Tramper Pavlina Pizova's grief-stricken stay in remote Fiordland hut
Pavlina Pizova was polite, almost apologetic, as she recounted her nightmare.
"Good day," she began.
In broken English, the Czech tramper described an ordeal that started a month ago, when she and partner Ondrej Petr set off to walk the Routeburn Track in Fiordland.
Two days later he would be dead. Pizova, cold and injured, endured two nights of snow, fog and wind. When she finally found shelter in a remote hut, it would take nearly four weeks for her to be rescued. Nobody knew she was there.
Clutching a written statement, Pizova told a press conference at Queenstown Police Station on Friday of the conflict she faced: so desperate to get out she fashioned snow shoes out of vegetable baskets in attempt to walk through metre-deep drifts; so determined to live that she forced herself to stay.
"At the hut, considering my physical health, the deep snow conditions, knowing there were avalanche paths ahead of me, I knew it was best to stay in the safe place."
Only once did she stray off script, after she thanked the search and rescue, police and Department of Conservation (DOC) staff who found her.
"That is very, very important," she said.
Then she broke down.
Pizova was saved only because consul for the Czech Republic Vladka Kennett, who lives in Glenorchy, near Queenstown, spotted "a random Facebook post" from concerned relatives back in Europe. She passed Pizova and Petr's details to searchers and she was found.
"If the message didn't come through she would still be there," Kennett said.
WARNINGS FROM DOC
Pizova and Petr, both from tiny Czech towns, embarked on the Routeburn Track from the Glenorchy end on July 26, despite warnings from DOC staff. According to Kennett, they had no tent or locator beacon and told no-one of their plans.
After spending one night at the Falls Hut, the pair got caught in bad weather and became disoriented.
They spent the night out in the open, trying to shelter from the wind and snow. The next day, still disoriented by heavy fog and strong winds and with snow still falling, the pair slipped five to seven metres down a steep slope through bush. Petr fell further and became trapped between branches and rocks. Pizova was able to reach him but could not free him. She heard his last gasps of breath before he died.
"She tried everything she could but she was totally exhausted," Kennett said.
"It was impossible [to free him]."
Unable to move her partner, Pizova spent two more nights sleeping in sub-zero conditions – at least one of them against a "vertical rock", her mostly wet possessions stuffed into her sleeping bag for warmth.
"She probably didn't even sleep she was just trying to move [her] fingers and toes to somehow keep warm," Kennett said.
"It was freezing. She was there in the worst part of the winter.
"She still can't feel her fingers . . . [they're] totally numb."
Pizova was finally able to reach the Lake Mackenzie Hut campsite, where she broke into the DOC warden's hut through a window. She only just made it.
"During this time I got extremely cold, exhausted and my feet were frozen," she said.
"The recent heavy snows meant I was walking through waist-deep snow and because all track markers were covered, I had to find my own way."
The hut had food, gas and firewood. Pizova's numbed fingers had turned white and her feet swelled drastically when she removed her boots. It was days before she could put them on again. Unable to walk far and with "numerous" avalanches around the hut, she stayed put. Trying to get her strength back, she exercised outside the hut with a heavy pack.
Later, Pizova tried to walk out with her improvised snow shoes. Too hard. She used ashes from a fire to write "H" [for help] in the snow, hoping a rescuer would see it. No-one did. The hut had a working radio, but the English operating instructions were indecipherable to her. There was no choice but to wait.
"Nobody can prepare you for this," she later told police.
Kennett saw the Facebook post on Sunday and provided photos and car registration details to searchers, who tracked the couple's Toyota to the Routeburn car park at Glenorchy. She got the information from Petr's mother, she said, who was "reasonably panicky" but trying to comfort herself that her son and his partner had just lost their cellphone.
"Nobody knew – that's why it took so long," Kennett said.
"If they'd left any intentions with anybody ... there would have been some kind of panic."
On Friday, Pizova, in her early 30s, admitted she and Petr, 27, made "a few mistakes" in their preparations.
"Not leaving our intentions with somebody, not carrying a [personal locator beacon] and underestimating the winter conditions on the track.
"I would like to use this opportunity to pass a strong message on to anyone intending to travel in the New Zealand mountains to seek very good information and mainly respect the winter conditions and quickly changing weather."
Otago Lakes central area commander Olaf Jensen said Pizova was "relieved" to see the helicopter crew that picked her up.
She was taken to hospital as a precaution and was understandably upset, but otherwise in good health, he said.
Despite poor weather, a recovery team was able to recover Petr's body on Friday morning.
Now, Pizova wanted to go home.
"The last month was very harrowing for me and my and my partner's families," she said.
"Especially I'd like to thank Vladka and Richard Kennett for their help and assistance on the personal basis and helping our families to get through all this.
"They are heroes for me."
February – Pavlina Pizova and Ondrej Petr arrive in New Zealand for a working holiday.
July 26 – Pizova and Petr enter the Routeburn Track from Glenorchy, despite warnings not so from DOC staff. They stay the night at Falls Hut.
July 27 – Facing "extreme" weather, including heavy snow and low cloud, the couple cannot reach Mackenzie Hut and are forced to sleep out in the open.
July 28 – The pair fall down a steep slope in more poor weather. Trapped, Petr dies. Pizova spends another night in the elements.
July 29-30 – Pizova, cold and injured, tries in vain to reach Mackenzie Hut campsite, finally succeeding after a third night in the open.
August 24 – Pizova is found in a hut by rescuers after family at home in the Czech Republic raise concerns. The couple's car was traced to Glenorchy.
August 26 – Petr's body is recovered. Pizova speaks of her "harrowing" experience – "I am aware we made a few mistakes".
- Audio courtesy of RNZ