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Climbing Helmets: Love Them or Hate Them?

It was summer of last year, and my buddy Evan Raines came out to Wyoming. We had planned a week sport climbing in Ten Sleep, something I always greatly looking forward to. I’d just been in Wyoming two weeks ago, climbing with another group of friends. I’d been in the middle of the podcast launch and hadn’t been climbing much, if at all. I watched everybody warm up on 11s and 12s and while they were projecting much harder grades, I projected the warm-up routes.

It was fine, I told myself. Climbing outside, no matter what the grade, was the best way to start feeling strong again. It never really bothers me, but I was aware that I was the weakest one in the group. Not only that but as I pulled out my helmet and strapped it on, I started to feel like the dorkiest one, too.

Who brings their helmet sport climbing? I asked myself. Dorks do. Dorks bring their helmet sport climbing! But I wore it with pride as I struggle-barged my way up routes at the Shinto Wall.

I didn’t always wear my helmet climbing. In fact, I am guilty of being one of the most inconsistent helmet wearers I know. My partner in the Gunks when I first started climbing never wore one, and even though I’d purchased one my first year climbing, I didn’t feel obligated to wear it. In fact, I usually carried it up to the crag and it lived in my backpack the entire day. A really useful way to spend 100 dollars, right?

As time went on, I started to wear it more religiously. I would tell people, “I always wear it on trad routes.” which was mostly true, most of the time. I never wore my helmet on off-width routes, which is a judgment call I have to make. On occasion, I would forget it at home or in the car and shrugged it off as a one-time thing. When that happened, I climbed without the restriction of the annoying buckle at my chin, the wind in my hair, and my head completely unprotected. But I didn’t care–it felt so free!

But as more time goes on, I have begun wearing it with more consistency. I started to realize that when I was mid-route and fumbling with gear, I wasn’t afraid to death of taking a fall. Having my brain (and glasses) strapped in, I actually found that I felt much braver. It sounds silly, but having to worry about one less thing getting damaged in a fucked up fall made me feel more confident—and I could climb through cruxes with more fluidity and assertiveness.

During that trip, I joked and said I was completely aware that I was the dorkiest person at the crag one evening to Kelly Cordes, referring to the fact that I had brought along my brain bucket. He laughed and told me, no, that he was actually feeling a tinge of guilt for not having his with him when he saw me with it.

Two weeks later on the drive back up to Ten Sleep, I mentioned that I admired Evan for always wearing his helmet while climbing. I’d noticed that he hadn’t brought his helmet with him the last few times we’d climbed together in Tennessee, which I casually brought up. We discussed this and caught up on some other life things for a little while driving up 80. Having not seen each other since last winter, there were so many good updates to swap: I was launching the podcast that I’d been tirelessly working on all spring and summer, my partner was in Pakistan and we were both feeling pretty good about our relationship, I’d moved to Salt Lake City (a dream) and was in love with my work more than ever before. Evan was graduating from school that year, had started dating someone new, and just seemed so happy.

I commented on how happy we both seemed and that life was looking pretty bright for both of us, holding new and exciting things in the near future. That’s when I concluded that if wearing my helmet meant that I could extend the duration of that happiness by any means, I would. Both Evan and I have been climbing long enough to know that anything can happen, anywhere, anytime, and often without warning. “I really like my life right now,” I simply stated. “I feel happy with where I’m at, and the people I get to share my time with. Getting fucked up or worse, dying, would really throw a wrench in those plans.”

Now, more than ever, I see more climbers wearing their helmets—even at sport crags, which is really encouraging. And yet, I don’t see it as often as I should. What I do see or hear are the same excuses as to why people aren’t wearing them:

“I don’t like the way that it feels/looks.”

“Wearing one reduces my performance.”

“It gives me helmet hair.” or “Helmets don’t look good in climbing photographs.”

“I climb hard enough to not have to worry about falling.”

“The quality of rock is solid.”

“Helmets are expensive.”

“I always wear a helmet. Except when I am sport climbing.”

And so on and so forth.

But the thing is, when things go bad, it always happens fast. Rockfall is unpredictable. Weather is unpredictable. Gear pulls. Belayers make errors. Old/fixed gear can be unreliable and dangerous. Parties above you drop things, sending gear or rock careening down at high speeds. Shit happens.

I had a roommate who was climbing something well within her limit once, but the rope got caught around her leg and she fell on something moderately easy—I think a 5.6 or 5.7. She was fine, but she lost her sense of smell for a while–and she eventually got it back but it will never be the same. On that very trip to Ten Sleep, after declaring my stance on helmets, I wound up taking a whip on Captain Insano (5.11d). I was pumped in a section and before I fell, my foot was not behind the rope. When my arms were too tired to hold on anymore, I fell off and my leg caught behind it. I took a huge ride and was flipped upside down. Ultimately, I was fine because it was just overhanging enough, but just the act of being inverted for a fall was not a feeling I’d like to repeat any time soon.

