American cavers and climbers alike are looking on with trepidation and admiration at an unprecedented rescue operation being undertaken in extreme conditions in southern Germany to bring Johann Westhauser back to the surface from more than 3,200 feet underground. If successful, the operation will become a casebook study for cave rescue teams everywhere.
"Forget everything that you have ever heard about rescue operations in the mountains – we can’t get any equipment in at all to reach the injured man,” cave rescuer Norbert Rosenberger told German media.
The 52-year old Westhauser was injured early on June 8 by falling rocks deep in the Riesending cave system near Berchtesgaden in the Unterberg mountains, part of the Bavarian Alps. Conditions are so testing underground that it took one of Westhauser's companions 12 hours to make the grueling three-mile climb back to the cave's entrance to raise the alarm. A second companion stayed with the injured man.
Some 200 people are involved in the rescue operation, including specialist Alpine rescue teams from Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Cave rescues typically require extensive manpower since it is such painstaking work. "I'll keep [Westhauser] and the efforts of those teams in my prayers," one U.S. caver posted on the U.S. National Speleological Society's website.
A first rescuer reached Westhauser on Monday, followed by an Austrian doctor used to cave rescues several hours later. The injured man, who was hit on the head and upper body by the rock fall, is said to be conscious and able to stand for short periods, but not to be in good condition.
The rescuers have set up a Cave-Link communications system to connect the front-line rescue teams with the surface. Cave-Link is an underground low-frequency radio system used to transmit data through several hundred feet of solid rock. In an emergency, it can be configured to send short text messages that can be passed from station to station to cover long distances.
Rescuers have also set up bivouacs between the cave entrance and the injured man to support the rescue teams. These will also serve as medical waystations where Westhauser can rest and receive medical treatment on the way out.
The ravines and vertical shafts that riddle the cave system make the rescue particularly hazardous (a diagram of the caves). Only a slim person can squeeze through the tightest spots, making it difficult to get medical equipment in and the injured man out. Rescuers will also have to contend with passing through water while all the time keeping Westhauser in a lying position because of his injuries.
The biggest challenge in getting Westhauser back to the surface, though, is to devise a way to lift him up through a narrow 1,000 foot-high vertical crack that is usually ascended by climbing with ropes and crampons. "It is like climbing the north face of the Eiger without boots or cables," Rosenberger says.
Westhauser was one of the team that discovered Germany's deepest and longest cave system in 1995. It could take a further three to five days to get him to the surface.
While the number of cave rescues in North America every year is relatively small compared to other wilderness rescues, there are still 40-50 a year on average, with about 10% of the reported incidents involving fatalities. Cave diving is the most dangerous.
Further resources: U.S. National Speleological Society's Guide to Safe Caving