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German researcher finally sees daylight 11 days after suffering head injury nearly a kilometre down in Germany's deepest cave

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Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, June 19, 2014, 5:53 PM - German scientist Johann Westhauser spends much of his time thinking about caves and exploring their depths for his research, but the last 11 days he has spent in Germany's largest cave, the Riesending cave, may have been the longest and most difficult, after he sustained serious injuries in a rock slide back on June 8.

The video above shows Westhauser's triumphant return to the surface, after a team of over 700 rescuers and support staff spent several days maneuvering him through six and a half kilometres of narrow cave passages, from a depth of over 900 metres, back up to the surface. 

The Riesending cave system - the name of which translates as 'giant thing' or 'whopper' - was discovered in 1995 and is considered Germany's deepest cave. Westhauser, who is a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology's Institute for Applied Physics, was part of the team that found the cave, and has been exploring the system since 2002, mapping it and measuring it as part of his research. He and two colleagues were down in the cave on Sunday, June 8, when he was struck in the head by a rockfall. 

Credit: www.openspeleo.org/S. Sutherland

Credit: www.openspeleo.org/S. Sutherland

According to reports, it took five days for rescuers to reach his position, and then another seven days for them to move him to the surface. 

Upon reaching the cave entrance, Westhauser was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Murnau, Bavaria, and according to Klemens Reindl, who led the rescue mission, he was apparently in good health (all things considered), despite the long wait for medical treatment.

This rescue mission has been an enormous effort by climbers and cavers from five different countries, and cost millions of Euros to complete. However, accidents are apparently quite rare in caving, so these kinds of rescue efforts aren't needed very often. This one just happened to attract a lot of media attention, due to the depth of the cave, and the extreme efforts needed to retrieve the injured Westhauser. Still, at the same time, this entire effort is being compared to the rescue of Italian mountain climber Claudio Corti in 1957, which, according to Wikipedia, "is known as one of the greatest of all time."

"Previously many had doubted that a rescue at 1,000 metres depth was possible," said Norbert Heiland, of the Bavarian mountain rescue service, according to The Guardian. "The difficulty and complexity of the operation was unprecedented."

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