Rescuers help transfer the two trampers, obscured, to an awaiting helicopter at Dundas Hut on Wednesday. PHOTO/JASON DIEDRICHS

Trampers on verge of hypothermia when found in bush

CAL ROBERTS
cal.roberts@age.co.nz

Two trampers found freezing and exhausted in the bush only had hours left to live, says a rescuer.

The pair of men, aged 53 and 61 from the Manawatu region, had to be rescued after they were caught out by harsh weather conditions while travelling between huts in the Tararua Range – leaving them with no option but to hunker down and activate a personal locator beacon on Monday night.

They had entered the bush on Saturday.

On Wednesday, they were returned home safely after ground search and rescue teams located them on Tuesday, with rescuers and the rescued men alike stranded at Dundas Hut overnight due to the conditions.

Operations manager of Levin Search and Rescue, Noel Bigwood, said when ground search teams reached the stricken trampers, they were verging on hypothermia.

“They didn’t have much longer to go.”

The pair were found sheltering in a small tent on the main Tararua Range, just north of Pukemoremore peak.

Mr Bigwood said the area the pair were found in was a remote route that was not clearly marked and extremely exposed.

Combined with the weather, search parties struggled to walk upright to reach the trampers.

“They had a rough time of it.”

A helicopter crew from the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s No 3 Squadron battled through severe turbulence and low cloud to transport three police-led Search and Rescue teams into the search area at around 9pm on Monday night.

Search and rescue teams reached them in the early hours of Tuesday morning, but couldn’t airlift them out due to the conditions.

A police spokesperson said a break in the weather allowed a helicopter to reach the group just after first light on Wednesday.

The rescuers gave food and dry clothing to the men, who were assessed medically.

Mr Bigwood said one tramper was so affected by exposure that it took almost 24 hours for him to come right again.

“They warmed them up a bit and got them back to Dundas Hut.”

Mr Bigwood has been taking part in Search and Rescue operations in Tararua since 1977.

He said the pair were better prepared than most who went tramping, and that without the small tent and locator beacon, teams could instead be returning with two body bags.

Sergeant Fiona Read, of police search and rescue, said despite the weather problems, the rescue had gone better than it might have otherwise.

“In this case, a personal locator beacon was a good investment.

“Beacons can be a lifesaving tool as it means emergency services will be aware that something has happened much faster if you do get injured or lost, which they did in this case.

“These beacons don’t have to be purchased, they can be hired out on a day-by-day basis.”

Mr Bigwood was grateful for the rescue members on the ground from Levin and Masterton who “put it all on the line” to get the trampers out safely.

He praised the skill of the air force crew who were able to drop rescue teams close to where the trampers were located – in the dark – saving crucial hours of travel time, and Amalgamated Helicopters – for making excellent use of a break in the weather on Wednesday morning to safely retrieve the group.