German caver rescued after 11-day ordeal

June 20, 2014 - 3:09:23 am
Bavaria’s mountain rescue team ‘Bergwacht Bayern’ carry injured researcher Johann Westhauser out of the Riesending cave in Untersberg, south of Munich, yesterday.

BERLIN: Jubilant rescuers hoisted to safety an injured German cave explorer yesterday, ending an 11-day ordeal in dark and icy caverns deep in the Bavarian Alps and an “incredible” recovery effort by over 700 emergency personnel.

Johann Westhauser, 52, had suffered serious head injuries in a June 8 rockfall about 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) below ground in the labyrinth-like Riesending cave complex, Germany’s deepest and longest. Some 274 hours later, a complex, costly and painstaking operation involving five nations managed to winch Westhauser’s stretcher into the daylight before a helicopter flew him to a hospital for emergency treatment.

His rescuers battled dangerous conditions, near-freezing temperatures and poor communications for almost a week as they methodically negotiated a treacherous network of tunnels and chambers, underground lakes and ice-cold waterfalls.

“A new chapter has been written in the history of Alpine rescue,” said the head of the mountain rescue service, Norbert Heiland, who stressed that in the beginning the effort had seemed “simply impossible”.

Mission chief Klemens Reindl spoke of a “mammoth task” that involved 202 rescuers below ground out of a total of 728 staff and volunteers in caving, medical and emergency services from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia.

“They slaved away down there, it was a top performance ... The elite of European mountain rescue was gathered here,” he said and added that Westhauser, who suffered skull and brain trauma among other injuries, had arrived by police helicopter at an undisclosed German clinic, and that “under the circumstances, he is doing well”. 

The cave’s name, Riesending, literally means “giant thing” or “whopper”, apparently what mountaineers exclaimed when they discovered it in 1995. The cave system is more than 19km long and up to 3,770 feet deep and was not mapped until 2002.

Westhauser was exploring the cave with two others when the accident happened. One of his companions then travelled around 12 hours back to the surface to raise the alarm while the third person stayed behind.