”I’m always really careful” or ”Oh no, that’s never going to happen to me!” or even ”Nobody wears a climbing helmet at my crag!” Heard one of these before? Or even said one out loud? I know I have.
Some years ago, I read an excellent article on wearing a helmet when climbing by Dougald MacDonald in Climbing magazine (Climbing magazine August 2013, no. 317). It talked about known climbers taking big or smaller falls and the concussions they suffered. It talked about the negative and positive aspects of wearing a helmet and it covered pretty much everything about the topic.
The next day I did some research of my own, checked out a few different models and ordered my first climbing helmet.
But I didn’t start using it immediately. For some reason I was afraid of what my climber buddies would think about me wearing a helmet. And let’s be honest, helmets aren’t exactly the most attractive headwear on the planet.
But after a few times climbing with the helmet on, it felt weird climbing without one. It felt like driving a car without the seatbelt on.
After buying the helmet, I realized that some of my climbing partners already had helmets, I just hadn’t noticed before. After some time, I didn’t even realize I was wearing a helmet while climbing. And it was hard to make up reasons why not to put one on. Sure, it might feel a bit uncomfortable on hot days and you might not look as cool with one on (nobody really cares). But are there any real reasons for not wearing one? I’d rather look un-cool for a few hours than suffer from a permanent brain injury for the rest of my life.
Helmets for climbing
Modern climbing helmets are basically designed with three things in mind: protecting the top of the head from falling objects, protecting from blows to the back of the head and lastly, for the manufacturers to sell a large quantity of helmets.
I realize that this sounds a bit provocative. But it’s the truth. What is the point in designing a new product if nobody will use it?
What most climbing helmets are NOT designed for, is from impact to the side of the head. Here is a link to the UIAA safety standards. If climbing helmets were equally safe no matter where the impact is coming from, they would be very bulky and a lot heavier than the ultra-light models that are popular these days.
If it is hard to sell the idea of wearing a helmet to the modern climber, it would be impossible to sell the idea of wearing a heavy and bulky helmet. Though the helmets may lack a certain degree of protection from blows to the side of the head, in my opinion, your far better off with SOME head protection than NO protection at all.
Ultimately, the best helmet is the one you wear every time you go climbing. Comfort, efficient ventilation, cool appearance and low weight are among the most sought after qualities of climbing helmets. All the different manufacturers are only doing what the customers want.
Many companies are making the designs more attractive to the climbing community, so that more climbers would start using a helmet. They figured out that the more helmets they sell, the larger number of climbers they are protecting. For example the Black Diamond Vapor or the Petzl Meteor are among the most popular models. WIth these two helmet models you can see quite clearly what kind of helmets the climbing community wants to wear.
When to wear a climbing helmet
What kind of routes are safe to climb without a helmet? Do you need to wear one when top roping? Or when belaying? How about when leading steep sport routes? I don’t have a definitive answer. No one does.
Some climbers dont’t wear helmets when climbing steep sport routes, when top-roping or when belaying. Some wear helmets only when trad climbing or ice climbing. That’s their personal decision and it’s one for them to make.
I’ve found it easier to not having to make that decision every time I go climbing. I like not having to draw the line on what is safer to climb without a helmet and what’s not. I put the helmet on when I reach the crag and take it off when heading back to the car. Pretty simple, huh?
Most accidents happen in a blink of an eye (or faster) and always unexpectedly. Rock can brake while climbing and fall towards the belayer. Feet can get caught behind the rope while leading (throwing the climber upside-down in case of a fall). Many odd things can happen when rock climbing.
I remember once going to a local crag with an experienced climbing buddy of mine. We’ve climbed together quite a bit over the years. We were warming up with a few easy routes leading them in turns. After the initial warming up, we started up this slightly harder route.
It was my turn to lead. The route was familiar, since I had done it several times in the past. It was well within my capability as climber. Not hard, not easy.
I tied in, chalked up, took a few deep breaths while we did a final safety check and started up the route. The first clip was easy. No problems at all. The second clip was ok despite the fingery and small holds. Still no problems. Soon there would be a nice jug to rest on. I started up to the third bolt feeling a slight pump in my forearms.
Just before clipping the third bolt something happened. Just as I was making the clip, my foot slipped. The force of the fall pulled my belayer right off his feet and we met halfway up the route. Well, actually my heel met my belayers forehead halfway up the route first. Fortunately there was a helmet protecting his head from the impact.
Ironically it was his first day wearing his brand new helmet. A nice day out climbing could have gone a bit differently without the helmet.
Why wear a helmet
Well, to protect the head of course. But seriously, why should a helmet be worn while climbing? The head is one of the most vulnerable places to take an impact on. A concussion, also known as mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), mild or severe, is not an injury to take light-hearted.
