Cambridge University Caving Club went on expedition to the Totes Gebirge, Austria this Summer. As well as finding several kilometres of new cave, we were also unlucky enough to have two accidents. This is the story of the rescues, as told by the victims, Rebecca Lawson and her boyfriend Chris Densham.
Chris: I heard the shout from Wookey as I was filling my carbide generator from a pool of water, 100m underground. "Rebecca's broken her leg, it's a good one - her leg's wobbling in all the wrong directions."
He raced off towards the entrance to call the others. I stood, briefly dazed, then set off down the winding stream canyon. This narrowed to a vertical squeeze, 'Beer Belly Blues', christened after the gut of one caver prevented further progress there. I got to the squeeze and peered down the ten metre pitch that lay immediately below it. I called to Becka who lay 8m below and got a cheery Hello and an urgent warning not to touch the ladder on the pitch.
Becka: I was, by then, working up to full steam. "You stupid ........... bitch". I was already dreading seeing everyone else. Still you can't slink away and hide if one leg is acting like a jelly filled sausage, and you are the wrong side of a vertical squeeze.
Someone had advised me to use a C-rig on my Petzl stop to descend the squeeze pitch. "Reduces friction", he said, "But don't let go of the rope - you virtually free-fall". So down I went on my C-rig, and as usual the Stop got in the way, then it wedged fast between me and the rock. Trying to free it, I let go of the rope. Plop - cleared the squeeze in record time! After 8m of something damn close to free fall I hit the rock, bounced and landed on a ledge.
I clipped into the ladder, stood up and watched as my right leg collapsed, flopping wildly. It looked so loose that I thought my lower leg was broken as well as my femur. Wookey helped me to sit down and wound the ladder twice around my leg - an effective improvised support. He then went out for help. Sitting still the pain subsided and the fall seemed unreal. I felt as if I could just stand up and walk away if I wanted to. Chris came down and sat with me. He seemed more upset than I was, perhaps because he wasn't, as I was, furiously cursing my stupid incompetence.
Wookey reached the surface incredibly quickly. Mike 'the Animal' Richardson was immediately dispatched to civilization, taking a record-breaking hour to reach the car-park. Mark Dougherty launched into cave rescue mode and collected the necessary medical and hauling equipment. Meanwhile, Wookey and Adam Cooper went straight down to attack the squeeze with a lump hammer. They smashed away flakes of rock trying to widen and smooth the squeeze, showering Chris and I below.
Mark came down to splint my leg, working on a cramped and damp ledge. I screamed quite a lot, which he found rather off putting. However he got his own back by momentarily resting his elbow on my bad knee, which sent me through the roof!
The two metal frame supports from my Karrimor rucksack were used to splint upper and lower leg, tied on with chest straps and tapes. Once the splints were in place I could be lifted onto a higher larger ledge where the splints were bound more firmly.
The hauling began, with Wookey and Adam already having rigged the squeeze pitch. Mark went up, then all three hauled and helped direct me to the largest part of the squeeze. Chris climbed the ladder below me, holding and supporting my leg at the most comfortable angle. At the squeeze itself he had to let go, and I held the leg myself, using a tape which was tied around my ankle.
The squeeze, the greatest psychological barrier, went surprisingly well. I used my good leg to help manoeuvre and wriggled through to shouts of delight from my haulers.
From then on out progress was slow but steady. The second main worry, blood loss, did not seem too severe. My leg was very well swollen around my harness, but I kept my colour and my pulse was strong. Chris climbed beside me, supporting my leg, whilst Wookey, Adam and Mark hauled and rigged ahead.
To our surprise we met members of the Austrian C.R.O. at the head of the third pitch. They had arrived by helicopter only four hours after my fall. They brought a padded fibreglass 'coffin' which vastly reduced my pain, by keeping my leg protected and firmly straight. I was carried over the chamber and then dragged up an aerial runway to avoid the awkward second pitch. There were problems with the mechanical winch which they put on the entrance pitch, but by then there were plenty of people available to haul me up.
