Skip

3000 Feet to Daylight
June 14, 2014 12:00 PM   Subscribe

Most expensive rescue in German history as man begins second week trapped 3000 feet underground in cave — It may take rescuers a week to evacuate speleologist Johann Westhauser after he was injured by a rockfall in the depths of Germany's Riesending Cave.
posted by cenoxo (54 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Westhauer is a caver, not a speleologist. "He works as a technician at the Institute of Applied Physics of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)." A speleologist is a scientist (typically a geologist) who studies some aspect of speleology.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:01 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


A doctor who is travelling with the rescue party is carrying a skull drill: Mr Westhauser is at constant risk of bleeding in the brain, and if the pressure becomes too great, the doctor will have to relive it by drilling through his skull in an emergency procedure.

Trepanning in a cave would be an interesting item to have on your cv, but I hope the rescue proceeds uneventfully.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:11 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Being trapped underground like that fills me with a special sort of horror. Like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair. Poor man. Hope it all works out.

At one point they will somehow have to negotiate Mr Westhauser's stretcher through a passage so narrow an average-sized man has to double over and exhale in order to squeeze past.

This may be the dumbest dumb question ever, but what would exhaling do? It wouldn't make you shorter which is why you'd be doubled over surely (hard to think of that working to make you thinner...).
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:22 PM on June 14


Exhaling does make the chest and abdomen narrower. Just think of it being that tight.
posted by happyroach at 1:34 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


The descriptions of all the insane things the rescue team will need to do in order to get him out reminded me of The Poseidon Adventure. I hope he lives and gets all his brain function back, and then I hope they make an amazing movie about this and he gets residuals.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:39 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Perhaps sport caver and speleologist:
The term speleology is also sometimes applied to the recreational activity of exploring caves, but this is more properly known as caving, spelunking or potholing. Speleology and caving are often connected, as the physical skills required for in situ study are the same.
...
The growth of speleology is directly linked with that of the sport of caving, both because of the stimulation of public interest and awareness, and the fact that most speleological field-work has been conducted by sport cavers.
The articles mention that Westhauer has done prior discovery and exploration in the Riesending cave system. Let's hope he makes it out alive this time so he can go back in again.
posted by cenoxo at 1:46 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


The communication system is pretty cool - very low frequency transmissions (VLF) that make it over a kilometer through solid rock, transferring around 100 bits/second at the most.

double over and exhale

I'm pretty sure earlier reports said you had to exhale and twist your head sideways (i.e. what cavers call "a flattener").
posted by effbot at 2:07 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Wow!, what a task. I cant even imagine.
Reminds me of this previous MiFi post on
Bushmans hole
posted by quazichimp at 2:09 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


At one point they will somehow have to negotiate Mr Westhauser's stretcher through a passage so narrow an average-sized man has to double over and exhale in order to squeeze past.

Something similar happened to my brother actually. He used to be a caver and was himself part of a cave rescue team in Germany. They usually went into caves in the Suebian alps (different range than the Alps proper). One time he needed to be rescued himself after he broke an ankle. They strapped him to a stretcher to carry him most of the way but the last bit required ascending vertically through 3 large consecutive caverns connected by small openings 30-40 feet above the cavern floor (ceiling of one to floor of the next). Openings to small for a person on a stretcher. My brother has a huge frame and they couldn't get him through with any of the other harnesses they had available. So they hooked up the stretcher and pulled it up by rope from the next cavern. At the opening he would have to unstrap himself from the stretcher and pull himself up through the opening solo, then restrap and do it again. 3 Times. He said it was rough because obviously he was in pain from the ankle and he was getting really cold as well so he had trouble holding on with his hands.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:15 PM on June 14 [17 favorites]


As a not very small person, this is one of my nightmares.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:56 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


The descriptions of all the insane things the rescue team will need to do in order to get him out reminded me of The Poseidon Adventure. I hope he lives and gets all his brain function back, and then I hope they make an amazing movie about this and he gets residuals.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:39 on June 15 [+] [!]


I laughed out loud hardcore when I read your username.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:59 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I laughed out loud hardcore when I read your username.

I picked it purely because it rhymes, and I keep forgetting that it makes people assume I work in showbiz.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:18 PM on June 14


It all seems a bit nuts really.

