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Czech hiker’s death a “wake-up call” for foolhardy tourists

A Czech tourist died from hypothermia in the Fiordland National Park after failing to heed safety advice and following poor decisions driven by a “goal-focused mentality”, a coroner has found.

27-year-old Ondrej Petr died near Lake Mackenzie on July 28, 2016 after he and partner Pavlina Pizova became disoriented in bad weather during a six-day hike on Fiordland’s Routeburn walk.

In her finding, released this week, coroner Anna Tutton concluded Mr Petr probably died of hypothermia as a result of subzero temperatures, severe fatigue and inadequate clothing and equipment.

The couple, who had arrived in New Zealand five months earlier for a working holiday, decided to walk the South Island track against the advice of Department of Conservation staff in Queenstown and despite weather warnings.

Deciding not to notify anyone of their plans to avoid paying for the use of huts along the way, they set off from the Routeburn Shelter near Glenorchy on July 26.

After spending the first night in the Routeburn Falls Hut, they were attempting to reach Lake Mackenzie Hut when darkness descended and they found themselves ”going in circles” in fog and high winds.

They spent the night in their sleeping bags wrapped in a tarpaulin. In the morning, despite being soaked through from the snow and Petr showing early signs of hypothermia, they set off without eating or drinking in the clear weather for nearby Lake Mackenzie Hut.

Leaving the steep and snow-covered marked track, they took an apparent short cut down the mountain, becoming disorientated and travelling in the wrong direction.

As bad weather again closed in, they could not find their way back to the track, and Petr’s behaviour and speech became increasingly irrational, according to his partner.

They continued searching for the track after dark, Pizova saying Petr’s ”voice sounded different, he was ‘talking weird stuff’ that she could not understand, and was biting wood”.

After they were caught in a small avalanche, she found him wedged between branches and rocks. As they struggled to free him, he became exhausted, gasping for breath before eventually stopping breathing.

Pizova left him the following morning, eventually located the Lake Mackenzie Hut after another night disorientated in the open.

There she spent 24 days alone, tending her frostbite and attempting to signal overhead helicopters. On August 24 she was rescued following enquiries from the Czech consul sparked by relatives’ concern.

Petr’s body was recovered by police and rescue volunteers two days later, on a mountainside some 2km from the Hut.

Ms Pizova said that “one of the big mistakes” she and Mr Petr made was not notifying anyone of their plans because of their desire to avoid paying for the use of huts.

A Mountain Safety Council Report stated the weather forecast for the highest point of the Routeburn Track showed a temperature of -11 degrees centigrade for the date the pair were in the area. The forecast was worse the following day, with heavy rain, snow and gale force winds predicted.

Petr did not have a waterproof jacket or overpants, and the pair lacked essential equipment such as crampons, snowshoes, an ice axe, personal locater beacon, or map and compass.

The safety council found that although the ultimate cause of Petr’s death was hypothermia, there were many opportunities to make decisions that “almost certainly” would have led to a different outcome.

A Department of Conservation report concluded that the signage on the Routeburn Track met best practice, however it failed to change the behaviour of  Petr and Pizova, which it said led to the alpine misadventure.

Mountain Safety Council spokesperson Nick Kingstone said the incident was a wake-up call for people to take their advice seriously when preparing for overnight tramps.

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Kate Jackson

Kate Jackson is the editor of Accomnews. You can reach her at any time with questions or submissions: editorial@accomnews.co.nz

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