The survivor of a "freak accident" spent a night alone on a narrow ledge at an isolated cliff-face knowing his climbing companion had fallen to his death.

Search and Rescue teams yesterday morning found the body of a 26-year-old man, believed to be from Wanaka, in thick scrub at the base of Chinaman's Bluff, a cliff north of Glenorchy in the Dart River Valley near Queenstown.

Police were alerted on Friday night after the two men failed to return from a day climbing trip. Without night vision equipment, local rescue workers tried to locate the pair by yelling.

Chris Prudden of the Alpine Cliff Rescue Club said the two "reasonably experienced" climbers were believed to be from the Wanaka area and descending when tragedy struck.

Prudden said he understood the two climbers been using the same rope during the climb, which was several hundred metres high. The survivor had abseiled down the cliff and rested on a small ledge.

The 26-year-old then abseiled down but as he took the rope off to secure himself around a tree, the rope became stuck.

"He pulled the rope until it gave which threw him off balance, the branch gave way and then it was game over," Prudden said.

"It was an error in judgment on how strong the tree was. The extra force threw him back and down he went with the rope. His mate was stuck up on the ledge"

The dead man fell about 200m. The surviving climber was airlifted from the ledge but first had to endure a night alone.

"Physically he [the survivor] was fine," Prudden said.

"He'd suffered some degree of mental trauma - he'd been sitting on a ledge to reflect overnight. Unfortunately, the other guy we couldn't do anything for. His anchor was tested beyond its holding power.

"He made a judgment and it didn't work out. Thousands of climbers have done things like that, I certainly have. It's very unfortunate."

Last night police were still trying to contact the dead man's next of kin.

Locals in Glenorchy, the closest town to the bluff, were shocked by the news of the climber's death. Many hoped it was not a friend or relative.

Jeremy Murray-Orr, head guide at Wanaka Rock Climbing, said Chinaman's Bluff, 530m of rock, was a popular climbing spot, but required a good level of skill and experience.

The most popular route was about 300m high, interspersed with rock ledges and vegetation.

"On some of those ledges it's common practice to untie, because they're quite broad and there's lots of trees on them, so they're relatively safe."

He said climbers on the way down would also often abseil from trees during their descent.

Murray-Orr said he wasn't aware of any other deaths on the bluff, and said it sounded like a "freak accident".

Wanaka-based climbing tutor Dave Shotwell said there are several different cliffs on Chinaman's Bluff, all of which are "comprehensive".

"It's pretty high and steep up there."

The bluff was for intermediate to advanced climbers.

"It's a steep climbing face."