Everyone who goes into caves like that must be aware of the risks. The lengths we go to for some "crazy old explorer" type but if you just happen to be born poor.....
posted by mary8nne at 3:24 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Really wondering what sort of implications this will having for caving generally. It's sort of the nightmare scenario that is always held out as the reason to be careful or cautious, and here we are. The expense, the risk to rescuers, and the (hopefully small) possibility the effort may not save his life or, perhaps, brain function at the end of the day has to weigh heavily on everyone's minds.

Perhaps sport caver and speleologist:

Confusion may be because apparently they are the same word in German (Speläologe)?
posted by dhartung at 3:26 PM on June 14


If science had gotten off its butt and invented teleportation we wouldn't have this issue!
posted by blue_beetle at 3:26 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


Really wondering what sort of implications this will having for caving generally.

Note the earlier legacy (and tragic outcome) of American caver Floyd Collins in Sand Cave, Kentucky, February 13, 1925.
posted by cenoxo at 3:51 PM on June 14


If science had gotten off its butt and invented teleportation we wouldn't have this issue!

The communication system is pretty cool - very low frequency transmissions (VLF) that make it over a kilometer through solid rock, transferring around 100 bits/second at the most.


Scotty, this is taking forever!
posted by fairmettle at 4:38 PM on June 14 [5 favorites]


a passage so narrow an average-sized man has to double over and exhale in order to squeeze past.

Speaking as a claustrophobic person terrified of caves: nononononononononononononononononooooooooooooooo
posted by winna at 5:27 PM on June 14 [5 favorites]


Everyone who goes into caves like that must be aware of the risks. The lengths we go to for some "crazy old explorer" type but if you just happen to be born poor.....

The people who chose to go help rescue him are other cavers. It's not like they grabbed a random doctor and shoved him down the hole because "he's rich! we have to save him!".
posted by stavrogin at 5:50 PM on June 14 [6 favorites]


If you are really interested, the best, most up-to-date, English updates are in a thread on CaveChat.
posted by I'm Doing the Dishes at 6:38 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Das internationale Team aus Deutschen, Österreichern, Schweizern und Italienern kann vom Höhleneingang aus über das mittlerweile installierte Höhlenfunksystem Cavelink mit den Höhlenrettern bis kurz vor dem Patienten kommunizieren
Höhlenfunksystem! That's such a great word. Terrible situation for the injured and a perilous rescue, I pray for their safety. Still that word. Everything that is awesome and terrible about the Germans language right there. Why say cave radio system as three words when one will do.
posted by humanfont at 7:21 PM on June 14


The implication that cave explorers cannot be poor is wide of the mark. It's a very low-cost activity except at the most extreme levels. Usually, the biggest expense is getting to the cave.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:23 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I can barely handle Ruby Falls in Chatanooga TN. This absolutely paralyzes me. Sending good thoughts to the whole team that this works out.
posted by pearlybob at 8:07 PM on June 14


You know how everybody seems to freak whenever a spider thread pops up? How folks are all NOPE about it? Well, that is how I feel about the idea of being in a tiny tiny space way underground. The part about being TRAPPED there--I can't even, because there will be screaming, and I don't want to wake my kitties.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:45 PM on June 14


Yeah, tight spaces are a real psychological challenge.

My brother (the one from my previous comment) once took me into a cave near where he lives. It's a smallish one but it has a couple of nice rooms including one where luminous creatures make you feel like you're floating in interstellar space. Quite beautiful.

The problem is the entrance. It's a stretch about 50-60 feet long, 10-15 feet wide but only about 1.5-2 feet high and it has water flowing through it at all times. The water is just shallow enough so you can lie on your back with your arms by your side and not drown. Your ears will be under water half the time but your face is clear. You can't really raise your head since the rock ceiling is right there so you have to push and wriggle yourself backwards through the passage with snow angel type movements without being able to see anything useful. If you turn your head sideways your face and nose will be under water. Most of the time you only have an inch or two clearance above the tip of your nose.

I'm not exactly claustrophobic but this was pushing it for me as well. Like my brother I have a big frame and I was distrustful of my ability to make a 180 turn in there if necessary. 50-60 feet turns into a surprisingly huge distance when you're wriggling slowly, can't see and have little orientation.

