Ropes rescue conducted in Big Horns after tree falls on hikers

Patti Carpenter

A peaceful stop to admire Porcupine Falls was disrupted Friday afternoon when a tree fell on a group of four recreating in the Big Horn Mountains.

The group of four were sitting near the falls when a large part of a lodge pole pine tree, approximately 28 inches around, cracked off and then fell 10 feet from a creek located above, hitting all four people. A GPS alert beacon was activated by the group following the accident, allowing Sheriff’s Department dispatchers to pinpoint their location very quickly.

According to North Big Horn Search and Rescue Captain Wes Mangus, two medical helicopters, two ambulances and more than 30 rescuers assisted with the fairly complicated rescue.

Mangus said one male victim suffered severe head trauma and was air lifted from the scene. The other three victims were taken by ground ambulance to North Big Horn Hospital for treatment of their injuries. A female victim suffered puncture wounds and appeared to have broken bones.

 “By the time we set up and got them out, it was a three- to four-hour mission,” said Mangus. “It’s one of the more technical rescues we’ve had in a few years.”

Lovell Fire Department Assistant Chief Bob Mangus said it actually took members from four rope rescue teams (American Colloid, the Lovell Fire Department and North and South Big Horn Search and Rescue) using two different systems to haul the victims up the fairly steep trail to waiting medical transportation.

Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn noted that it was nothing short of a “miracle” that every asset was ready and available during such a busy time of the year.

“The fact that every asset we needed was ready was a miracle in itself,” Blackburn said. “We had several A-teams that were able to assemble immediately and were coordinated by Wes Mangus, who did a bang-up job as incident commander. It was a great response. The patients were seriously injured, and first responders were able to physically get down to the victims very quickly.”

Blackburn cited two “miracles” that occurred that helped first responders get to the scene faster than normal. The first miracle was that the American Colloid Company High Angle Ropes Rescue Team was on its way back from a training exercise in Casper, placing them not far from the scene. The group of six was fresh off a training mission and had all of their equipment with them. Some of the members also serve on local search and rescue teams, and one serves as a volunteer with the Lovell Fire Department.

“They just happened to be in the area, coming up and over the mountain, which made it possible for them to rapidly deploy,” said Blackburn.

Also already assembled and ready to go, the south end rescue team was at a different training exercise, allowing them to quickly deploy, as well.

“Since they were all gathered up pretty much, they were also able to rapidly deploy,” Blackburn explained. “Usually, when these groups respond, they are spread out. Some are at work; some are at home or other places. It takes a while for them to assemble. In this case, they were all together already and not too far away.”

He said it was amazing that the ropes teams already in the area were able to bring their truck with their rope rescue equipment directly to the scene.

“Again, I want to emphasize there were a number of miracles that brought this all together so quickly,” Blackburn said. “The assets were nearby and available and able to respond without delay. They were able to respond faster than in any other circumstance. The medical personnel, the fire department personnel, the search and rescue volunteers also got there quickly and especially did an outstanding job. I think all of those things coming together made a difference in the outcome of this mission.”

Blackburn explained that a ropes rescue is an extremely complex procedure, requiring hours of training and certification.

“These countless hours of preparation pay off big on a complicated rescue like the one that took place on Friday night,” he said.

Wes Mangus also praised the first responders.

“We’re lucky to have the first responders we have in this county,” he said. “As a whole, fire, EMS and everyone was there. It was definitely a joint operation. It was all hands on deck. A big thanks to all of our responders; we couldn’t do it without the people we have. I think we have the best first responders in the world.”