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Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

The grieving woman at the centre of month-long mountain ordeal on Routeburn Track speaks out

• The Czech tramper who survived a month in a remote hut on the Routeburn Track spoke publicly about her ordeal.

• Pavlina Pizova waited for help after her partner, Ondrej Petr, died in a fall.

• The 27-year-old's body was recovered this morning by a Search and Rescue team.

• Details of Pizova's desperate attempts to get help have emerged, including an 'H' she made in the snow with ashes in an effort to be found.

Czech tourist Pavlina Pizova in tears at the press conference. Photo / James Allan
Czech tourist Pavlina Pizova in tears at the press conference. Photo / James Allan

Czech tramper Pavlina Pizova watched her partner die, then found herself trapped in a remote South Island hut for nearly a month.

Today, describing her horror ordeal on the Routeburn Track, Pizova broke down in tears.

Looking pale and exhausted, Pizova described how she could see avalanches outside the warden's hut at Lake Mackenzie, and knew she was stuck.

Pizova's partner Ondrej Petr had died after the pair fell from the track when they got lost. Petr got stuck and died about July 27. His body was recovered this morning.

Pizova said: "After his death it took me another two nights out in the open before I reached the safety of the hut.

"The recent heavy snows meant I was walking through waist-deep snow and because all track markers were covered, I had to find my own way. During this time I got extremely cold, exhausted, and my feet were frozen."

Pizova, who spoke softly in a heavy accent, described the ordeal as "harrowing" and her partner falling and dying was a "tragic accident".

The interior of the warden's hut at Lake Mackenzie where Czech woman Pavlina Pizova stayed for almost a month. Photo / Supplied
The interior of the warden's hut at Lake Mackenzie where Czech woman Pavlina Pizova stayed for almost a month. Photo / Supplied

Because of her health and the weather, she thought it was best to "stay in a safe place".

"I made a few attempts to leave the hut but because of the weather and my physical conditions, it discouraged me from doing so."

She took the opportunity to send safety messages to "anyone travelling in the New Zealand mountains".

"We made a few mistakes with not leaving our intentions with somebody and not carrying a PLB [Personal Locator Beacon] and underestimating the conditions of the track," she said.

She thanked her rescuers.

Read more: Pavlina Pizova in her own words

Pavlina Pizova tears up at the press conference. Photo / James Allan
Pavlina Pizova tears up at the press conference. Photo / James Allan

It was too difficult to go into too many details about the ordeal, she said.

"The conditions were extreme."

She was accompanied by Vladka Kennett, Consul for the Czech Republic, who said Pizova's ordeal was unbelievable.

"I don't understand it myself. I think she is a very strong woman. She just tried everything to survive. Tried to warm her feet up, keep moving her feet and hands, put everything she could find on her feet and body.

"It's too difficult to describe emotions like that. She went up to the public hut and made a fire there. She made a few attempts as she said to walk out of the hut but because of the situation she was in her physical conditions and the snow, she always went back.

"She only made it a few hundred metres and went back.

"As you can imagine if you're stuck somewhere for a month you would be very relieved, quite happy [to be rescued]."

Pizova and Petr's families were sticking together, she said.

The trampers were partners in New Zealand on a working holiday.

Pizova was very resourceful, Kennett said.

"I give her enormous credit. She used whatever she could find."

It was "very important" for Pizova to get her partner's body back, and for the families.

A police spokesman accompanied the pair at the conference.

He expressed disappointment at "unhelpful comments" that were circulating about the ordeal.

Kennett said the comments were not affecting Pizova.

"She is such a brave person, she is above it all. She just ignores it all."

Avalanches and heavy snow

After watching her partner slip and die, Pizova spent two freezing nights in the open before stumbling across a warden's hut, next to the Lake Mackenzie hut along the Routeburn Track.

She used ashes to make an 'H' 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 Pizova from walking to safety.

Pavlina Pizova was missing on the Routeburn Track for over a month before she was rescued. Photo / Facebook
Pavlina Pizova was missing on the Routeburn Track for over a month before she was rescued. Photo / Facebook

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 messages were noticed on social media from concerned friends and family back home.

A grab from Facebook shows a message from a friend asking if anyone has seen her. It translates to say: "Hey, I'm wondering if anyone has any news. I'm trying to connect with Ondra and Peter Pavlin Pížová who are travelling around the South Island, last I heard they were going to a farm to Dunedin, but they have been silent for more than a month. They are driving a Toyota Estima 2000 and are both climbers. So if you have seen, let me know."

Czech media identified the pair:

Queenstown-based Kennett contacted police on Wednesday morning after the pair had been on the track for 29 days.

She was contacted on Facebook by an acquaintance who was in contact with Petr'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 Pizova 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," she told police.

Kennett told NZME Pizova 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 Pizova would be going home as soon as she could.

Video

Pizova and Petr became disoriented on the second day of their walk and slipped down a stone cliff, Fairfax reported. Petr fell further than Pizova, who was able to get to him, but could not free him from branches and rocks in which he was tangled.

Kennett told Fairfax Pizova heard his last breath before he died.

The Lake Mackenzie warden's 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.

There was also some food, but DoC had been careful not to leave too much over winter for fear of attracting rodents.

Police and DoC yesterday praised her 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 in March for a year-long working holiday. Petr had hoped to find work as a ski and snowboard instructor.

Czech national Ondrej Petr, died after a fall on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Facebook
Czech national Ondrej Petr, died after a fall on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Facebook

The pair had bought a car and were travelling around the South Island and intended to tramp the Routeburn Track while in the Queenstown area.

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.

The recovery team at work off the Routeburn Track, trying to recover the body of the Czech climber. Photo / Police
The recovery team at work off the Routeburn Track, trying to recover the body of the Czech climber. Photo / Police

They had "some experience" in the back country and were reasonably well equipped. But, crucially, they'd set out without a personal locator beacon.

"No one had been through the area and because of her physical capability, she wasn't able to walk out," Jensen said yesterday.

"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.

Ultimate Hikes had a lodge nearby the hut which Owen believed Pizova may have accessed for food as well.

A picture from Pavlina Pizova's Facebook page from New Zealand. Photo / Facebook
A picture from Pavlina Pizova's Facebook page from New Zealand. Photo / Facebook

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 Pizova for her actions considering the circumstances.

Exterior of the warden's hut at Lake Mackenzie. Photo / Police
Exterior of the warden's hut at Lake Mackenzie. Photo / Police

'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 pair had left tramping intentions or signed in before starting their hike.

"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," Sime said.

Given she had stayed in a warden's hut she would have been warm and had access to a large supply of food.

"If she was in the warden's hut she would have been okay," he said.

Rescue workers on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Supplied via police
Rescue workers on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Supplied via police

There were no conservation rangers stationed along the track outside the Great Walks season.

The season ended on April 27 and would restart on October 25 according to DoC's website.

The recovery team at work off the Routeburn Track. Photo / Police
The recovery team at work off the Routeburn Track. Photo / Police

- NZ Herald

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