Otago snow rescue - Stranded 38 saved

One of those rescued after spending nearly 20 hours trapped in a Central Otago snow storm says the group were relieved to see their rescuers this afternoon.

"It was an eventful one, in the worst way possible," Daniel told reporters in Roxburgh.

He and 37 others were ferried out on snowcats to waiting four wheel drives and a bus around sundown before being whisked back to Roxburgh for medical checks, food and hot drinks.

The four wheel drive expedition had endured an exhausting ordeal trapped in their cars on a Central Otago high country road after becoming snowed in on Sunday afternoon by blizzard conditions.

It took snowcats to get them down to the safety of the Roxburgh Golf Club, where they arrived about 6.30pm.

"Very relieved to get out," Daniel told waiting media. "What we come across was just one of those bad, wrong place wrong times, so yeah."

Daniel said they went up equipped with the right gear but got caught out by the weather.

"There's not much else we could do about that."


One of the rescuers, Chris Coory from Dunedin Land Search and Rescue, said it was cold and windy where the vehicles were stuck in about a metre and a half of deep snow.

He said the group were dry, as they'd kept the vehicles running.

"Everyone was warm enough. They had enough fuel in the vehicles. They kept the heaters going overnight, which was important. Kept them warm, and dry."

Mr Coory said they were met with gratitude when they arrived.

"I was expecting some of them to be annoyed about leaving their vehicles there, but they were pretty good. Because the vehicles are going to be there for the winter. That's for sure."

He suspects the four wheel drives will be written off.

"You can go up there and springtime and see what they're like. They might be alright."

The rescuer wasn't surprised at the change in the weather.

"You often get weather like that up on this hill. It can be pretty bad .. when they went through I don't think they were expecting the weather to be as bad as it was. They thought they'd get right through."

Mr Coory said others who want to head off in four wheel drives in this type of weather should do their research.

"Sub-alpine areas like this, the snow can come in pretty fast. And if it starts to turn then you turn around and get out. Simple really."


After the rescue, Otago Lakes-Central area commander Inspector Olaf Jensen said the group of 38, which included two children, aged 8 and 6, were all "safe and well".

Prolonged severe weather conditions hampered the rescue and resulted in snowcats being used to transport the people below the snowline, after the rough weather ruled out a helicopter retrieval from Waikaia Bush Rd, above Piano Flat, he said.

"Those weather issues still exist and we're led to believe the snowcats coming down the mountain are still coming through quite trying conditions'' Inspector Jensen said earlier this afternoon, as the rescue was under way.

The conditions included snowdrifts up to 1.8m deep.

The group of 4WD enthusiasts from Southland became stuck in snow yesterday afternoon.

Inspector Jensen said the group was being be taken to a centre in Roxburgh, staffed by Red Cross and Civil Defence personnel, and would be checked by medical staff, fed and then transported home.

It was a very pleasing result for a major rescue operation, he said.

Asked about the group heading into the high country when rough weather
was forecast, Inspector Jensen said people heading on 4WD drive treks should be well-prepared for bad weather and consider "the timing".

The main thing to focus on at this time was the safe rescue of the group and all other matters would be discussed during a later debriefing, he said.

The group had been conserving its food and was given advice today about conserving fuel. It was "reasonably well prepared" he said.

If they had to spend another night on the Old Man Range, the weather forecast was for similar rough conditions to today, he said.

It was a difficult rescue and it was unusual to use snowcats, although not the first time they had been used in such circumstances in Central Otago. Snow ploughs from a southern ski field had also been borrowed, to clear the path for the snowcats if needed.

It's been almost 20 hours since the 36 day trippers, travelling in a convoy of about 13 4WDs, were caught out by an unexpected snow storm on Waikaia Bush Road, near Piano Flat.

Video

Earlier, one of those trapped, with her two young children, Gemma Dodd said, this morning, diesel supplies were running low.

She had spent the night in a 4WD, with her two young children, Matthew, 10, and Narzyna, 8.

"We've got a few blankets but it will be good to get out of here."

When the Herald last spoke to Ms Dodd at around 11am she was still waiting on news from the rescuers.

She said a number of the cars, which were spread out over an area of 100m some 4500ft above sea level, were also buried in snow.

Concerns were mounting for the group, who were stranded in an area known as "Potters", in Otago, near the boundary with Southland.

While they were relatively well-equipped, with extra clothing, food and water, the group was not equipped for an overnight stay and supplies were limited.

The rescue efforts

Air Force helicopter and crew at the scene of rescue headquarters near Roxburgh. Photo / Mike Kindon
Air Force helicopter and crew at the scene of rescue headquarters near Roxburgh. Photo / Mike Kindon

Police, earlier made contact with the group and said rescuers were working hard to reach the stranded group, which included a number of children.

"Every effort is being made to reach them as soon as we can to ensure their well-being."

Overnight rescue efforts were suspended at 1.30am with rescuers just 2km shy of the stranded vehicles and this morning severe weather continued to prevent rescue via land or air.

Several attempts by the Otago Rescue Helicopter this morning have failed, leading to a call to bring in the New Zealand Defence Force.

Vehicles stuck on the Crown Range. Photo from Damon Forde / Live24NZ
Vehicles stuck on the Crown Range. Photo from Damon Forde / Live24NZ

The latest attempt to get a chopper out to the group was made around 10am, but crew had to turn back due to the severe weather.

Police were now looking at bringing in an NZDF NH90 helicopter.

A land-based rescue was impossible as snow drifts of up to 2m high were blocking the roads.

