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Missing woman located in World Record Time

Missing woman located in World Record Time* (*not officially recognised as a world record)

On Monday evening the Greenlea Rescue helicopter was contacted by National Park Police regarding a woman who had not returned from a day hike to Lake Surprise on the west of Mt Ruapehu.

At some point in the afternoon a text message was received from her saying she had lost her way, was following a river, and that her phone battery was going flat. Also despite leaving after her, a following group of colleagues completed the return hike without sighting her.

With no further information or contact, and with two hours of daylight remaining, there was a scramble to respond the Greenlea Rescue helicopter to cover off the most likely areas of interest before darkness. Keep in mind there are six or seven main waterways in this area and numerous other tributaries. So the initial search covered approximately a 20 Km square area on the western side of Mt Ruapehu, much of which was below the tree line as the rivers and streams meandered their way toward SH4.

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. Right on sunset, and having just turned tail on the primary search area literally ten seconds earlier, one of the four ground searches rushed into the area at short notice announced that a few footprints had been spotted in the sand where the Horopito to mangaturutruru track crossed the Makotuku stream, and that they appeared to head downstream.

We immediately proceeded to this location and followed the river downstream. About five minutes later and approx one km of so further downstream we spotted the missing woman, wearing dark clothing, through the trees, in the now very shaded and dark riverbed. (keep in mind it was now 10-15 min after sun set). She was completely invisible with the exception of her white face - and apparently blonde hair??? Staring up out of the darkness.

With no ability to assess the terrain from the helicopter and with failing light, we hoisted a LandSAR volunteer to assist the woman, and directed the ground based searcher to the location which coincidentally was only about 50m laterally from the track he had just walked. As a tidy finish to the operation the pair in the river were able to easily scramble out of the river to and up to the track, which eliminated our requirement to perform a night hoist.

Though initial thoughts were that she had accidentally followed the wrong track from the Mangaturuturu hut and mistakenly taken the track leading toward Horopito, instead of back to the Ohakune mountain road. Then subsequently losing her way at the river crossing just upstream from her position. My understanding is that she had actually left the main track about 300metres into her journey, and then continued on an epic all day hike of 10+ KMs 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.

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 time frame.

To put this in layman's terms. I would suggest that there would have been more chance of winning Lotto’s Big Wednesday last night, than of there being a positive result in this search given the area and weather involved, and the timeframe.

The local knowledge and experience in the area of all those involved in the search greatly contributed to this outcome, however remarkable it was given the timeframe. It was just one of those days where everything that could possibly have worked out - worked out - and all within the minimal time available.
A very rewarding afternoon, and a fantastic result for all involved.

ends

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