DULUTH, Minn.—Beth Holst had hunted on the ground for the first two days of last fall's Minnesota firearms deer season, but she hadn't seen a deer. She decided she'd hunt from an elevated stand on the third day. On that November morning, the temperatures were in the single digits, she said.
"We had had maybe a 2-inch snowfall," said Duluth's Holst, 64. "I was going up the rungs and just transitioning from the last rung to the stand."
She isn't sure what happened next. Carrying her deer rifle, she had climbed several sections of metal rungs that had been strapped to the tree to reach her portable stand. She was hunting on a friend's property in Lakewood Township.
"I'm not sure whether I slipped or lost my balance or a combination of the two," Holst said.
All she knew was that she was in mid-air, rapidly falling to the ground 21 feet below. Her rifle came with her.
"I remember hitting some branches going down, then falling into the snow with my face in the snow," she said. "I was fine."
Well, she thought she was fine.
"I went to turn over, and it was the most amazing thing — like my leg didn't come with me," she said. "I knew right away I'd broken my leg."
She was right, X-rays would reveal later. She had broken her left femur — the main bone in the upper leg.
In falling, Holst had joined a large group of hunters who have fallen from deer stands. According to a 2008 survey by Deer & Deer Hunting magazine, more than one in three hunters who use tree stands or other elevated devices will someday fall from their trees or the stands themselves.
Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Specialists of Green Bay, Wis., estimates that 10 percent of hunters who use tree stands are injured annually. The same medical group listed various factors as causes in falls from tree stands, including structure failure, 32 percent; and the hunter entering or exiting the stand, 25 percent. Falling asleep, rifle recoil and alcohol use were listed as other risk factors.
Broken bones common
Holst, who has been deer hunting for seven years, was fortunate that her injury was limited to one broken bone. From 1 to 3 percent of those who fall will suffer permanently crippling injuries, according to surveys. Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Specialists cites a study reporting that of 214 hunters who fell, 73 percent sustained a fracture.
After she was on the ground, Holst went to work orchestrating her own rescue by cell phone, She called her husband, Tim Holst, then 911, another nearby hunter and the person whose land she was hunting on.
Help came quickly. She was transported by sled, then by ATV trailer and finally by ambulance to St. Luke's hospital in Duluth, where an orthopedic surgeon treated her injury, in part by placing a titanium rod through her femur.
"I was walking with a walker in two days," Holst said.
Her recovery is going well, she said. Holst is an active woman who last year cross-country skied about 250 miles. She is using a cane as her leg regains strength. The accident occurred about three months ago, and full recovery may require four to six months, her surgeon told her.
"I'm so grateful," Holst said. "You hear other stories. It would have been so easy for me to break my neck or knock myself out. Then I wouldn't have been able to call."
Cell phones have proved to be a great benefit for hunters who fall from tree stands. Before cell phones were common, injured hunters would have to somehow get out of the woods on their own or use some kind of audible signal to request help.
A decision to make
Tree-stand safety has received a lot of attention in recent years. The topic is now part of hunter education courses in Minnesota and Wisconsin. About half the hunters in the 2008 Deer & Deer Hunting survey said they used safety belts when they were in their stands, according to the magazine. But only about 20 percent use them when they're most likely to fall — ascending, descending or entering or leaving the stand, that survey showed.
Holst said her accident is causing her to rethink the way she will hunt whitetails. She has shot about half her deer from elevated stands. Tim Holst has worried about Beth climbing into and out of those stands.
"I trust her to make the best judgment she can," Tim said, "and if that means going up again, I support that. But I might come out to watch her climb if that is what she decides."
"I do feel like I want to keep hunting," Beth Holst said. "After this, I told (Tim), 'I don't know whether I'll go up in a deer stand again, maybe more for your sake than mine.' "
Tree-stand safety tips
• Always wear a safety harness when you are in a tree stand, as well as when climbing into or out of a tree stand.
• A safety strap should be attached to the tree to prevent you from falling more than 12 inches.
• Three-point rule — Always have three points of contact to the steps or ladder before moving. This could be two arms and one leg holding and stepping on the ladder, or one arm and two legs in contact with the ladder before moving. Be aware that rain, frost, ice or snow can cause steps to become extremely slippery.
• Always use a haul line to pull up your gear and unloaded firearm or bow to your tree stand. Never climb with anything in your hands or on your back. Before descending, lower your equipment on the opposite side of the tree.
• Always carry emergency signal devices, such as a cell phone, whistle, walkie-talkie, signal flare and flashlight.
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. For more tips, go to mndnr.gov and search "tree stand safety."