Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing

Put a lit on it

I knew a guy named Mike who loved to climb. He was a young, smart guy — studying to be a lawyer, in fact, and a talented climber, too. He was as sarcastic and as honorable as the day is long. He moved to Ohio right around the time I left for Colorado, sliding into my group of friends and becoming an integral member of the small but dedicated Columbus climbing crew.

I say I knew a guy because Mike died on April 23, 2010, the result of head trauma incurred during a sport climbing accident at the Red River Gorge, in Kentucky. I wasn’t there and I don’t know exactly how it all happened, but what matters is that Mike hit his head on the ground after falling some 30 feet to a stone ledge, and then another 20 feet off that ledge. Like most accidents, this one was almost certainly the result of multiple factors aligning in a tragic chain. But I think it’s safe to say that if Mike had been wearing a helmet, he would have had a better chance of surviving the fall, regardless of what precipitated it.

I can’t fault Mike one bit for not wearing a helmet. Truth is, I’ve sport climbed at least 10 days without a helmet for every day with one. But as I grow older and more “responsible,” and as I hear about or witness the accidents that can happen anywhere and at any time, wearing a helmet seems less like a burden and more like a given.

Once, while sport cragging in the Red, I watched an experienced 5.13 climber hook his heel on the rope mid-fall. As dictated by the laws of physics, he flipped upside-down and collided back-first with the vertical stone about 10 feet below his pitch-off point. The heavy thudding sound made my stomach drop, but the guy drew the golden ticket and didn’t crack his helmetless head, narrowly avoiding a trip to the ER.

Another time, my friend knocked a rock, no bigger than a dice, off a sport climb in American Fork Canyon. It tagged the belayer on his bald head, splitting the thin skin and producing a mask of blood across his forehead and face. The injury was superficial, but again, it could so easily have been worse.

A certain professional rock climber said to me during an interview years ago, “Wearing a helmet in the mountains is ridiculous, like wearing a condom during sex.” I found his analogy to be problematic on several levels, but I’ve since met a lot of otherwise intelligent climbers who hold similarly confounding views when it comes to helmets. From comfort to fashion to the belief that crag X or climbing style Y are “safe,” the reasons we leave our protection at home rarely make good sense.

Most of us won’t climb routes without a rope because free soloing lies on the wrong side of our risk/reward threshold. Likewise, few of us drive sans seat belt or mountain bike without a helmet. So why the resistance to helmets at the crag when we routinely see them in skate parks and terrain parks, in the Tour De France and in kayaking competitions — when they require so little effort to employ and we know they work?

I can only take it to mean that sport climbers believe what they’re doing is relatively safe. Compared to alpine climbing, with its many objective hazards, I guess that’s accurate, but as anyone who works in the climbing industry can tell you, “safe” isn’t a word you can rightly throw around in regards to climbing. Even if you’re clipping bolts at a convenient little roadside crag, there’s no way around it: falling through space with only a thin nylon cord to catch you entails undeniable hazard.

Climbing isn’t shuffleboard, after all, and that’s precisely the point. The added spice of risk is at least a part of why we climb. But the cost of a lightweight, comfortable helmet is so low, and the degree of suffering such helmets can help prevent is so high, that whoever thinks it’s not worth wearing one just isn’t doing the math. Hang out with a person who’s suffered a traumatic brain injury and then tell me you don’t want to wear a helmet because it doesn’t look cool.

Mike’s accident occurred at a crag called The Dark Side. One commenter on a redriverclimbing.com thread about the fall quipped, before Mike’s passing was announced, “Ridiculous as it may seem, you guys would surely be the first climbers at Dark Side wearing helmets if you were to do so. Who knows, you could start a new trend!” If only that were the case.

So it is with Mike in mind that I wear my helmet while clipping bolts as well as plugging gear. I understand that helmets aren’t magical force fields; climbing and mountaineering helmets don’t need to pass rear or side-impact tests to meet UIAA standards*, and no helmet will save you given a long enough fall or big enough rock. Still, a layer of shock-absorbing material around my cranium offers an extra measure of protection without taking away from the experience of the climb, so I’m going to damn well wear one. My mom will be happier, and hey, maybe I’ll even start a trend.


*For a great piece on the state of helmets in climbing, check out Dougald MacDonald’s feature in the August 2013 issue of Climbing Magazine.

