Injured German caver 'hours away' from rescue

German rescuers said Thursday they were "hours away" from bringing to safety an injured caver, 11 days after he was hit in a rockfall deep below the Bavarian Alps.

Explorer Johann Westhauser, 52, suffered serious head injuries in the accident about 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) below ground in the massive Riesending cave complex, Germany's longest and deepest.

Since then a multi-national team of hundreds of emergency personnel have battled around the clock in a complex and costly operation to bring him to the surface.

Rescuers working below-ground have placed Westhauser on a fiberglass stretcher and negotiated a treacherous and labyrinth-like network of tunnels and chambers, underground lakes and ice-cold waterfalls.

The rescue operation has involved rest periods in five bivouac stops, to be followed by a final hoist up a 180-metre vertical shaft near the mouth of the cave, officials said.

The team was expected to reach the surface "within the next few hours", a rescue official said early Thursday.

Westhauser was then to be rushed to hospital by helicopter.

The rescue effort, high in the mountains near the Austrian border, has involved professional cavers, medical personnel and helicopter crews, from Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Croatia.

Veteran caver Westhauser was exploring the cave system with two others when he suffered head and chest injuries in the rock fall on June 8.

One of his companions made the more than 10-hour trip back to the surface to raise the alarm while the other stayed behind.

The Riesending cave, north of the city of Berchtesgaden, was only discovered in the mid-1990s and was not explored and mapped until 2002. It is more than 19 kilometres long and up to 1,150 metres deep.