BERCHTESGADEN, Germany — Johann Westhauser, 52, a 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 hoisted to the surface Thursday: To personally thank all 728 people responsible for his rescue.
“It will keep me busy,” he told Dr. Nico Petterich, a physician with Bavaria’s Mountain Rescue Services, at the end of his ordeal.
Westhauser, a seasoned cave explorer, was no stranger to 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, not far from where Adolf Hitler had his alpine residence, the Berghof. 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 June 8 while exploring with two others. One of them made the arduous, 12-hour journey back to the surface to alert authorities.
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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 a mountain. Then began the 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.”
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, accompanied by Petterich.
“Our patient has been admitted to the clinic,” Norbert Heiland, head of the Mountain Rescue Service said at a news conference in nearby Berchtesgaden.
People from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia collaborated on the rescue. Many were cavers, a tight-knit group of expert climbers who regularly descend into the inner depths of the Alps.
“For years our solidarity has grown. We have worked together and gotten to know each other,” said Roberto Corti of the Italian National Society of Alpine Speleology. “Today, we have the proof that this is the right way to work.”