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.