Added freak out potential: the Suebian alps are all calcium based... they once were a sea floor/reef type thing. So they're really porous with caves and cracks everywhere connecting everything. As a result it is really not a good idea to get into caves after rain. It'll take a while but a cave like the one I described will suddenly experience a flash flood about five hours after rainfall. Not a good time to be stuck in that entrance to say the least.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:45 PM on June 14 [14 favorites]


NOPE. Even the map freaks me out. NOPE NOPE NOPE.

Good luck to the rescue team. That's work I could never do.
posted by liet at 10:33 PM on June 14


One of my more intense cave experiences (which is quite mild, really) is the entrance to a cave at Maquoketa Caves State Park (where spelunking is currently in a moratorium) in Iowa. I went with my nephew's Boy Scout troop (a multi-state event, so the place was crawling with 'em). The lobby to this cave is spacious enough, a pretty steep room but with a lot of convenient, stable rock steps. You get to the bottom of that, though, and there's a tight squeeze into the rest of the cave. When I happened to arrive they had a kid on the other side who had made it through this relatively short (4-6') squeeze to get inside, explored some with his troopmates, and now could not psych himself back out through that same squeeze. I was already pretty heavy when I went (this was about 15 years back) but I was told that I should be able to fit. With this kid freaking out on the other side, though, I decided I didn't want to be the object of a gazillion Scouts and Scout Leaders and park rangers trying to get me to do things like exhale or cut off a piece of clothing, all while some 50-100 scouts were stuck on the other side of my plug, so that was plenty for me.
posted by dhartung at 11:29 PM on June 14


At one point they will somehow have to negotiate Mr Westhauser's stretcher through a passage so narrow

I presume that cavers have some sort of leave-no-trace policy similar to modern rock climbers' disuse of pitons and other destructive anchors, but in extremis couldn't such an opening be enlarged fairly rapidly? The rock is described as being calcium-based, presumably pretty soft... seems like a couple of people with pneumatic rock drills or jackhammers could enlarge it enough to make the task easier, at the same time that the victim is being brought up from further below.

In a mining disaster I assume they have tools available for that type of situation (small man-portable jackhammers, drills, bracing materials, etc.) and Germany has a fairly big subsurface mining industry... seems like it's the sort of thing that ought to be pre-loaded in a conex and ready to go on short notice whenever there's a need.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:44 PM on June 14


That might cause more rock slides and make things worse.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:55 PM on June 14


Also, from page 2 of that CaveChat link, it says "The transport of the stretcher revealed that luckily no alterations of the rock are necessary, but the patient will have to leave the stretcher nevertheless a few times."
posted by IndigoRain at 11:59 PM on June 14


Riesending Cave?
posted by Omnomnom at 1:12 AM on June 15


showbiz_liz mentions hoping he gets out safely and they make a movie so this dude gets residuals --- sorry, but personally I'm hoping he gets out safely and they make a movie about this and the profits go to pay for his rescue.
posted by easily confused at 4:59 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Enlarging limestone passages is not trivial, even closer to the surface. The typical method is to use a battery-powered hammer drill to bore some holes, then chisel out or use rifle cartridges to break the rock. Besides the problem of dragging the drill into place (forget jackhammers - how would you supply the compressed air?), the process is slow.

Cave rescue is a subset of the confined-space rescue that rescue firemen train for and perform. Some rescue fireman in karst areas take specific training in cave rescue, but usually cavers are called to do rescues, because they have organized groups for the purpose and have the most experience and equipment. The equipment and expenses of these cave rescue teams are usually paid for entirely by the cavers. Sometimes a rescued person will show their appreciation with a donation.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:13 AM on June 15


Caver Bob's (Bob Gulden of the National Speleogical Society) lists of the world's longest and deepest caves.
posted by cenoxo at 6:51 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


A live feed of the rescue, narrated by Werner Herzog, bitte.
posted by wensink at 8:10 AM on June 15


I feel like inventing a better mechanism to enlarge these passages in rescue situations. Perhaps a python sized ROV powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and gas cartridges the size of a camp stove cartridge. Attach it to a portable collapsible water tank filled from local water. In the front of the snake is a Google Project Tango portable 3d scanner, a water jet cutter and a vaccum. Bring the bot into the cave and have it start boring the hole like a CnC machine.
posted by humanfont at 11:00 AM on June 15


The problem is the entrance. It's a stretch about 50-60 feet long, 10-15 feet wide but only about 1.5-2 feet high and it has water flowing through it at all times. The water is just shallow enough so you can lie on your back with your arms by your side and not drown. Your ears will be under water half the time but your face is clear. You can't really raise your head since the rock ceiling is right there so ...

