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A tragic chain of events

Pavel Pazniak. PHOTOS/FILE

Trampers unprepared for changeable weather in Tararua Range – coroner

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Two fit trampers pose as they take one another’s picture. They stand in exposed open country in “obviously strong wind” in Tararua Forest Park.

These photographs were the last taken of Mykhailo [Michael] Stepura and Pavel [Paul] Pazniak alive.

When snapped, the men had at least six to eight hours walk to get to Alpha Hut.

They never made it.

Mykhailo Stepura.

The men were found dead, less than a kilometre away from the shelter of the hut, after what police called a tragic chain of events.

They could have called for help when things began to go wrong – they had a cell phone, and there was coverage where they were found.

But in the grips of hypothermia, performing simple tasks such as using a cell phone can be impossible.

Stepura and Pazniak “would have been struggling and fumbling in the dark” without a torch, Coroner Tim Scott wrote in his findings released on Monday.

And by the time anyone realised they were missing, it was too late.

Stepura, 38, and Pazniak, 32, set out on their journey on Saturday, November 19, 2016, intending to stay at Alpha Hut.

The following evening, when Pazniak failed to show at Auckland Airport, his wife raised the alarm.

Scott said by this time, the men would have already been dead.

His findings came after a hearing in Masterton on April 17.

While the police and rescue efforts were “good”, they “were always doomed to fail” in finding the pair alive, he said.

Stepura was an IT developer from Ukraine who lived in Lower Hutt, and Pazniak was a software developer from Belarus based in Auckland.

The two had that week been in Wellington attending a work conference.

Their decision to go tramping appeared to have been “rather last minute”, Scott said.

They had no emergency locater beacon, maps, or compass.

Both men were fit, and Pazniak had “significant” tramping experience, but neither had tramped in the Tararuas before.

They were “reasonably well-equipped” for an overnight expedition, with adequate food and sleeping bags.

But they were not prepared for the Tararuas’ notoriously changeable weather of “strong winds and driving rain”, lacking survival blankets and waterproof sleeping bag covers.

Their jackets were “the kind that one might use in wet weather for a half-hour shopping trip”.

“They were thus unfamiliar with the terrain and the potential weather conditions that they might strike.”

They did have a cell phone, but Scott said it would have been unlikely the men would have been able to operate it.

“In the last stages of hypothermia, victims’ thought processes are unclear, and they are unable to perform relatively simple and routine tasks – for example making a cell phone. This is what happened here.”

Pazniak was due to fly from Wellington to Auckland on Sunday evening, November 20.

His failure to arrive at the airport prompted his wife’s call to police.

Senior Constable Peter Cunningham said the search for the men was “considered to be urgent” when the alarm was raised shortly after 7pm, but there “would have been difficulties” in launching a search at night, including flying a helicopter.

It was decided to review the situation at 8am the next day, Monday, November 21.

Cunningham located the men’s vehicle in the car park at 6.45am, confirming they were still in the bush, and launched the search.

Another tramper was made aware of the missing men by a search and rescue helicopter crew.

Shortly after, he stumbled upon Stepura’s body, somewhere between Alpha Hut and Mount Hector.

He was “lying on his back” on the track, with his pack a few metres away.

The tramper phoned 111 and the helicopter was directed to his location.

Pazniak was located about 200 metres down the slope from Stepura.

“He must either have sought that position in an attempt to get some degree of shelter or he tumbled there.”

It is thought Stepura died first.

It was likely the men “had no idea” how close they were to safety when they died.

No drugs or alcohol were found to be in the men’s blood, a post mortem revealed.

Scott did not make any recommendations, since, according to police, signage on the track was already adequate.

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