Pavlina Pizova says she couldn’t free her partner after he slipped down an icy bank and became wedged between rocks and branches. After he died, she stayed with him through the freezing night.
It would take almost another month before Pizova would be rescued from the New Zealand wilderness in an ordeal she described Friday as “harrowing.”
The tourist from the Czech Republic, who was rescued Wednesday from a park warden’s hut on the snowed-in Routeburn Track near Queenstown, broke down in tears as she read aloud her account in halting English. Czech Consul Vladka Kennett provided more details.
Pizova’s comments came soon after rescuers retrieved the body of her partner, 27-year-old Ondrej Petr.
The couple set out on July 26 to hike the scenic track, a 32-kilometer (20-mile) route that typically takes three days in the summer, but which can become treacherous in the winter months from June to August.
Pizova said they made several mistakes: they didn’t tell anybody of their specific plans, they didn’t take a locator beacon, and they underestimated the winter conditions.
“All these aspects contributed to our tragedy,” she said.
Midway through the hike, as they tried to reach the Lake Mackenzie Hut, things started to go wrong.
“The conditions were extreme. We encountered heavy snowfall and low cloud which contributed to our enforced overnighting in the open,” Pizova said. “In our attempt to reach the hut, the tragic accident happened.”
Kennett said Petr fell down the slope.
“Pavlina slipped behind him, and was unable to help him out, and that was it,” Kennett said. “She stayed with him for the first night, beside him, because first of all she wanted to be with him, and she couldn’t move any farther due to the weather conditions.”
Kennett said Pizova spent another night outdoors as she remained lost in the deep snow. She rubbed her feet and tried to keep her blood circulating, and wore all the clothes and blankets she had with her.
Pizova says she finally found her way to the Lake Mackenzie Hut and broke into the warden’s quarters through a window. She says she tried to hike out several times but her frost-bitten feet and the avalanches she was witnessing discouraged her.
Pizova would end up spending nearly a month at the hut. She used ash to fashion a letter “H” in the snow to signal for help. But other hikers were avoiding the route, and the planes and helicopters she waved at never saw her.
Kennett said Pizova also tried making snow shoes, crampons and walking sticks from items she found around the hut, attempts which would later impress rescuers. But Kennett said she never made it more than a few hundred meters (yards) before turning back.
“She wasn’t confident to carry on but she didn’t give up trying,” Kennett said. “She tried everything she could, given the conditions.”
Kennett said Pizova survived on food left behind by the wardens, who don’t live there during the winter.
Police Inspector Olaf Jensen said it took weeks before friends and family realized the couple was missing and raised the alarm. He said the Czech Consulate informed police on Wednesday and they launched a search the same day.
He said police found the couple’s car at the trailhead and sent a helicopter along the route. He said Pizova was relieved to see her rescuers.
“It’s very unusual for someone to be missing in the New Zealand bush for such a long period without it being reported,” Jensen said.
Pizova, who was traveling around New Zealand on a working holiday with her partner, is eager to return home as soon as possible, Kennett said.
Pizova said she wanted to warn other travelers to seek good information and to be aware how quickly the New Zealand weather can change.
Kennett said she can barely understand how the hiker managed to survive her ordeal.
“I think she is a really tough woman,” she said.
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