In early June 2014, 52-year-old physicist and explorer Johann Westhauser made his way into a cave that stretched more than 12 miles into the earth. In 1995, he had been part of the team that discovered the cave (known as the Riesending, or ‘Big Thing’) and helped to map its inky depths. He had returned again in 2002. Now, he was flanked by two other seasoned spelunkers, delving into the dangerous extremities of Germany’s deepest cavern.
But despite all their years of experience, something went horribly wrong.
Nearly 3,800 feet below the surface, Westhauser was struck in the head by a tumbling rock. He was wearing a helmet, but suffered brain trauma and was unable to carry on. Without any cell-phone reception to alert authorities, one of his colleagues came slowly back up to the surface to gather a rescue party together. Eventually, the retrieval would cost nearly a million euros, involve 728 people from five countries and result in the cave’s entrance being permanently sealed by police, according to The Guardian.
Hours after his colleague’s alert, 11 rescuers delved into the cave, which some have described as a kind of underground Everest—in part because of its sheer depth, in part because of its windy and perilous contours, and in part because it’s ribboned with ravines that can be treacherous even for highly experienced climbers and cavers. Some shafts drop more than 1,000 feet; if climbers wish to explore them, they must rappel down and then climb back up.
The strategy to save Westhauser went like this: Rescuers would establish a “cave-link system” underground, which uses electrical currents to send and receive basic messages, even through hundreds of meters of rock. Then, once Westhauser had been diagnosed and his condition confirmed by a physician, he would be brought back up to the surface. He had been injured on Sunday; it was estimated that the rescue would be completed by the evening of the following Wednesday.
It took four days for a doctor to finally reach Westhauser, diagnose him with a traumatic brain injury and confirm that he was stable enough to be brought out. In the meantime, first responders had done all they could to maintain his condition. Westhauser was wrapped in padding and strapped to a fiberglass toboggan, like those used to rescue skiers injured on the mountain. He drifted in and out of consciousness, slurring his words and unable to complete sentences.
At any one time, as many as 60 cavers were inside Riesending helping with the mission—or about 90 percent of the local mountain rescue service. The physical and psychological demands of being underground in those conditions were considerable, Stefan Schneider, from the Bavarian Mountain Rescue Service told the BBC, so they had to be replaced on a regular basis. Few had the necessary mountaineering skills for the challenge. “You have to imagine it’s 1,000 [meters] almost vertically, where you have to climb up with ropes and crampons,” he said.
At the surface, hundreds of other helpers set up a warehouse with everything they needed for the intrepid rescue; an emergency medical-supply station; and even a temporary landing site for helicopters. The local fire department played host to a press center, with journalists from around the world watching anxiously for developments.
Gradually, rescuers hauled Westhauser’s toboggan up through the depths of the cave. He was winched up shafts and carried through a maze of passages so narrow, The New York Times reported, that “Westhauser’s nose was nearly scraped by the limestone walls.” After days of the rescue mission, there was a final hurdle: a 600-feet vertical shaft. The explorer, and his toboggan, would have to be brought to the surface by force. To do so, rescuers set up a manual pulley system, where members of the team abseiled down to serve as a counterweight to Westhauser and his toboggan’s 200-pound weight.
On Thursday, after more than 11 days underground, Westhauser was finally hoisted to the surface and taken by helicopter to a nearby clinic. That he was alive at all bordered on a miracle, Volker Bühren, from the hospital, told The Telegraph. He had suffered a brain hemorrhage from the rockfall, but one he would eventually recover from altogether. “The patient has had extremely good luck,” Bühren said. “As far as we are concerned, in the circumstances this is an excellent condition.”
The rescue has been described as one of the greatest of all time. Immediately after it, Norbert Heiland of the Bavarian Mountain Rescue Service compared it to the famous 1957 rescue of Italian mountaineer Claudio Corti, in which the climber was rescued from the summit of the treacherous Eiger peak, in the Swiss alps. “Previously many had doubted that a rescue at 1,000 meters depth was possible,” Heiland said in a press conference. “The difficulty and complexity of the operation was unprecedented.”
More than 700 people had pitched in to keep Westhauser alive: He later told Nico Petterich, a physician with the mountain rescue service, that he wanted to thank each of them personally. “It will keep me busy,” he said. He would eventually pick up the tab for most of the 960,000-Euro cost of his rescue. After two weeks, Westhauser was discharged. By 2016, he was climbing and caving once again—though, as he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he would be taking it easy to begin with.