Conundrum victim suffered pulmonary, cerebral edema

Susanna (Susie) DeForest

A 20-year-old Pennsylvania woman died of both high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema on a hike with friends to Conundrum Hot Springs last month, an official said Friday.

Susanna “Susie” DeForest of Collegeville, Pennsylvania, likely began developing the pulmonary edema during a visit to Dillon a day or two before she began hiking in the Aspen area Aug. 17, said Dr. Steve Ayers, Pitkin County coroner.

She developed symptoms of cerebral edema — including vomiting and confusion — during the hike to the hot springs, he said.

DeForest was with three friends also from Pennsylvania, though two lived in Dillon and one in Golden, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Todaro said in August after DeForest’s death. When DeForest developed the cerebral edema symptoms, her friends put her in a tent to make her more comfortable, he said.

One friend stayed with her, while the other two hiked back down to summon help, which occurred about 10:45 p.m. Aug. 17, Todaro said.

However, a helicopter dispatched to pick her up could not land because it was too heavy, Ayers said Friday. Initially, Ayers said he thought DeForest might have lived had that helicopter been able to land, though that later proved to be false.

That’s because the friend who stayed with DeForest reported that she came out of the tent to signal the helicopter at the time with her cell phone, then returned to the tent after the landing was aborted to find DeForest was dead, Ayers said. DeForest died about 1:30 a.m., he said.

“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Ayers said of the helicopter’s aborted landing.

The helicopter that eventually flew her body out of the wilderness didn’t return until 5 a.m., Todaro said in August.

Kathy Shoemaker, chief flight nurse at CareFlight in Grand Junction, said Friday that the pilot thought the helicopter was too heavy to land in the compact site, so he flew back to the airport to drop a person off. At that point, he needed more fuel, but it wasn’t available at the Aspen airport, she said.

A helicopter from Flight For Life in Summit County made the return trip to fly the body out, said Shoemaker and Todaro.

High altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema “can be insidious and mimic other illnesses,” Ayers said in a statement Friday.

DeForest’s friends did not recognize or know what was happening to her, Ayers said in a subsequent interview. High altitude pulmonary edema is 100 percent fatal unless the person suffering from it is brought down to a lower altitude or given oxygen, he said.

It begins to develop above 6,600 feet and likely would have abated if she’d been brought down to Aspen’s altitude, Ayers said.

DeForest had just finished her sophomore year studying graphic design at the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design in Collegeville. She’d been named to the dean’s list during the spring semester.