Repeated concussions may increase a person’s risk in later life for dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and depression. People who have had a concussion seem more susceptible to another one, particularly if the new injury occurs before symptoms from the previous concussion have gone away. ( 1)
A 2009 study found that individuals with a history of concussions might demonstrate a decline in both physical and mental performance for longer than 30 years. Compared to their peers with no history of brain trauma, sufferers of concussion exhibited effects including loss of episodic memory and reduced muscle speed. (2)
Wearing a helmet is an easy way to reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury. You probably wear a seat belt while driving the car, don’t you? Even if the car is already equipped with several airbags? So why not wear a helmet even if you take other safety measures already? Wearing a helmet doesn’t make you invincible. It gives you a better chance of surviving a head related accident.
Lastly, recovering from a brain injury is a lot harder than recovering from a sprained ankle. You make the decision.
Here, on the #HelmetsMatter page of Petzl, you can read stories about helmets saving lives.
Also, one reason not to shy away from climbing helmets is that the designs and technology are getting better and more user-friendlier. They aren’t as uncomfortable or as hot as they used to be some years ago. They are getting lighter and safer, too. And maybe for the major of the climbing community, they are looking better than they used to. Still not sexy, but not so bad anymore.
Why not wear a helmet
I can’t argue with the fact that there are routes that are fairly safe to climb and to take falls on, wearing a helmet or not. Wearing helmets on certain types of climbs and not others is a decision the user has to make for themselves. I don’t want to draw the line. If I can’t come up with a solid reason or an absolute advantage for not wearing a helmet, I wear one. It’s actually getting really hard to make up excuses for not putting on a helmet.
If wearing a helmet makes climbing (especially tha falling part) a bit more safer, will it also make you feel safer? If you feel safer, will you take more risks? Maybe. Or will feeling safer make you climb more relaxed and better and possibly fall fewer times? Who knows.
One more think that is worth mentioning is that the strap of the helmet is meant to stay in place in case of a fall. This means that it will not break under a load. Like for example when climbing inside a crack and squeezing through tight spaces. If falling while the helmet is stuck, there might be a slight chance the strap will bite into your chin.
Chris Sharma wearing a helmet
The excellent article by Dougald MacDonald that I mentioned earlier states that helmet sales would go up if Mr. Chris Sharma was filmed doing hardcore accents wearing a helmet. I totally agree. I think professionals should wear helmets more during photo shoots or while filming. There is no doubt in my mind that it would accelerate helmet sales.
When I started climbing I would watch a bunch of climbing films and mimic what I saw. I tried to copy the climbing techniques, the attitude of trying hard, the positive vibes and everything else. When I was starting out I didn’t know any better. Of course you mimic what you see the pros doing. And I also copied the techniques and all from all the local ”hard as grit” climbers as well.
Now that I’ve been climbing for more than a decade, I try me best to educate the newer practitioners of the sport. That’s probably why this website or blog got started in the first place. No, I’m not a professional climber and don’t really want to become one either. But I realize that there might be some younger climbers at the local gym or crag that might look up to me in some way. And I know I’m not the only one.
That’s part of the reason that every time I go out climbing, bouldering or with a rope, I try to practice good ethics as a climber. I pack out all the stuff I bring to the crag, I brush the chalk off of holds before AND after I’m done with the climb, I try to be considerate of other people and I practice good belaying techniques. And that’s also why I wear a helmet every time. Well, that and all the brain damage stuff I mentioned earlier.
I’m not one to walk up to anyone and tell how one should go about climbing. If there isn’t anything really dangerous going on due to lack of experience, I’m not the one to open my mouth first. Climbing is a potentially dangerous sport and no helmet will ever make it totally safe. Danger, or the feel of danger, is part of why climbing is so addictive and interesting. If you don’t want to wear a helmet, that’s fine. But by wearing a helmet myself, I try to set an example for others.
You never know who’s watching. Someone might be drawing influences from you, the more experienced climber, at the crag.
By the way, when I googled ”Chris Sharma helmet”, I found exactly four pictures of Chris Sharma wearing a helmet. Out of the four pictures, three was with him climbing a big tree. The one picture that I assumed was about rock climbing, he was standing around and wasn’t actually climbing.
1. Kenneth Maiese (January 2008). “Concussion”. The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook
2. De Beaumont, Louis; Theoret, Hugo; Mongeon, David; Messier, Julie; Leclerc, Suzanne; Tremblay, Sebastien; Ellemberg, Dave; Lassonde, Maryse (2009). “Brain function decline in healthy retired athletes who sustained their last sports concussion in early adulthood”. Brain. 132 (Pt 3): 695–708. doi:10.1093/brain/awn347. PMID 19176544