After eight hours after my fall I reached the surface. A doctor, all ready with drip hung from a convenient bush, checked me when I emerged. My blood pressure was still normal. A helicopter soon arrived and I got an exciting winch ride aboard before the five minute journey to hospital. The helicopter was free, courtesy of the Austrian military.
Later, shivering on the x-ray table, the nurses seemed very unwilling to cut my clothes off me. However they must have sensed my horror as I watched them grab hold of my tight fitting welly and prepared to heave it off my well-broken leg. They relented and got out the scissors. A few hours later they were still chopping away at me. A fifteen inch metal pin was hammered down the marrow of my femur and I was eventually stitched together and left to lounge in bed for the next few weeks.
Chris: The exploration of Kaninchenhõhle continued and at last the time came to detackle the cave. Reluctantly, Dan Mace, Juliette Kelly and I set off to the cave in freezing rain. Two other detackling trips to other parts of the cave had descended ahead of us.
By the time I had finished eating and emptying my bowels I was horrified to realize that the others had been underground half an hour already. I bombed down to 'Beer Belly Blues', now renamed 'Becka Falls' and was mortified to find that Dan and Juliette had been chilling off waiting for me at the bottom of the pitch for twenty minutes.
Four bars on my rack, I leapt at the squeeze. That morning, I had put a couple of new bars on my rack and I found that they gave lots of friction. Gravity would not pull me down through the squeeze so I removed a bar. Shove, the loose bar jammed in the rock stopping me dead.
Alarm bells should have been ringing by now but they didn't. Stupidly I took both hands off the rope, to free the wedged bar. Then I was plummeting down on the same trajectory as Rebecca. I bounced off the same ledge and came to rest at the same place. "I don't believe it" I thought.
Dan and Juliette raced up the ladder to the ledge and helped me stand. I felt alright but could not support my weight with my right leg. Neither Dan nor Juliette had been involved in the first rescue, but although they had not had a 'practice go' they went efficiently into action.
We knew that four people were below us in the cave, and would soon be coming out. We would also meet three others who were down a parallel shaft above the second pitch.
Dan and Juliette hauled me up to the squeeze and then man-handled me along the vadose passage to the bottom of the third and fourth pitches. Dan's bobbin was used as a hauling rig with the rescuers prussicking up one side of the rope whilst I dangled on the other end. I was slowly hauled up the pitches until I reached the top when all three of us were hanging in the air, like bats roosting in a tree.
We were half way out by pub closing time when the others started to appear. Dan shouted "Chris has done a Becka" and there was stunned disbelief all around. This was followed by a painful girding of non too fresh loins. The rescuers were already tired out after a long detackling trip. David had ricked his back and Paul had twisted his neck. However no-one wanted the embarrassment of calling the Austrian rescue again and the weather outside would not allow the landing of a helicopter.
I was brought out of the cave at 2am, nine hours after the accident. Mark, once more in rescue mode, had me trussed up in an alpine stretcher, padded out with Becka's abandoned rucksack. My leg was splinted. It was cold, dark, misty and wet. Not nice.
The nine stretcher bearers struggled to haul me across the rough pathless limestone. I was dragged across the flatter sections of pavement, head helmeted and bouncing over the lumps. Progress was painfully slow but spirits rose as the dawn came and we could see where we were going. It took eight hours to reach the car-park; Mike had run the same route in an hour. On finally arriving, Paul could not remove his rucksack and Mark had great difficulty in getting out of the car, his muscles having seized.
I met Becka in the hospital foyer, she was being discharged as I was admitted. The nurses distastefully peeled off layer after layer of clothing and placed the remaining grimy heap that was me on the x-ray table.
"Sir, now the shit hits the fan" said the English speaking doctor. "You have a broken pelvis," he giggled at me.
Our thanks to the Austrian Cave Rescue, the Austrian Military for providing the helicopter, to the hospital in Bad Aussee and to all the members of Cambridge University Caving Club who pulled together when we needed them.
Chris & Becka have both made excellent recoveries and wrote this article shortly before leaving on a trip to India together.