Difficult rescue at Five Springs accomplished ‘without hiccups’

A woman being bucked off her horse resulted in a treacherous mission by Big Horn Search and Rescue, navigating up the old Five Springs Road to find her.

According to Sheriff Ken Blackburn, on Saturday morning at around 9:30 a.m. Jessica Watts, 36, was thrown off her horse on the Five Springs Road, nearby Taggart’s cabin. Watts sustained an injury to her leg, later confirmed to be a fractured femur. 

Her husband, Thomas Watts, realizing bad weather was impending, made a slight shelter for her, covering her in cut pine branches, and then journeyed back down the mountain in search of cell service to call for help. 

Soon, cold wind and rain swept over the mountain, bringing the temperature down to the 30s. Blackburn called Watts’ quick thinking to protect his wife from hypothermia “outstanding.” 

Big Horn Search and Rescue members slowly guide Jessica Watts, secure on a toboggan, down the old highway. Tom Newman drives the utility vehicle as Shyann Baxter sits next to him. Jim Thomas steadies the toboggan on the left as Wes Mangus steadies it on the right. Mike Hendershot (right) and Dave Keele (rear) grab hold of handlebars, also steadying Watts, walking behind Thomas and Mangus. Paramedic Megan Geise observes from the back, hidden from view. 
Courtesy photo

“He quite probably saved her life,” Blackburn said. 

Search and rescue squads were paged out to the scene at 11:50 that morning. They wouldn’t return home until 5 p.m.

Ground, horse, drone, mobile and rope units responded. A detailed report was given to search and rescue by Thomas, giving them a clear idea of where Jessica was located. 

“He acted calm, cool and collected and had an excellent thinking pattern and gave us the information we needed to speed up the rescue, and because the information he gave was really solid (we were) able to formulate a plan,” Blackburn said. 

According to Wes Mangus, the commander of the Big Horn Search and Rescue, the road to Jessica was not an easy one. Starting at the radar station garage, the team only made it in 100 yards before they started to hit some nasty spots, he said.

“It was steep. We were kind of on a side hill, so we had to maneuver our side by sides accordingly,” Mangus said. “It kind of rained the whole time, and we were sliding off the edges and all kinds of stuff getting in there. We almost didn’t make it.” 

But through ingenuity, the team did, but they knew that they couldn’t bring Jessica up the same route they went down. 

Wes sent Bob Mangus down the switchbacks to begin clearing the road so the team could bring Jessica down an alternative route, cutting their way to the Hidden Basin Campground via the old highway. 

The team, in the meantime, attended to Jessica.

“We confirmed, after the fact, that she did have a broken femur, right below the hip socket. It was a major issue,” Wes Mangus said. “We tried to get her out softly. She was in an excruciating amount of pain, but pain killers were administered, which allowed us a slight opportunity to get her on her side and secure her…We were able to do that.”

The team loaded Jessica onto a toboggan sled and slowly eased her down. Wes put two search and rescue members in front to remove rocks from the road and cut trees out of the way, to keep the road smooth and gentle for Jessica. 

The team eventually was able to bring Jessica down the highway, where she was quickly transported to North Big Horn Hospital for medical care. 

“It was a huge success,” Wes said. “Everyone got out safely and efficiently. There were absolutely no hiccups. Increased training means we are better equipped and better prepared for things like this. It’s because of the community support that we have.”

Sixteen search and rescue members responded in a manner of minutes, Wes said, with 35 team members from both the north and south sides of the county aiding in the rescue by the end of the operation.

“This search and rescue team is quickly establishing themselves as one the premiere units in the state,” Blackburn said, reflecting on the rescue. 

By Ryan Fitzmaurice