Tuesday 28 January 2020

Hiker's 'harrowing' month stranded in wilderness after her partner died

A photo released by New Zealand police shows Pavlina Pizova and Ondrej Petr taking a selfie at an undisclosed location. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
A photo released by New Zealand police shows Pavlina Pizova and Ondrej Petr taking a selfie at an undisclosed location. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Nick Perry

A tourist from the Czech Republic who went missing nearly a month ago while hiking in the New Zealand wilderness has spoken of the "harrowing" ordeal during which her partner died.

Pavlina Pizova said she could not free her partner, Ondrej Petr, after he slipped down an icy bank and became wedged between rocks and branches.

After he died, she stayed with him through the freezing night, and it would take almost another month before Ms Pizova was rescued.

The tourist, who was found on Wednesday at a park warden's hut on the snowed-in Routeburn Track near Queenstown, broke down in tears as she read aloud her account in halting English. Czech consul Vladka Kennett provided more details.

Ms Pizova's comments came soon after rescuers retrieved the body of her partner, 27-year-old Mr Petr.

The couple set out on July 26 to hike the scenic track, a 32km route that typically takes three days in the summer, but which can become treacherous in the winter months from June to August.

Ms Pizova said they made several mistakes: they did not tell anybody of their specific plans, they did not take a locator beacon, and they underestimated the winter conditions. "All these aspects contributed to our tragedy," she said.

Midway through the hike, as they tried to reach the Lake Mackenzie Hut, things started to go wrong.

"The conditions were extreme. We encountered heavy snowfall and low cloud which contributed to our enforced overnighting in the open," Ms Pizova said. "In our attempt to reach the hut, the tragic accident happened."

Ms Kennett said Mr Petr fell down the slope.

"Pavlina slipped behind him, and was unable to help him out, and that was it," Ms Kennett said. "She stayed with him for the first night, beside him, because first of all she wanted to be with him, and she couldn't move any farther due to the weather conditions."

Ms Kennett said Ms Pizova spent another night outdoors as she remained lost in the deep snow. She rubbed her feet and tried to keep her blood circulating, and wore all the clothes and blankets she had with her.

Ms Pizova said she finally found her way to the Lake Mackenzie Hut and broke into the warden's quarters through a window.

She said she tried to hike out several times but her frostbitten feet and the avalanches she was witnessing discouraged her.

Ms Pizova would end up spending nearly a month at the hut.

She used ash to fashion a letter 'H' in the snow to signal for help. But other hikers were avoiding the route, and the planes and helicopters she waved at never saw her.

Ms Kennett said Ms Pizova also tried making snow shoes, crampons and walking sticks from items she found around the hut, attempts which would later impress rescuers. But Ms Kennett said she never made it more than a few hundred metres from the hut before turning back.

"She wasn't confident to carry on but she didn't give up trying," Ms Kennett said. "She tried everything she could, given the conditions."

Ms Kennett said Ms Pizova survived on food left behind by the wardens, who do not live there during the winter.

Police inspector Olaf Jensen said it took weeks before friends and family realised the couple were missing and raised the alarm. He said the Czech consulate informed police on Wednesday and they launched a search the same day. He said police found the couple's car at the trailhead and sent a helicopter along the route. He said Ms Pizova was relieved to see her rescuers.

"It's very unusual for someone to be missing in the New Zealand bush for such a long period without it being reported," Mr Jensen said.

Ms Pizova, who was travelling around New Zealand on a working holiday with her partner, is eager to return home as soon as possible, Ms Kennett said.

Ms Pizova said she wanted to warn other travellers to seek good information and to be aware how quickly the New Zealand weather can change.

Ms Kennett said she can barely understand how the hiker managed to survive her ordeal. "I think she is a really tough woman," she said.

Irish Independent

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