Otago Rescue Helicopter Trust chief pilot Graeme Gale said, earlier this morning, an air rescue was the only possible option at present.

He said if the weather cleared, a rescue should be fairly straightforward.

"They aren't far off the main road, but they are up at 4500 feet, that's the issue," he said. "The cloud is based down to 3000 feet.

"They are just in the wrong place."

The rescue operation was being run out of the Roxburgh Rugby Club with volunteers and experts from the Fire Service, the Red Cross, Land Search and Rescue teams and police.

Mr Kindon was near the scene with those involved in rescue efforts, and said there are fears for the safety of the group as the weather becomes more inclement.

"The weather's quite rubbish out there, it's snowing quite heavily. They're in fairly deep there, it's not a nice place at all right now.

"There's a wee bit of concern, particularly for the youngsters that are there."

Mr Kindon has since moved to Pioneer Park in Alexandra, where a Defence Force helicopter had recently taken off to to begin another rescue attempt.

He said rescue workers were worried that they would have to work into the night to try to bring the group back to safety.

"They would've wanted a bit more daylight hours and to have headed out at first light, I'd say that's why the Army is getting their helicopter involved now."

Mr Kindon said the Army helicopter arrived back at Pioneer Park at 2.26pm without any of the group after another unsuccessful rescue attempt.

"They're going to try again later, the helicopter's off to refuel and will be back soon."

Team leader of the Red Cross Queenstown disaster welfare support team, Simon Smith had been down at the club since early this morning.

He said the team had been called in to help at 3:30 this morning and were on the road from Queenstown at 6am.

Another group had been called in from Dunedin.

Mr Smith said the whole community had banded together to do what they can to help the stricken group.

"Land Search and Rescue are about trying to figure out how to get people off the hill," he said. "When they do get down here there will be hot blankets, warm rooms and hot tea and coffee."

Meanwhile locals were doing their best to help the search and rescue teams.

"They are providing hot tea and coffee. Roxburgh people have come together and provided some nice pies from Jimmy's pies."

The snowy weather continues

Roxburgh Rugby club where a large scale rescue operation is being run. Photo / Damon Forde, Live24 NZ
Roxburgh Rugby club where a large scale rescue operation is being run. Photo / Damon Forde, Live24 NZ

The weather was forecast to clear by mid-morning, but Metservice meteorologist Ciaran Doolin said it was now not expected to clear till tonight.

"It should ease overnight, but at the moment we are expecting about 20 more centimetres of snow on top of what's already fallen."

In Roxburgh the latest temperature was 5.6 degrees, which Mr Doolin said was likely to be even colder higher up where the stranded group was.

Cameraman Damon Forde said the weather was atrocious this morning. "There's snow drifts and blowing snow and high winds."

As it happened

The group were on a four-wheel-drive trip yesterday when they ran into trouble on the Waikaia Bush Rd. Photo / Damon Ford, Live24 NZ
The group were on a four-wheel-drive trip yesterday when they ran into trouble on the Waikaia Bush Rd. Photo / Damon Ford, Live24 NZ

The incident unfolded yesterday, late afternoon, when a group of 13 4WD vehicles carrying the people were caught out by a sudden change in the weather and became snowbound on the remote road near Roxburgh.

The convoy vehicles was near the end of its trail when it was hit by a sudden snowstorm.

Ms Dodd said the snow came in thick and fast and that even the group's strongest vehicles could not push through.

She said the conditions were not too bad in the 4WD at first, but then their vehicle lost battery power and it was very cold.

They managed to get connected to another truck and they were able to keep warm, but supplies were beginning to run low.

Search and rescue teams alongside police. Photo / Supplied
Search and rescue teams alongside police. Photo / Supplied

About the area

Central Otago 4WD Club Brent Wilson described the area where the group was as pretty rough terrain.

"Even in summer it's a pretty tough road and what people don't realise is that a couple of feet of snow can make quite a difference to a track and that can happen in a short space of time."

He said a land-based rescue would have been difficult.

"We had a rescue that took more than seven hours three weeks ago and we took four vehicles up to rescue just one vehicle and that was when it was dry."

"I've been up there and gone from brilliant sunshine to near white-out conditions in five minutes. It can change pretty rapidly up there."

He said the Southland 4WD enthusiasts were from an experienced club.

"They are a pretty well-prepared bunch but I'd suggest the rescuers are going to have every bit of difficulty getting to them," said Mr Wilson.

"It's not a particularly easy bit of ground to get through, particularly if the weather is as bad as it has been."

Former Piano Flat resident Selwyn Shanks, of Karitane, said he expected the group to be stuck in snow on a "really rough 4WD track".

People on fundraising expeditions often travelled across the "paper road" and vehicles regularly became "bogged out", he said. "There are massive swamps up on the top ... it's pretty rough country."

Mr Shanks said the road was usually closed over winter.

The latest incident follows a Fairfax report on April 28 about concerns for the state of Waikaia Bush Rd, where a number of vehicles have had to be towed out after becoming stuck.

It was understood at least six vehicles were towed out last month.

Meanwhile, in the Crown Range, motorists also got into trouble and had to be rescued as snow closed the pass.

It was the first time the range was closed this year, as winter set in bringing the first batch of heavy snow for the year.

The pass was closed at about 4.30pm after about 12 vehicles "slid off" the alpine road and another 20 were stranded.

While five vehicles remained on the range overnight, every motorist was rescued.

The range reopened this morning, though a warning has been issued for all motorists to use chains as more snow is expected today.

- NZ Herald

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