WHAT? NO. I didn't even know I was claustrophobic until I read that and felt a moment of actual panic while trying to imagine this. Or maybe I wasn't claustrophobic and I AM NOW. Jesus. I will stick to enjoying curiously radiant flora/fauna in other mediums. like Beyond, Good & Evil. Or any of the other less thoroughly terrifying options to this madness will do, really.
posted by cj_ at 11:30 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]


There's a cave sequence like that in the Wierdstone of Brisingamen cj_. I would recommend the book to you, but ahve to admit that that sequence was always enough to instill claustraphobia by proxy in me.
posted by pharm at 2:22 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Hairy Lobster, the description of that cave entering is terrifying.
posted by persona au gratin at 5:32 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]


When I hear back from Bob Gulden on the location of those caves, I'll let you know.
posted by persona au gratin at 5:36 PM on June 15


Having been through a couple of tight squeezes that I could no longer psych myself up for, this thread is making me cringe. I can still feel how unyielding the rock is around me, and how at some points you can't get a full breath (and I'm a small person). I promise to have more sympathy for the spider people in future.
posted by sneebler at 5:44 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


pharm, I read that book almost twenty years ago, and I know exactly what you're talking about. Passages too small for a man, but possibly just large enough for a child, right? And so very, very much worse than water around the ears.
posted by topynate at 5:50 PM on June 15


NOPE. Even the map freaks me out. NOPE NOPE NOPE.

Is it a maze of twisty passages, all alike?

Also, I'd like to apologize for the unimaginative naming of the cave. Calling it "Giant Thing Cave" wasn't the proudest moment of the German language.

"How would you describe the shape of the cave?"

"It looks like a giant..."
posted by pseudocode at 1:03 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]


topynate: Yup. Then there was the 'and now you have to enter the water & hope you can wriggle along to the next pocket of air before you run out of breath' bit, followed closely for claustrophic horror by the 'and now the tunnel you only just fit in goes round a tight bend, so turn yourself round so that you can bend the right way' bit. Argh.

I'll never be a caver, clearly.
posted by pharm at 5:56 AM on June 16


HairyLobster, thanks for that description.

I have a slight fear of tight places, but caving affects me the way standing at the balcony of a tall building does most people: scary thrill that is mostly intensely pleasurable, mostly because of the remainder of my feelings that are fear-based. Similar reasons: BDSM.

In this case, just your description brought back those feelings. Yay butterflies of abject terror in my stomach!
posted by IAmBroom at 8:46 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Is this when you link to Ted's Caving Page, last updated 5/19/01?
posted by effbot at 10:15 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Update
posted by artychoke at 11:19 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


They got him?!

I'm happy, elated even, but...how did he get through that passage?
posted by effugas at 7:05 AM on June 17


effugas, he got through it the first time... with all his bones intact. Oughta be easier with him like an ex-vase in a bag.

Or did you mean "humanely"?
posted by IAmBroom at 7:22 AM on June 17


Rescue going better than expected, Westhauser may reach the surface Thursday or Friday – Verletzter Forscher Johann Westhauser: Dem Tageslicht entgegen - Rettungsteam kommt in Höhle prima voran, June 17, 2014 (Google Translate).
posted by cenoxo at 7:52 PM on June 17


Latest update says early Thursday morning, local time (so 5-6 hours from now, at the earliest). The team is resting right now, the last bit is expected to take around 3 hours.
posted by effbot at 4:46 PM on June 18


Yep, they're reporting they have him out of there --- couldn't grab it, but there was a photo of him on a stretcher.
posted by easily confused at 9:08 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


Just saw footage on ZDF of the guy being lifted out of the cave and into a helicopter.
posted by brokkr at 3:57 PM on June 19


In Germany, Ordeal Ends for Physicist Hurt in CaveNew York Times, June 19, 2014 (with photos and video).

Johann Westhauser, German cave researcher, recovering wellCBC News, Jun 20, 2014 10:29 AM ET.
posted by cenoxo at 5:46 AM on June 21


« Older Why, precisely, does a species of silicon-based...   |   A LEGO movie not ever coming... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post