Rescuers say there was probably more chance of winning this week's Big Wednesday Lotto prize than a successful conclusion to a search for a woman missing on Mt Ruapehu near nightfall.
However, the rescue effort had a positive outcome in the nick of time for the woman who had not returned from a day hike to Lake Surprise on the west of Mt Ruapehu on Monday.
"Despite the beautiful weather that day, with the drop in temperature as night fell I don't think it is out of the question to say that this woman owes her life to the LandSAR/Ruapehu Alpine Rescue volunteers who spotted her trail and the National Park Police who directed the right people to the right places in an incredibly tight timeframe," a spokesperson for the Taupo-based Greenlea Rescue Helicopter said.
The alarm was raised when the woman sent a text message to say she had lost her way, was following a river and that her phone battery was going flat. A group of colleagues, who set out later than the woman, completed the return hike without sighting her.
With no further information or contact, and with two hours of daylight remaining, National Park Police contacted the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter to search the most likely areas of interest before darkness.
The initial search covered an area of approximately 20sq km, much of which was below the tree line, on the western side of Mt Ruapehu. There are six or seven main waterways in the area and numerous other tributaries.
"After about two hours of intensive searching and having covered off the primary search area as best we could, we had one last area of interest before departing the scene for the night," the spokesperson said.
Right on sunset a volunteer in one of the four ground search teams spotted a few footprints in the sand where the Horopito to Mangaturuturu track crossed the Makotuku
"We immediately proceeded to this location and followed the river downstream. About five minutes later, and approximately one kilometre or so further downstream, we spotted the missing woman wearing dark clothing, through the trees, in the now very shaded and dark riverbed. She was completely invisible with the exception of her white face - and apparently blonde hair - staring up out of the darkness."
A LandSAR volunteer was hoisted to assist the woman in the river and directed the ground-based searcher to the location. The pair in the river were able to easily scramble out to the track.
Searchers say it appears the woman left the main track about 300m into her journey and then continued on an epic all-day hike of more than 10km down the Makotuku Stream to where she was found.
"The fact the stream she was following crossed the track to Horopito was purely coincidental. The fact that the ground-based RARO volunteer spotted her two footprints was outstanding and the fact she was spotted from the helicopter on its first pass, through overhanging trees in the shadows of a river valley in near darkness, was also extremely fortunate for her.
"The local knowledge and experience in the area of all those involved in the search greatly contributed to this outcome. It was just one of those days where everything that could possibly have worked out, worked out, and all within the minimal time available."