Grieving Czech bushwalker rescued after a month
A CZECH bushwalker made an 'H' in the snow with ashes as she desperately waited for help, while holed up in a remote South Island hut for almost a month after her travel companion's death.
And it has now emerged a Facebook message helped spark the rescue mission for the woman after her extraordinary ordeal.
After watching her friend slip and die, the woman spent three freezing nights in the open before stumbling across a warden's hut, next to the Lake Mackenzie hut along the Routeburn Track, where she waited to be rescued for about four weeks.
She used ashes to make a help sign in the snow and fashioned snow shoes with sticks during the ordeal.
She smashed her way inside the locked hut. For the next four weeks, she existed on meagre supplies of food, firewood and gas left behind by DoC workers.
She frantically tried to operate the hut radio but could not understand the English instructions.
Police say extreme and severe conditions, including heavy snow and the risk of avalanche, along with her minor injuries - frostbite and possible hypothermia - prevented the woman from walking to safety.
No other bushwalker passed through the area; the track was officially closed for winter.
The alarm was finally raised this week by the Czech consulate after messages were noticed on social media from concerned friends and family back home.
Queenstown-based Czech Republic honorary consul Vladka Kennett raised the alarm after the pair had been on the track for 29 days.
She was contacted on Facebook by an acquaintance who was in contact with the missing man's worried mother, Kennett told NZME yesterday.
"The mother of the victim said she had no contact for a month. They were meant to be in Queenstown before heading down to Dunedin for farm work." A helicopter search and rescue team found her at the hut on Wednesday afternoon.
She was "ecstatic" and relieved to be rescued, in good physical health, but was clearly traumatised by her ordeal.
"Nobody can prepare you for this," the woman told police.
Kennett told NZME she was recovering very well, considering what she went through.
"It's been very emotional, as you can imagine, but she's handling the situation reasonably well."
She said the woman would be going home as soon as she could.
Fairfax reported that the woman and man became disoriented on the second day of their walk and slipped down a stone cliff. The man fell further than the woman, who was able to get to him, but could not free him from branches and rocks in which he was tangled.
Kennett told Fairfax the woman heard his last breath before he died.
After the fall, she spent three nights in the wilderness before making it to the hut.
She finally reached it on the fourth day, breaking in through a window.
The Lake Mackenzie hut is self-contained with four bunks, and cooking and heating facilities.
There was a radio in the hut, but she was unable to make it work, Otago Lakes central area commander Inspector Olaf Jensen told the Herald.
Police and DoC yesterday praised the woman for not trying to get out on her own.
"Her last decision was a very good decision - just to hunker down and wait for somebody to come along," said DoC Wakatipu operations manager Geoff Owen.
The Czech visitors arrived earlier this year and are understood to have been planning to get farm jobs near Dunedin after tramping the Routeburn Track.
The pair were in New Zealand on a working holiday for a year after arriving in March. The man had hoped for work as a ski and snowboard instructor.
The pair intended on tramping on the Routeburn while in the Queenstown area.
Mrs Kennett contacted police on Wednesday morning. The pair's car was found in the track's carpark on the Glenorchy side.
The woman and her partner, in his late 20s, had bought the car and were travelling around the SouthIsland. On July 26, they parked at the northern entrance carpark of the Routeburn Track which links the Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. It normally takes around three days to tramp the world-renowned 32km trail. They had "some experience" in the back country and were reasonably well equipped.
But crucially, they'd set out without a personal locator beacon.
On the third day, the man fell, police believe, down a steep slope. His partner scrambled down to him. He was still alive when she got there, but died soon after.
For the next three nights, she survived in the open bush. After fashioning snow shoes from sticks, with frostbite and possible hypothermia, she walked 2km to the Lake Mackenzie Hut.
The DoC warden's hut had been locked up for winter but the woman broke in.
There was also some food, but DoC had been careful not to leave too much over winter for fear of attracting rodents.
There was a radio inside the DoC hut but she was unable to make it work as the instructions were in English.
She tried to raise the alarm, even making an "H" in the snow from ash, for help.
Jensen said the woman made the right decision to stay at the hut.
"Some of the comments asking why she wasn't found are unhelpful," he said yesterday.
"No one had been through the area and because of her physical capability, she wasn't able to walk out. Given her experience, and the avalanche risk, she made the decision to stay in the hut, and that was the right decision.
"It's obviously a very unusual case, given the length of time that the female was at the hut."
She didn't go back to him after he died, Jensen said.
Search and rescue was now involved in a recovery operation for the man.
Police postponed the search last night.
"Due to weather conditions and the nature of the terrain, it has unfortunately not been possible today to recover the body of a Czech man who died following a fall on the Routeburn Track," police said.
"Conditions permitting, the recovery team will make another attempt in the morning."
The man's next of kin have been advised of his death.
The pair weren't carrying a locator beacon or a tent with them on the track. They had been in New Zealand since January for travel and a working holiday.
Department of Conservation Wakatipu operations manager Geoff Owen was unsure if the hut would have had much food in it, as the department discouraged wardens from leaving food during the winter months because of a rodent issue.
Ultimate Hikes had a lodge nearby the hut which Owen believed the woman may have accessed for food as well.
Owen said the pair might have been found a lot sooner, and there could have been a different outcome if they had been carrying a locator beacon.
However, he commended the woman for her actions considering the circumstances.
Five weeks - "it's just unbelievable"
The Lake Mackenzie hut is about 43km away from the Glenorchy end of the Routeburn track and takes about 5 hours to reach from the Divide on Milford Rd.
This morning Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club spokesman Ian Sime said it was unlikely the couple had left tramping intentions or signed in before starting their hike.
He said it normally just three days to complete the popular walking track.
"She can't have filed an intention form at the start because if she did someone would have been looking for her within a week."
"Five weeks - it's just unbelievable," said Sime.
Given she had stayed in a warden's hut she would have been warm and had access a large supply of food.
"If she was in the warden's hut she would have been okay," he said.
The Lake Mackenzie warden's hut was locked at this time of year so the woman must have broken in, Sime said.
There were no conservation rangers stationed along the track outside the Great Walks season.
The Great Walks season ended on the 27th of April this year and would restart on October 25 according to DoC's website.
Sime said at this time of year it was possible snow conditions would make the track difficult for people to pass through.
Flushing toilets at the site were shut down for the off-season, replaced with pit toilets and gas was not provided, with DoC recommending online that bushwalkers bring their own cooking stoves.
Running water was also turned off inside the huts but could be accessed from the outside water tank or by melting snow.
Ultimate Hikes general manager Noel Saxon, who runs guided tramps of the track, was surprised it took a month before the woman was found.
He said even during the quieter winter season he would have expected another bushwalker to have come across her earlier.
Heliworks Queenstown Helicopters general manager Richard Mills said his crew flew the woman out of the area.
He said the woman was "ecstatic" when she was rescued.
There had been no instructions about recovering the man's body.
He said the tragedy could have been averted if the couple were carrying a personal locator beacon.
"If any good can come of this it is the message to carry PLBs. They can take the 'S' our of SAR [Search and Rescue]."
The Routeburn Track stretches for 32 kilometres linking the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks.
It can be entered at either end with one entrance at Glenorchy and the other at the Te Anau-Milford Rd.
It is ranked as an intermediate track by the Department of Conservation.
Ultimate Hikes general manager Noel Saxon said at this time of the year there's likely to be a lot of snow, markers would be covered and walking out would be very difficult.
Mr Saxon said it's remarkable the woman survived a month, and that it would've been a very lonely experience.