Searchers located missing hiker Stephanie Simpson’s body last Friday, February 14, after what appeared to have been a tragic accident in Mount Aspiring National Park.
Sergeant Mark Kirkwood, who led the search on behalf of West Coast Police Search and Rescue, said the search team found Simpson’s body in the Pyke Creek area, near Brewster Hut, around 1:40pm.
Kirkwood extended the Police’s condolences to Simpson’s family. He also thanked everyone involved in the five-day search, adding that it was “extremely challenging at times, especially in consideration of the terrain, and the work of all involved is to be commended.”
Assisting the West Coast Police in the search were Wānaka Search and Rescue (WānakaSAR), a volunteer organisation made up of highly-trained teams, each with their own specialisation. Incident management, alpine cliff rescue, bush rescue, swiftwater/canyon rescue and search dog teams bring their own expertise and experience to every operation — and there are many.
“We’re probably one of the busiest back-country SAR teams in the country, just because we’re on the doorstep to Mount Aspiring,” said Chair and previous Wānaka Police Search and Rescue coordinator Aaron Nicholson (who recently retired after almost 31 years’ service). Since the start of 2020, WānakaSAR has carried out eight search and rescue operations, giving over 500 hours of volunteer time.
“A lot of our guys are self-employed, so they walk away from a days’ wages to go and help a complete stranger… and they’ll do it day, after day, after day. That happens all over New Zealand,” Nicholson told the Wānaka Sun. Wānaka SAR attend all manner of call-outs, from avalanches, to kayaks being washed downriver, to dementia patients going wandering.
Speaking about last week’s tragic search, Nicholson agreed that the terrain was tough, with scrubby bush and steep drop offs making it difficult to manoeuvre. “You’ve got your waterways and your tricky little canyons as well, so that always makes it complicated,” he added.
Acknowledging that speculating on what may have happened “was for the police and the coroner”, Nicholson recounted the SAR team’s involvement. “One of the search dogs found the boots by the creek, and that focused the search on that creek. That’s where the canyon team was put in.”
“One of the guys in the helicopter saw the pack further down… Finally, Stephanie was found in the water down there,” he said, adding that “we try and do our bit well, and leave the next bit to the police.”
The WanakaSAR swiftwater rescue/canyon team is made up of 15 volunteers, with four working each day of the operation depending on the job required. “We try and make sure we’ve got the right people with the right skill-set, so they’re working within their envelopes,” Nicholson said.
“But there is certainly an element of risk, and that’s why we need specialist people who are really good at what they do. These people do this all the time. They’re out jumping in waterfalls and canyons on the weekends. It’s what they do for recreation.”
The work of WānakaSAR is entirely publicly funded, and Nicholson is proud that they have a good profile in the area. “People recognise the work we do, and a lot of people from the area are outdoorsy people who think, ‘One day, it might be me. It would be nice to help.’”
It’s the same motivation for a lot of the volunteers, who are made up climbers, hunters, trampers and kayakers. “They want to know that if something goes wrong, the right people are going to come looking for them.”