Stranded, hypothermic teens dragged from icy conditions on Mt Tongariro
A Hamilton learning institution has launched a health and safety investigation after two students had to be rescued in bitterly cold weather on Mt Tongariro.
Rescuers have criticised the stranded teens as being "ill-equipped" in weather conditions that could have potentially ended in fatalities.
Two of the trio that became separated from their group, aged between 16 and 28, were found sitting on a patch of ice in zero degrees and 70kmh winds on Wednesday.
Guides that returned to the mountain to rescue the pair, after already completing hikes, were forced to dig a trench in the ice and drag the boys to safety.
The 13-strong group of sport and recreation students from Hamilton's Te Wananga o Aotearoa, had set off on the 20km Tongaririo Crossing early Wednesday, accompanied by one instructor.
Taupo police Senior Constable Barry Shepherd said three of the teenage boys went ahead at the red crater, splitting off to the left while the group continued on the correct track to the Mangatepopo carpark.
"One of them then left and the other two gave up, sat down in the snow and rang police saying, 'we're cold, we don't want to do this anymore'."
The woman in charge of the group reached the Ketetahi Shelter before realising the boys were missing.
"When she got a message from us saying two of your kids are stuck near the summit of Tongariro and one of them has gone back to Mangatepopo."
Other groups intending to walk the track that day had abandoned plans due to bad weather conditions, he said.
It was "zero degrees and a howling wind" in visibility less than 10 metres, Shepherd said.
"It wouldn't have been my choice of day to do the crossing. In hindsight they should have saved it for another day.
"We keep saying we want people to have a good day on the mountain - unless you want an extreme weather experience you are better off to postpone."
The boys made the call for help at 11.40am.
It was almost 2.30pm by the time the first rescuer, professional guide Terry Blumhardt, reached the pair, followed by two other Tongariro mountain guides and two of the Ruapehu alpine team.
"They were cold, miserable and had given up," Shepherd said of the pair's condition.
Blumhardt dug a trench in the snow with a shovel to shuffle the boys across the slope to a warmer spot while feeding them electrolytes, food and water.
Despite wearing polypropylene pants and tops, Shepherd said the teens were not wearing the right clothing for the weather conditions on the day.
Without the coverage to make the cellphone call there was the potential for fatalities "for sure", Shepherd said.
"There are numerous places where there is no coverage - and that is always our challenge with people losing their way on Tongariro."
Together with guides, the boys walked back to central crater to Ketetahi shelter where they were picked up by the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter and flown off the mountain.
They were reunited with their schoolmates staying at a marae in Turangi at 7pm.
Efforts from rescuers was "top shelf".
"First class, thanks to them. It's a 20km hike over a mountain, battling serious weather."
Three of the rescuers had already completed tramps with their customers before returning to walk half the mountain to rescue the boys.
"Some of the rescuers would have already walked 35km those days."
If there were no guides on the mountain that day the boys would have been left waiting for hours, he said.
"It's fortunate no one came to any harm, the outcome could have been much worse."
Te Wananga o Aotearoa has since launched a full health and safety investigation into the incident.
Chief executive of Te Wananga o Aotearoa, Jim Mather, said an external outdoors activities expert would review the investigation process and its findings.
He said Te Wananga o Aotearoa is providing full support for the students and the staff member involved.
"We are still establishing exactly what happened, but our immediate priority has been to ensure our students and staff have the support they need to recover from this ordeal.
He said all similar activities on Te Wānanga o Aotearoa programmes were suspended while the investigation is taking place.
Hikers making the trek across the Tongaririo Crossing has increased from 80,000 to 120,000 in three years.
Of those, 0.4 per cent were rescued.
But one fatality was too many, Shepherd said.