CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the next couple of weeks, thousands of West Virginians will take to the trees in the hope of killing a trophy buck.
Inevitably, some of them will fall.
Feet will slip on frost-covered metal steps. Unexpected weight shifts will pitch hunters off balance. In the stillness of the morning woods, sleepiness will overcome early risers.
Falls from tree stands have become epidemic. Every year in the Mountain State, hospitals admit a steady stream of people who have suffered stand-related injuries.
Dr. Fred Pollock, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Charleston Area Medical Center, said four hunters have been hospitalized there so far this year, barely a month into the state's archery season for deer.
"I was in the hospital seeing a patient recently, and someone told me there were three people in the hospital that week at the same time, all with tree-stand injuries," Pollock said.
A check of CAMC's trauma registry revealed that 34 other hunters were admitted to CAMC between 2008 and 2012.
"The most common orthopedic injuries are heel, [lower-leg] and [thigh-bone] fractures," Pollock said. "Chest injuries with rib fractures and collapsed lungs are [also] frequent."
The grimmest injuries are neck and spine fractures. Pollock said that among the 38 admissions between 2008 and the present, two involved spinal fractures that resulted in paralysis.
Some of those who fall don't make it out of the woods alive.
Lt. Tim Coleman, hunter safety coordinator for the state Natural Resources Police, said five hunters have died in tree-stand falls since 2008, including one already this season.
West Virginia maintains records on four primary categories of hunting-related incidents - shootings, tree-stand falls, all-terrain vehicle accidents and heart attacks. "Of all those, we see more tree-stand falls and heart attacks than anything else," Coleman said.
Falls have become such a problem that the state's hunter-safety education instructors now devote a considerable chunk of the 10-hour hunter-ed course to tree-stand safety. Glenn Jones, president of the West Virginia Hunter Education Association, said that's quite a change from the past.
"Fifteen years ago, we mentioned tree-stand safety, but only barely," he said. "Over the last eight years, it's become a priority because falls have become a leading source of hunting-related injuries. We now explain to our students the different kinds of tree stands and the hazards associated with them. We also show students how to wear safety harnesses, and we tell them the kinds of harnesses we like to see them wear."
One of the first things Jones and the other instructors emphasize is that tree stands are safe if they're used properly. Problems occur when people make mistakes.
"Most accidents occur when people are getting into their stands or getting out of them," Jones said. "Most people aren't tethered to the tree during that transition, and a slip or a loss of balance sends them right to the ground."
Sometimes the stands themselves are at fault. Jones said homemade stands - wooden platforms attached to trees with screws or nails - are notoriously unsafe.
"They aren't weight-rated, and they aren't often built well," he explained. "They might be OK the first year. But a year later when the tree has grown, the wind has worked the fasteners loose, and the tree sap has corroded the fasteners, those stands can become pretty unsafe."