EVERY climber’s foot will find its way behind the rope. I’ve watched it happen a million times. It’s usually only for a nanosecond, and it’s always fine. They don’t even notice it (or at least, they don’t acknowledge it) and quickly move to a new stance. I have become so hyper-sensitive to it that I notice it almost immediately. Although the chance of falling at the exact moment that happens might seem very small, every climber should acknowledge the fact that it could happen. And it probably will when you are least expecting it to.

I agree that helmets are not going to save a life every time. The argument that climbing helmets aren’t going to save you from an 800-foot free fall, for example, are legit. And no, donning a bucket is not going to save you from something like spraining an ankle. But the idea of wearing a climbing helmet every time you tie in, whether following or on lead, seems pretty sensible to me. We can always, always speculate about safety in climbing—and every climber’s standard for safety is going to be different than the next. But wouldn’t you rather err on the side of caution than to find out firsthand what it’s like to live with a traumatic brain injury? Or a post-concussive syndrome or skull fracture? While some may argue that head injuries are actually pretty rare in climbing, the fact that it could happen—shouldn’t that be enough?

In any other sport that you can risk falling and hitting something, a helmet is worn. In fact, in many of them—it’s a requirement. Nobody thinks twice about seeing a cyclist or skydiver with one. It wasn’t always a standard practice to wear a helmet when snowboarding or something as simple as riding a bike, but now it’s a standard across the board. Even helmets worn for skiing wasn’t typical until professionals began actively promoting them, making them seem almost “cool”. I would rather see this practice amongst professional climbers to make wearing a helmet more of a standard than to see more people get injured to start a trend.

Another thing I often ask myself is: why don’t we see professional climbers wearing their helmets more often? Does it really come down to wearing them in photographs just doesn’t look as good without? I’ve seldom seen photos of the pros wearing them in mainstream climbing publications. Kudos to moments where someone like Sasha DiGiulian sets an example and wears one on bigger objectives—can we see more pros wearing them for sport climbing as well? I’ve heard the defense: “I always assess the risk, and if I don’t feel like it’s that bad, I won’t wear one.” But climbing is inherently risky, whether you are clipping bolts or plugging gear—whether you are single pitch cragging or on a big wall.

I understand that even professional climbers are still just people and that if you want to be a role model, then you (the un-professional climber) have as much power as anybody else to become one. A lot of this comes down to outreach, though. And the more people who see climbers wearing their helmets, the more normalized it becomes—especially when it’s a well-known professional athlete with a big following or social media platform. How we change the culture of not wearing helmets starts with each of our individual decisions.

Here are a few personal thoughts on how to make climbing helmets more widely accepted:

Encourage your peers and partners to use one.

Wearing one yourself only encourages other people to. You don’t even need to say anything.

Make it a standard for all new climbers and especially, younger ones. Let that be the norm that they learn with. Too many people head up the crag from indoor climbing with a gym mentality.

Buy and use a climbing helmet that feels comfortable to wear. If it doesn’t feel good or is too heavy, you’ll never wear it. Technology has really changed a lot and most companies have managed to maintain impact ratings while decreasing overall weight.

Remember this for every excuse you might have to not wear one:

“I don’t like the way that it feels/looks.” – You’ll like the way that it feels/looks if you are badly injured or paralyzed even less.

“Wearing one reduces my performance.” – Wearing a helmet can lead to increased confidence on a route. Maximum sendage, bro.

“I climb hard enough to not have to worry about falling.” – Everybody falls.

“The quality of rock is solid.” – Even the most solid climbing areas that I can think of have had holds break off. Whole features of the wall have broken off in the past in well-trafficked areas you might not think it could happen, but it does.

“Helmets are expensive.” – So is an ER bill.

“They look dumb.” – So does an injury that you could have potentially avoided.

“I always wear a helmet. Except when I am sport climbing.” – I still don’t understand the difference.

Most of the time, you have little to no warning that something is about to happen—it just does. Even in something that seems as safe as sport climbing, there are plenty of things that are out of the climber’s control that could happen. We say that if we climb “in control” and do things such as watch our lead rope in relation to our legs, we can be preventative of an accident. But because it’s life and we live in the real world, so much will always be out of our control. One thing that is well within it is wearing a helmet and regardless of choosing to wear a one or not will send a message to others.

Climbing safety is ultimately a matter of mitigating risks. There is no way to eliminate all of the risks in climbing. But is wearing a brain bucket really going to risk me not sending? Because I’d rather risk that than risk a head injury. I haven’t been climbing even a full decade yet, but I’d like to at least make it to ten years. Like I said, I really like my life right now. Being dead or suffering from a brain injury would undoubtedly make that tricky. Veterans of the sport say that when they began climbing twenty, thirty years ago–it wasn’t cool to wear a helmet. People rarely used them. Now, that’s changing. Being alive is definitely the new cool.

Photograph courtesy of Alma Baste.

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Originally posted 2019-09-19 14:38:07.

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