A Facebook message from Czechia led to the rescue of a woman holed up in a remote hiker’s hut in the New Zealand alps for almost a month after her partner died.
After watching her friend slip and die, the woman spent three freezing nights in the open before stumbling across a warden’s hut on the Routeburn Track, where she waited to be rescued for about four weeks.
She smashed her way inside the locked Lake MacKenzie hut. She lived on small supplies of food, firewood and gas left behind by Department of Conservation staff.
She 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 trampers passed through the area; the track was officially closed for winter.
The alarm was finally raised this week by the Czech consulate after social media messages from worried friends and family back home.
Vladka Kennett, Czechia’s honorary consul in nearby Queenstown, contacted police on Wednesday morning after the pair had been on the track for 29 days.
She was contacted on Facebook by a friend who was in contact with the missing man’s mother.
“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 the woman at the hut on Wednesday. She was ecstatic and relieved to be rescued, in good physical health, but clearly traumatised.
Kennett told media the woman was recovering. “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.
Media report 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 reporters the woman heard his last breath before he died. After the fall, she spent three nights in the wilderness. She crafted snow shoes from sticks and, with frostbite and possible hypothermia, walked 2km to the hut. She reached it on the fourth day, breaking in through a window.
Police and the Department of Conservation 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.
Police Commander Olaf 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.
“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.”
Search and rescue is involved in a recovery operation for the man.