When a mountain runner failed to return from the Tararuas, Wairarapa's search and rescue volunteers swung into action. Nigel Boniface explains the response.
The search for mountain runner Alastair Shelton started on the afternoon of Saturday, December 29, when a family member contacted police to report him overdue from a run.
The Police Search and Rescue (SAR) officer contacted one of the Wairarapa SAR advisers, and between them they quickly decided an immediate response was necessary. A few more phone calls and SAR members were arriving at the base to start search planning.
It was thought Alastair was running the Jumbo-Holdsworth circuit, so the initial plan was to send teams to all huts on the circuit and up the East Holdsworth ridge track. This would cover most of his probable route. Two runners ran to Powell Hut and back, while two search teams made their way to Jumbo Hut. One of these travelled via East Holdsworth and along the tops to Jumbo peak, battling heavy rain and strong winds that, at times, blew them off their feet. They reached the hut at 4am for a well-earned rest.
Meanwhile, the phones were busy. Two more four-person teams arrived at base, gathered communications, navigation and first aid gear and set off for Powell and Jumbo huts to be ready for tasks in the morning.
A call to Wellington LandSAR had the desired response: two field teams and a base management team would arrive at 8am next day, while Palmerston North SAR would also send two field teams.
With four teams in the field and more arriving, the Wairarapa management team stayed up overnight to plan various tasks for them on Sunday. When their Wellington counterparts arrived in the morning the management team briefed them, handed over the operation and went home for a sleep.
As more teams arrived, Alastair's family came to see the operation. They commented he had spoken of possibly going "somewhere different", up over Baldy (north of Jumbo) and along to Jumbo Hut. This required a measured response, as nobody was sure which route Alastair had taken. Some teams were sent to the Baldy area, while others continued in the original area.
Late in the day a few of the early teams returned to base, cold, wet and battered by the wind. With no clues at all it was decided to ask for more searchers.
Wellington promised eight more volunteers, Palmerston North eight and Levin another eight. With these 24 plus more local members, Monday promised to be busy. The Wellington management team, with help from local advisers and assistants, was kept occupied dealing with teams already in the field and planning for more areas to be covered. A clue or two would have been a great help! Meanwhile, the Amateur Radio Emergency Corps communications team was busy passing messages between field teams and search managers.
On Monday morning as more teams were arriving and making their way into the field, a break in the weather enabled an RNZAF Iroquois helicopter to fly from Ohakea in the hope of helping to move the teams. It was a three- to five-hour walk to the search area, so a 15-minute flight would speed things along. Two machines from Amalgamated Helicopters were now in the air also, looking in areas search teams had not yet reached.
Around 10am, one of the local helicopter pilots and his crewman reached Mid Waiohine Hut in the deep valley west of Mt Holdsworth.
There they found a note from Alastair saying he had spent the night in the hut and was walking up to Mt Holdsworth. The helicopter crew followed him up the hill and met him near Isabelle Peak, just west of Holdsworth. This was a great result, bringing relief to the family and search teams. Unfortunately, soon after Alastair was flown to Masterton, the wind became too strong for helicopters to fly and most teams had to walk out to the road-end.
It was about 6pm before the last arrived back at the SAR base. At his debrief Alastair said he had become disoriented in cloud on Baldy, and had gone west instead of east. He spent a night under a large rock and eventually ended up in the flooded Waiohine River where he had "scary" swims in the deeper pools.
He promised that on future running trips he would leave a detailed route plan with his family and would stop at each hut and write in the log-book the time and his intended route. This information is essential for tracking anyone who gets lost or injured.
Over the three days, 85 LandSAR volunteers and three AREC communications volunteers contributed nearly 1800 hours of their time. Police and helicopter crews were also involved in the search.