“It’s a miracle — the whole thing’; woman recounts high-altitude rescue
Karen is certain she would not have survived a trip into the Colorado backcountry without the good fortune and quick action of fellow hikers, strangers on the trail and Mountain Rescue Aspen.
Excited for a well-planned backpacking trip on the Four Pass Loop last month, she arrived in Aspen from the Midwest, but on the third day in the mountains she suffered from high-altitude cerebral edema, causing her brain to swell and sending her into seizures.
“It’s a miracle — the whole thing,” said Karen, 37, who is an officer in the military and didn’t want to be identified by her last name for security reasons. “It gives me a greater appreciation of life.”
While this summer has been dominated by climber deaths on Capitol Peak and the Maroon Bells as well as the death of a 20-year-old woman hiking to Conundrum Hot Springs because of acute mountain sickness, Karen’s survival story is one of an ad-hoc team of her friends, strangers and Mountain Rescue volunteers working together to save her life.
Karen and three friends met in Aspen on July 30 for what was supposed to be a five-day journey through the heart of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. They had hiked together previously on the Appalachian Trail and learned about the 28-mile Four Pass Loop southwest of Aspen.
They did everything right: spending a day acclimating at altitude, avoiding alcohol, staying hydrated and researching their route and potential problems such as the symptoms of altitude sickness. Everyone in the group was an experienced hiker and backpacker. One was coming from Denver while the rest were from the Midwest.
“We felt it would be no problem with this hike,” Karen said.
After a good night’s sleep, they departed from Maroon Lake at 7:30 a.m. July 31 with the plan to stay overnight in West Maroon Valley before tackling the higher elevations of West Maroon Pass (12,500 feet) and Frigid Air Pass (12,415 feet) the second day. They hiked about 5 miles to an elevation of 10,730 feet to their first camp.
Karen said she got sick to her stomach after eating dinner early that evening, but she didn’t think anything of it. She went to bed early, stayed hydrated and used some supplemental oxygen all of the hikers brought with them.
The group made it to the summit of West Maroon Pass at about noon Aug. 1. That is Karen’s last memory of what became a life-threatening journey.
Her friends later told her that she laid on her stomach at the summit of the pass, face down, and started clawing at the dirt.
When confronted, she stuttered, couldn’t answer simple questions with a complete sentence or catch her breath even after resting. Her friends consulted with other hikers about the quickest way to get Karen down and determined they had to return the way they came, a trip of nearly 8 miles.
Two friends assisted Karen down the steep descent of the pass while the third shuttled their backpacks. Her friends and other hikers felt Karen was suffering from dehydration.
Karen’s condition improved when the trail got to flatter ground at about 11,000 feet in elevation. Her friends divided her gear and let her hike with an empty backpack.
But disaster struck at about 4:45 p.m. when they were slightly more than halfway back to their car. Karen suffered a seizure while walking. She fell forward from a standing position and hit the top right side of her head on the ground.
Her friends rushed to her aid and got her stabilized after her seizure stopped. Fortunately, two of her friends are nurses and the third is a pathologist. One hiked out to get help while the others stayed with Karen. They were soon joined by three hikers who stayed and gave invaluable moral support and aid setting up camp.
At about 6 p.m., Karen’s friend who went for help encountered a father and son hiking together, and they had a two-way satellite communication device.
They immediately alerted Mountain Rescue Aspen about Karen’s emergency and her location. The father-and-son team hiked to the location while Karen’s friend continued down to Maroon Lake to provide more information for rescuers.
Karen suffered three more seizures during the evening.
The hikers with the satellite device sent additional information about Karen’s critical condition to Mountain Rescue Aspen and requested a helicopter for evacuation.
“I’m just blown away by how many strangers helped me,” Karen said while recounting details her friends supplied to her.
An advance team from Mountain Rescue Aspen arrived at about 8:30 p.m.
Karen was told they had been preparing for a training exercise, so they were quick to the scene when the real emergency broke out. They immediately gave her intravenous fluids and provide medical care. A medical helicopter landed near the site at about 9 p.m. and was airborne about 45 minutes later after getting Karen stabilized and secured.
She arrived at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction a short time later and spent three days in the intensive care unit.
“It was a horrible situation, but so many things happened” to make it turn out all right, Karen said.
As she was being flown away and cared for, two women from the U.S. Forest Service provided shelter for her friend who hiked out to get help. The three hikers who encountered Karen’s party in their time of need abandoned their plans for a wilderness outing and set up camp for the two friends who stayed with Karen. Mountain Rescue members hauled out the backpacks of Karen’s group as well as their trash.
Members of Karen’s family were called and her boyfriend was on a plane to Colorado the next morning.
Doctors determined she suffered from high altitude cerebral edema, which causes fluids to surround the brain resulting in confusion, seizures and can be fatal, as well as hyponatremia (low blood sodium). The seizures were assessed to be secondary to her condition.
Karen said she finally was able to realize what was going on that Friday, three days after the incident.
She was particularly touched that the Mountain Rescue leader for her incident took the time to drive nearly two hours to Grand Junction to see her a few days later, and she was able to thank him and the team for saving her life. She was discharged Aug. 7 and is back in the Midwest.
Karen and her friends are still trying to process the whole event, but they are determined to return to the backcountry.
So many things worked out just right, she said. Among the key events were her friends running into the father-and-son hikers who had the satellite device and MRA’s decision to send a helicopter as quickly as it did for a rare nighttime deployment.
“I don’t know if it would have been too late for me or not,” she said, referring to the absence of a helicopter.
After a lengthy interview last week, Karen followed up with an email reiterating her appreciation of her friends, the strangers who assisted and Mountain Rescue Aspen: “I am certain I would not be here today to relay this outstanding success story without their timely and professional response.”
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.