In the end, 202 rescue workers descended into Riesending cave near Marktschellenberg, Germany.

Nicolas Armer • DPA,

The camp of the mountain rescue service next to the entrance of the Riesending cave near Marktschellenberg, southern Germany, photographed early Thursday June 19., 2014. Germany's mountain rescue service said after a short pause overnight, its team resumed work early Thursday morning to bring Johann Westhauser the final 180 meters (590 feet) to the surface. The going has been slow as rescuers have had to haul Westhauser by hand through the narrow winding passage. Westhauser was injured June 8 while nearly 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) underground in the Riesending cave system in the Alps near the Austrian border. (AP Photo/dpa,Nicolas Armer)

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Injured physicist rescued from Germany's deepest cavern

  • Article by: MELISSA EDDY
  • New York Times
  • June 19, 2014 - 7:47 PM


Johann Westhauser, a 52-year-old physicist who was struck in the head by a rock 3,766 feet below the surface in Germany’s deepest cavern 11 days ago, had only one wish as he was finally hoisted to the surface on Thursday — to personally thank all 728 people responsible for his rescue.

A seasoned cave explorer himself, Westhauser was no stranger to the inky darkness of the cavern that he, as part of a team, had discovered in the mid-1990s and helped to map. Known as the Riesending, or Big Thing, the cave stretches more than 12 miles, cutting vertically and horizontally into a mountain near the Austrian border. It is known among even the most experienced cavers as challenging.

Westhauser, despite wearing a helmet, was injured in the deepest part of the cave on June 8 while exploring with two others. One of them made the arduous, 12-hour journey back to the surface to alert the authorities.

The top priority of the rescue effort was ensuring that Westhauser was stable. He was wrapped in protective padding and strapped in a fiberglass toboggan like those used to take injured skiers off the mountain. Then began the tortuous process of hauling the toboggan up from the depths, winching it up vertical shafts and carrying it through a labyrinth of passages so narrow that Westhauser’s nose was nearly scraped by the limestone walls.

“You had to be not only experienced in climbing and rappelling, but able to raise yourself on ropes anchored to the walls,” said Christian Lüthi, a caver from Switzerland. “It is difficult for the best trained individual, but to maneuver the narrow passages with a patient bound to a stretcher involved meticulous planning.”

The rocky, scrub-scarred surface of the nearly 6,000-foot mountain, where the cavern’s narrow mouth opens in a 590-foot vertical drop known as “the chimney,” initially made it impossible for a helicopter to land. Supplies and equipment had to be lowered by cable until a landing pad could be cleared.

By the end, 202 workers had descended into the cave to carry out an effort that involved at times carrying a stretcher by hand and lifting it manually with pulleys through the darkness of the cavern.

After 11 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, Westhauser emerged, and the toboggan was transferred hand to hand the final 100 yards to a helicopter that took him to an undisclosed hospital.

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