Pavlina Pižova, the Czech tourist who survived a month in the New Zealandwilderness, has told how she endured three nights in the open in freezing winter conditions before managing to find shelter at a mountain hut.
Pižova, 33, and her partner Ondrej Petr, 27, began hiking the famous Routeburn track in Fiordland National Park in the South Island on 26 July.
But two days after starting out in freezing mid-winter conditions the pair become lost and disoriented due to fog and heavy snow, she told a press conference in Queenstown on Friday, and wandered off the main track.
The couple spent one night in the open and the next day, according to Pižova, Petr slipped, fell down a steep slope and died shortly afterwards.
“The conditions were extreme, we encountered heavy snow fall and low cloud which contributed to our enforced overnighting in the open which affected our plans to reach Lake McKenzie Hut,” Pižova said at press conference dressed in hiking boots and hiking clothes.
“In our attempt to reach the hut the tragic accident happened when my partner fell and died,” she said.
Pižova then spent two more nights exposed to the elements, including heavy snow and below freezing conditions, as she struggled to find the hut which lies on the 32km track.
Pižova’s translator, Vladka Kennett, said she “did not understand” how Pizova survived without shelter but that Pizova had told her that she stuffed her sleeping bag with everything she had to stay warm and massaged her feet continuously.
“She is an extremely tough woman,” said Kennett, who is the Czech honorary consul in Queenstown.
After two nights in the open Pižova managed to find her way way to Lake Mackenzie Hut, a distance of 2km. Pižova said the short trip took so long because of poor visibility, exhaustion and her frozen feet.
She first explored the public 50-bed facility, before climbing through a window into the smaller warden’s hut , which was better supplied and more comfortable.
Pižova had food, firewood and gas to stay warm. There was also a mountain radio but Pižova was unable to understand the English instructions for operating it.
“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,” said Pižova.
“I made a few attempts to walk out from the hut, but my feet, the weather conditions and the deep snow discouraged me from doing so. At the hut I saw numerous avalanches coming down.”
During her month-long stay at Lake Mackenzie Pižova attempted to fashion a pair of snow shoes from hiking poles and wood. She also drew an ‘H’ in the snow (for help), which she inked with ash from the fire, to try and attract the attention of helicopters flying overhead.
The pair had not told anyone about their hiking plans and it was almost a month before the Czech consulate finally raised the alarm. Police found the couple’s car at the trailhead on Wednesday and sent a helicopter along the route, reaching Pizova at 1.30pm.
Police said she was “relieved” to be rescued and was found to be in remarkably good health, considering her ordeal. Pižova called the people involved in her rescue “heroes”.
At the press conference, Pižova was asked about the effect of recent media speculation and comments by mountain experts that her remarkable story of survival was “unbelievable” and “odd”.
Kennett responded that Pižova was ignoring the reports and rising above any local gossip. “She is such a brave person and she is ignoring it,” said Kennett.
The New Zealand police said any commentary around Pizova’s decision and what happened on the Routeburn track was “unhelpful.”.
Pižova has been in touch with her family and hopes to return home as soon as possible. Although she remained stoic through most of the press conference, towards the end she began to cry softly as she thanked the New Zealand police, search and rescue and her translator for their help.
Pižova encouraged other tourists to make sure they told someone they trusted about their hiking plans, carry an emergency locator beacon and not to underestimate the New Zealand weather.
A body believed to be that of Ondrej Petr was retrieved from the area by police on Friday and a coronial inquiry into the death has been launched.
Inspector Olaf Jensen, Otago Lakes Central police area commander, reiterated that Pižova made the right decision to stay put in the hut.