Living to Tell of a Treestand Fall: “It Happened in a Split Second”

July 25, 2018 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Clinging to his climbing stick with one hand, David Jennings reached up and shook his hang-on treestand to test the nylon ratchet strap securing it to the trunk. The stand had been hanging in the tree for nearly four years, and David had not even hunted it the previous season, so on June 30 he was going to take it down and move it before the 2018 hunting season approached. But he thought the strap looked sound enough, and he figured he would at least check the view once more before he removed the stand, so he stepped onto the platform. As he turned to look around, the rotten strap broke, pitching him toward the ground 20 feet below.

“It happened in a split second,” said David, an NDA member who lives in Georgia and had been using hang-on treestands without incident for more than 30 years. “You might think you would get a little warning, like the strap starts to tear or the stand drops a little but still holds. No. It was just gone out from under me. Just gone.”

David didn’t hit the ground, though. He hit the end of the tether on his safety harness, which he had secured to the tree only seconds before the stand collapsed. This particular harness (seen in the photo above) was included in the box with another stand David had bought years before, and he only used it for off-season work (He has a newer Hunter Safety System harness that he uses only during hunting season). And the safety-harness’s tree strap that he clipped onto had been in the tree as long as the stand – three to four years. But the harness and its strap still stopped David from plunging to the ground.

“I remember the straps suddenly tightening on my thighs and behind my shoulders, and it felt like all the blood rushed out of my legs into my upper body and head,” he said. “I was just hanging there thinking ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened?’ It took me about five minutes just to calm down and clear my head. ‘Am I hurt? Did I break anything?’”

David shows the broken ratchet strap that nearly cost him his life.

Eventually, David was able to pull himself back onto the climbing stick, unclip his safety harness and climb down.

“On the ground, I was still a little shaky,” he said. “I went back to the truck to get some water, collect myself, and check myself over.”

David’s left forearm was scraped and bruised. He thinks he must have instinctively thrown his arms outward as he fell, and his left arm hit the climbing stick on the way down. The morning after he fell, David felt some mild lower back pain as if he had lifted something too heavy, but otherwise he was fine and is no worse for the wear – though a good deal wiser.

The main tether of David’s older harness had a series of folds and break-away stitching designed to absorb the shock of stopping a heavy object. David’s fall ripped out every stitch and fold, but the main tether held.

“It’s not unheard of that all of the break-away stitching comes undone, but it’s not typical,” said Jay Everett, Marketing Manager for Hunter Safety System. “It may be that he had a really hard fall, or it may be a function of the fact it was an older harness. Chances are it was a combination of both.”

David’s fall ripped out all of the break-away stitching in the tether, which helps absorb shock. Once it has been subjected to the shock of a fall, a safety harness should be discarded and never used again.

That’s the reason the industry recommends that hunters replace every safety harness after five years of use, said Jay.

“Even if you buy the most expensive safety harness on the market, that’s $30 a year over five years, and my goodness we spend that on deer pee,” said Jay.

Treestand falls have become the number one cause of injuries among deer hunters, said Jay. The height from which David fell, 20 feet, would have resulted in serious injury and possibly death if he had not been wearing his safety harness.

More than half of all treestand falls happen when the hunter is climbing up/down or into/out of the stand, so being secured only when you are sitting in a stand is not reducing the most serious risk.

David said he knows he was very lucky. He wasn’t using a lifeline and was instead clipping his tether to the straps of the stick-ladder as he made his way up. This meant he was not secured at points during the climb, including when he first stepped onto the stand. According to Jay, more than half of all treestand falls happen when the hunter is climbing up/down or into/out of the stand, so being secured only when you are sitting in a stand is not reducing the most serious risk.

Leaving stands in the woods during the off-season without regularly replacing or adding new straps is also not a good idea.

Finally, though David had his smartphone in his pocket at the time, he had no signal. Though David’s wife knew where he was, he wouldn’t have been missed for a few hours had he been injured.

Though he was wearing a safety harness, David still came close to being seriously injured or killed. He’d be in a different condition today if the stand had collapsed the moment he put his full weight on it. He knows he shouldn’t rely on luck ever again. Nor should you. Whether you are checking, hanging or hunting an elevated deer stand, be connected from the moment you leave the ground by using a lineman’s belt and/or a lifeline. Hunter Safety System created excellent instructional videos on topics like How to Hang a Hunter Safety System Lifeline. Some stand types like ladder stands are a little more tricky, so the video seen below is also useful.

“It was a learning experience,” said David. “I have a lot more respect for checking those straps and making sure I’m secure at all times when I’m climbing. I’ll probably switch to chains or add extra straps. I’m not going to give up on lock-ons, but I’m going to be more secure and respectful of them.”

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of the National Deer Association, and he is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.

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