24 May 2016

Trapped 4WDers made a bad decision

9:17 am on 24 May 2016

The 38 people who were rescued from an Otago mountain road yesterday made a bad decision to go four-wheel-driving, says a helicopter pilot involved in the rescue.

Cloud clearing from Old Man Range, 24 May 2016.

Old Man Range Photo: RNZ / Peter Newport

The group of off-roaders, including two children aged six and eight, were trapped in 13 vehicles along Waikaia Bush Road, on Old Man Range, north-west of Roxburgh overnight on Sunday.

Rescuers reached the group yesterday afternoon and used snowcats to bring them down below the snowline, before they were transferred by 4WD vehicles and a bus back to Roxburgh.

The Otago Rescue Helicopter got close to the group on multiple occasions, but adverse weather meant it was unable to land.

Graeme Gale, the chief pilot of the Otago Rescue Helicopter Trust, said the group pushed it too far, with a forecast of poor weather closing in.

Mr Gale told Morning Report that his team picked up people off that track every few years.

"It's not just because of the snow conditions, the area where they were is quite a swampy, boggy area, which they are going through. And that's part of the adventure, going up through there, but they might have just pushed it a little bit much the other day, in hindsight, with that weather forecast, which was certainly forecast to be quite severe."

Chris Coory, from the Dunedin search and rescue, said many of the group rescued were in surprisingly good spirits.

"Gratitude was what they felt, I was expecting some of them to be annoyed about leaving their vehicles there but they were pretty good, because their vehicles will be there through winter, that's for sure."

But he said the ordeal served as a reminder for people to always check the weather conditions before making the journey.

"When they went through, I don't think they expected the weather to be as bad as it was. They thought they would get right through. Where the vehicles were, was between one a half to two metres of snow, so there was no way a vehicle was going through there," he said.

A helicopter is still trying to rescue 36 people trapped in vehicles on a remote, snow-filled road in in Central Otago but it can't land.

Thirty six people have been snowed in and spent the night in trapped in four wheel drives. Photo: SUPPLIED/whatsoninvers.nz

"It's really a matter of doing some research and knowing what the weather is going to do. That's the big thing. In sub-alpine areas like this, the snow can come in pretty fast. So you turn around and get out. Simple really."

The police wouldn't say whether the group should have attempted to drive the track, which has been described as treacherous.

The Otago Lakes-Central area Commander, Inspector Olaf Jensen, said they'll be asking questions.

"Obviously we'll be debriefing the situation with our own rescue teams... and also we'll be speaking to group that went up there and see what their arrangements were before they left."

He refused to say how much the rescue operation was likely to have cost.

Rescuers 'did a great job'

When the group got to the Rescue Coordination Centre in Roxburgh for a much-needed meal and medical checks, they were reluctant to talk about what had happened.

One of them, when asked about his experience, said he was "all good".

He said the rescuers did "a great job. Super happy to have them. They've done amazing".

"We knew they'd make it. We were told that it was going to be good. They turned up and we were happy."

Charles Cockery's son was one of those who had been stranded in a car with his friend overnight.

"They had plenty of diesel onboard so they were OK, heating was alright. But I don't think they had much food, it was only a small day trip. People just go out for day trips, I'm sure they don't go out and say we want to get stuck in the snow and be rescued."

One of the rescuers, Dave Robinson, said it was not easy for the search team, who had to deal with poor visibility, extreme cold and strong winds.

The experience was also very difficult for those in the group.

"They've had a tough experience. They'll have mixed reactions I'm sure. They'll be pleased to be out, but disappointed by what's happened," he said.