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Friday, June 20, 2014

Trapped in the Bowels of the Earth

"For years our solidarity has grown. We have worked together and gotten to know each other. Today we have the proof that this is the right way to work. We overcame language and technical barriers and succeeded in completing a difficult operation."
Roberto Corti, Italian National Society of Alpine Speleology

"They really worked hard; they brought their best. A difficult rescue effort like this can always fail. It is essential that we work together."
Klemens Reindl, rescue leader
Judith Hartl in a live stream screen shot

There are those people who are so curious about the world that they will go to any extraordinary measures to explore and discover the mysteries of nature and our existence within it. From the depths of the oceans deep to the closely cloistered bowels of the Earth -- from deep space exploration to ascending the most remote, forbidding peaks on various Continents, and exploring the most frigid, inhospitable areas of Earth where ice and snow and impossibly thick glaciers and icebergs are king -- those intrepid souls set out to satisfy their avid curiosity.

There is an alpine cavern near Berchtesgaden in southern Germany, known as the Riesending (Big Thing). That cavern can be reached below the surface of Untersberg Mountain by expert spelunkers. The Riesending cave north of Berchtaesgaden stretches over 20 kilometres vertically and horizontally into the mountain which hosts it. A team of experts discovered its presence in the mid 1990s, and mapped it in 2002.

Riesending cave infographic (DW)
Source: Arge Bad Cannstatt

One of those experienced spelunkers was Johann Westhauser, now 52, who works in the physics Department of the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology, and he is acknowledged as one of the country's most experienced cave researchers. Since its discovery Mr. Westhauser has explored the Riesending cave several times. The most recent occasion when Mr. Westhauser explored the cavern was this very month. Unfortunately, on June 8 while underground with a companion a rock struck him on the head about 1,000 metres underground.

His colleague made his way back to the surface in twelve hours, to alert authorities, who then undertook a complex international rescue. And after 22 days, ten hours and 40 minutes trapped underground in parlous conditions, Mr. Westhauser emerged from his dark prison. He was strapped to a stretcher, handled by dozens of volunteer rescuers representing the international community of scientists, explorers and spelunkers. The surface of the 2,000 metre mountain where the narrow mouth of the cavern opens in a vertical drop is shrub-covered, impossible to land a helicopter. So equipment was lowered by cable and then a landing pad cleared.

Bavaria cave rescue

Hundreds of rescue workers arrived from Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia, representing professionally expert climbers accustomed to descending into the inner depths of mountains. Two hundred and two descended into the cave to eventually manage to carry the wounded man strapped into a padded fibreglass stretcher, winching him with a pulley through the darkness deep in the mountain. Before they had reached him, five bivouacs equipped with food and sleeping bags had been set up at intervals. They painstakingly handled their burden with great care, going from bivouac to bivouac. At the final bivouac, they rested.

The rescue team outside the cave
Photo: Nicolas Armer/dpa

Finally they lifted the rescued man to safety through the narrow shaft leading to the surface where he was treated by teams of doctors at an emergency medical station set up near the mouth of the cave. From there he was flown by helicopter to hospital. "We have achieved our goal. We have also made rescue history, which was only possible through international co-operation", said Norbert Heiland, head of Bavaria's Mountain Rescue Service.  The entire effort, from start to successful completion, involved no fewer than 728 people.

The rescue team outside the cave
Photo: Nicolas Armer/dpa

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