Disclaimer: I work for Petzl, a company that manufactures helmets. However, as a climber of more than two decades, the views in this post are entirely my own and informed by my own experiences. This blog is in no way intended to advocate the use of any particular brand of helmet over another.


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Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

12 thoughts on “Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing”

  1. I learned how to climb with old trad dudes at Seneca then was flabbergasted when I moved to Columbus and started sport climbing @ the Red. There were no helmets or tying in, ever (even loosely anchored, when my partner was >2.2x my weight). Around that time it was sad to see Nelson Rocks closed b/c sport climbers would never wear helmets & were getting severely hurt by falling rocks and the owner couldn’t stand the unsafeness. Helmets are a good thing!

  2. I’m in the “sometimes yes”, “sometimes no” crowd. Alpine climbing, yes, always. Trad climbing or sport climbing, depends on the crag and its reputation for choss and/or loose rock. Top roping, never. We all have our reasons for wearing or not wearing helmets, and I think it’s along the same lines of choosing to back off a route or to push your limits of fear. The obvious answer is the one you stated: it’s cheap, light, and easy; just do it. But it also comes down to what level of risk we’re willing to accept.

    Personally, I hate it when I’m plugging gear. Sometimes the helmet gets in the way of checking your placement or even figuring out what you want to place. But if the crag is known for loose rock or if I’m pushing my grade limit, I definitely want a helmet to protect my dome. Contrarily, if I setup a top rope, in a busy crag where any choss or loose stuff is cleaned up all the time, then I don’t see the point….other than catastrophic failure.

    So, while I wholeheartedly agree with your premise, I think there is always wiggle room, especially when it comes down to individual climber’s risk acceptance.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as well lately. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older (not more responsible though, heck no), maybe it’s because I’ve had too many personal run ins with potential danger or maybe its because I’ve heard too many stories from friends but it has been on my mind.

    I’ve also thought about this when surfing. In North America I don’t think I’ve ever seen a surf helmet but in Australia they were quite common at almost every type of break. A board flipping around in the water or a rock hidden under the surf can be really dangerous.

    Hopefully it’s getting to the point where helmets are no longer so cumbersome and in the way. It’s inevitable that this trend will pick up steam and you can say you led the charge :).

  4. Back when I was TR-ing 5.easy climbs in college, everyone wore a helmet. When I started sport climbing more seriously, on overhung rock with safe falls, I stopped. I rationalized it many ways – steep, well travelled rock seemed so much safer than the blocky vert stuff I used to blunder up. However the main reason was probably that 5.12-and-up climbers just don’t wear helmets. It’s hard to resist the force of social persuasion just because it’s the rational thing to do.

    Then I had a close call – I caught the rope behind my leg and narrowly missed hitting my head by twisting and kicking out at the wall, resulting in a sprained ankle. Then while climbing abroad I belayed a guy who ignored my alert that he had the rope behind his leg, and lunged for the next hold, flipping upside-down and falling with his head just between two rocky spikes – inches from instant death. I’ve seen or heard of rockfall in even well-travelled areas like Waimea at Rumney.

    Certainly many people climb all the time without helmets and never regret it. Maybe at some point I’ll feel confident enough in the rock, and in my non-klutziness, to discard the helmet. I don’t think people who go bare-headed are wrong – they just have a slightly higher risk-tolerance than I do right now.

  5. I think helmets look cool. Like “I’m out to do some serious life or death business today, chumps”. I don’t even notice mine. I usually don’t think to take mine off till I get back to the car.

  6. I have seen how a rock fall caused by a neighbouring climber, on a very busy crag, hit my husband. He was belaying me at that time. You can’t imagine how your heartbeat stops when you see it hit its target, as the victim collapses on the ground. It was a close call with 8 stiches, and since then we have our helmets along on certain crags and avoid vertical and overcrowded crags. Weight and bulk is always a problem, and we are still waiting for a helmet so leight and cool, you wont know you are wearing a helmet at all.

    It often amazes me to see how “safe” the community feels when climbing out on real rocks. Babys and children are left to play and sleep near climbing routes with no helmets, sunbathing on rockfall targets. Hey, just remember we are not in any climbing gym in the city! Climbing out is real. It is a dangerous sport and incidents do happen. Theres no caretaker outside whom you can blame for. its your responsibility. So always be on the lookout and keep safe – for yourself and your loved ones.

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