multi-day, 17-mile round-trip to the hot springs and back through a remote wooded area, Todaro said.
As the women hiked, DeForest started to feel sick, Todaro said, and experienced nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath.
Around Mile 6 or 7, DeForest's three friends, all of whom have Pennsylvania ties, realized DeForest couldn't continue to the hot springs, which were at this point only a few miles away. Todaro said they decided to stop and set up camp in the area.
"I don't think anybody had a remote idea how serious this was," Todaro said.
One woman stayed with DeForest as the other two headed back down the trail for help. There is no cell service on or near the trail, not even in the parking area, Todaro said.
By the time the two women hiked down, drove to an area with service, and called 911, it was 10:45 p.m., according to a release from the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office.
Rescue crews aren't normally deployed at night, Todaro said. But authorities decided to send them out in this case because the woman's location was known, people were with her, and she was in some kind of medical distress.
Responders were sent out on foot and via helicopter. One helicopter crew tried to land near the women's campsite but was unsuccessful because of high winds in the area. After that group returned to the airport, an assisting helicopter crew was finally able to land in the dark, rocky area around 3:30 a.m., Todaro said.
But it was too late. They found DeForest dead upon arrival.
DeForest was a student at the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design in Lancaster, earning dean's list recognition this past semester, according to a spokeswoman.
"We're heartbroken to lose any member of our community," the school said in a statement.
According to her Facebook page, DeForest — who went by "Susie" — graduated from Perkiomen Valley High School and worked as a waitress at Margaritas restaurant in Collegeville.
The three friends DeForest was hiking with live in Colorado. One is a student at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and the other two live a few hours away from the Conundrum Creek trail in Dillon, where Todaro said he believed the women spent a few days together before the hike.
DeForest's family could not immediately be reached for comment. In that public Facebook post, her mother said a memorial service would be held at 4 p.m. Sunday at Valley View Community Church in Audubon, Montgomery County.
"Thank you for your prayers," Kate DeForest said. "We are devastated and grieving but relying on the Peace of Christ and all the prayers."
In its most recent update on Sunday, the Pitkin County Coroner's Office said the cause and manner of death were pending an investigation. They did not respond Tuesday to a request for further comment.
Hiker deaths for medical reasons are rare even in an area with such rugged terrain, authorities said. Since June, the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office had received more than 90 search-and-rescue-related calls. There have been five deaths this year, Todaro said, most of them climbing related.
According to Kate DeForest's post, Susanna is survived by her mother, father, and sister.
Many of Susanna's friends took to Facebook to remember a kind, fun-loving young woman who loved natural beauty.
"I hope you are doing all the hiking possible and going on all kinds of adventures up there," Chris Negro wrote. "You were the kind of person that could have fun doing anything and laugh at everything with!"
"She wasn't the type of girl to flash a fake smile and stick her hip out when the camera pointed at her," Jess McFalls wrote. "Nah, she'd rather make a weird face and strike a pose to make the whole room laugh."