On the evening on Monday 13 November, the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter was contacted by National Park Police regarding a woman who had not returned from a day hike to Lake Surprise on the west of Mt Ruapehu.
That afternoon, a text message had been received from the woman saying she had lost her way, was following a river, and that her phone battery was going flat. Also despite leaving after her, a following group of colleagues completed the return hike without sighting her.
With no further information or contact, and two hours of daylight remaining, there was a scramble to respond, with the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter tasked to cover off the most likely areas of interest before darkness. The initial search covered approximately a 20 km square area on the western side of Mt Ruapehu, much of which was below the tree line as the rivers and streams meandered their way toward SH4.
After about two hours of intensive searching and having covered off the primary search area, the rescue helicopter had one last area of interest before departing the scene for the night. Right on sunset, and having just turned tail on the primary search area, one of the four ground searches announced that a few footprints had been spotted in the sand where the Horopito to Mangaturutruru track crossed the Makotuku stream and that tracks appeared to head downstream.
The rescue helicopter immediately proceeded to this location and followed the river downstream. About five minutes later and approx one km further downstream, the missing woman was spotted, wearing dark clothing, through the trees, in the now very shaded and dark riverbed. She was completely invisible with the exception of her white face staring up out of the darkness.
With no ability to assess the terrain from the rescue helicopter and with failing light, a LandSAR volunteer was hoisted down to assist the woman and directed a ground-based searcher to the location, which was only about 50m laterally from the track he had just walked. The pair in the river were able to easily scramble out of the river to and up to the track, which eliminated the need to perform a night hoist.
The local knowledge and experience in the area of all those involved in the search greatly contributed to this outcome.