When I first started climbing outside, I always wore a helmet.
That was long before I knew anything about the sport or the community. I was taking a course as a senior in college, just one of those fun pass/fail classes you do when you need to fill credits. I chose climbing because I had always been intrigued by the sport, though I knew nothing about it.
Our “final exam” was a weekend trip to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We top roped at two little crags, and it was a blast. I’m not sure I climbed anything harder than 5.8 or 5.9 on that trip, and it was all on top rope, but we wore helmets for every climb and every belay. It was school policy, and we never questioned it, because at that point, I guess it all made sense.
As I grew in the sport and became more involved with it, I noticed something – helmet usage was rare. Like, really rare. Especially among the pros and sport climbing. This wasn’t something I noticed at a particular moment – it just was.
Somewhere in there, I learned to lead climb inside. I got strong. I took a few trips outside. And I never wore a helmet. Not once. I don’t think one even touched my head from the time I finished my class at William & Mary until very, very recently – a span of almost 3 full years.
I never thought twice about it. My friends didn’t sport climb with helmets outside, the pros who climb 5.15 don’t climb with helmets outside, so why should I? Besides, I was never climbing choss, and most of what I climbed was overhanging – not too much of a chance to introduce rock to head.
My parents, on the other hand, didn’t see things the same way. They’re not climbers, they’re not a part of the community, and often they don’t really get what it’s all about. My mother was particularly insistent – “get a helmet, and wear it. You spend so much money on other gear (shoes, mostly), why not invest in a helmet?”. Heck, they even offered to pay for it.
But I was defiant. “No way”, I said. “Look, flip through these magazines. See all these climbers? They’re sport climbing, that’s what I do. They’re not wearing helmets, and they’re climbing stuff much harder than me. I’m FINE,” I insisted.
And I always was. I haven’t sport climbed all that much outside – but I’ve never gotten hurt, and I haven’t had any close calls. I just never really thought about it – mostly because I was never forced to think about it.
Somewhere along the lines, though, something changed. I can’t really say what. Maybe it was getting older or more mature or something like that, but I recently purchased my first helmet (well, kinda). A friend had bought a helmet, and it didn’t fit him. So he offered it to me at a pretty reasonable rate.
So on a whim, I bought it off him.
This was the culmination of several months of reflection on the subject of helmets in climbing. And with the recent release of two fantastic articles (Climbing Magazine, The Stone Mind), I figured I should write up my thoughts on the subject. And not just to put something out on the internet – but because I think it’s an important conversation we should all have with ourselves and each other.
What really got me to start changing my views on helmets was the age-old question “is it worth it?”. This dialogue we have with ourselves is important, and it aids in our decision making and risk management processes. And at least for me, the answers to these questions evolve as we get older – and, generally, accrue more responsibilities (family, friends, jobs, etc.).
For me, accepting Berkeley’s offer of admission to their public health school was a major catalyst. It got me thinking about everything it took for me to get to that point. All of the years of school, the hours spent studying, the long nights and early mornings in the lab. But also the influence of friends and family. And rock climbing. All of these things combined to make me the person who Berkeley saw as someone they wanted. And all of these things were things I loved and want to do for a very long time (yes, even school and studying and lab).
I started thinking, what a waste it would be to have done all of this just to lose it at the hands of something preventable. Not even speaking about death (traumatic brain injuries are no joke, and I’m hoping to avoid them), what if I got seriously injured and had to take time off from school? How far behind would that put me? Would I ever be able to recover?
These thoughts kept growing, and I started to think that maybe a helmet wasn’t the worst idea in the world.
I also began looking back on my climbing career. How many close-calls and near misses have I had as a climber inside? The instances were fairly numerable, and most could have been completely avoided with a good belay. Early on as a leader, I really didn’t hesitate to climb with people. This changed rather quickly after getting spiked on far too many occasions and taking way too many scary falls. Getting flipped upside-down and slammed into a wall is unpleasant, to say the least.
The thought that I could do everything right (i.e. not skip bolts, clip properly, not be backstepped, etc.) and STILL get hurt was a scary one. There are some things you just can’t control, so you have to do your best to plan for and mitigate those risks.
What finally changed my mind was the evolution of helmet technology. I remember the helmets we used in my college climbing class – bulky, hard, uncomfortable, ill-fitting (I have a weird shaped/sized head…). They were not ideal, and trying to send hard in one would probably be pretty challenging.
Working at Earth Treks, however, afforded me the opportunity to try on some newer helmets. And man, was I impressed. Lightweight, comfortable, ventilated – I could imagine forgetting I was even wearing one if I were outside. When my friend showed me the helmet he was selling, I knew what had to be done.
Now, I’m going to be completely transparent here. Will I wear a helmet 100% of the time? No. I won’t be wearing it indoors, I won’t be wearing it bouldering. I’ll wear it for sport climbing, but not all the time – on overhung, well-traveled terrain, I’ll leave my helmet with my pack. But for vertical, slabby, or ledge-y climbs? I’ll be strapping a helmet on. This is a calculated risk that I understand the consequences to if I get it wrong, but I’m comfortable with my risk assessment.
Perhaps most importantly, do I believe that a helmet will save my life 100% of the time? No way. My friend Will Anglin recently posted this on Facebook: “Climbing: You can do everything right and still die. Don’t forget that.” And he’s 100% correct. There is always a measure of risk in our sport. There are variables we will NEVER control. Which is precisely why I plan to start wearing a helmet more frequently. That extra little bit of protection could make a difference.
Will I look a little ridiculous at times and perhaps be the butt of some snickers, sneers, and jokes at the crag or the parking lot? Yes, almost definitely. But as I get older and more mature, I’m fine with that, and I’m better equipped to handle that than if I were younger. I don’t need to be the coolest-looking climber at the crag. And besides, my wearing a helmet is my business and my business alone – it doesn’t affect other people at all.
I believe that it will take a lot for the perceptions of helmets to change. With a community that’s so divided on the issue to begin with, I don’t see it happening any time soon. But articles like the ones mentioned earlier are a big step towards any potential change. They help kick-start a dialogue on the subject, something that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Will people continue to climb without helmets? For sure. They’ve looked at the risk, analyzed and assessed it, and they’ve made the decision that’s best for them. That doesn’t mean it’s the best decision for you or me or the guy roping up two lines down. What we need to do is encourage a healthy discussion about helmet use, be it between each other or with ourselves. What we most definitely do not need is someone yelling at us to always wear a helmet, regardless of the circumstances or our own risk assessment. That’s just not right.
So, I’m not going to be all preachy about this, and I’m certainly not going to force my views of helmets on anybody. I don’t think any less of people that are totally anti-helmet, and I will never confront them about it. Again, that’s none of my business. But I write this article with the intention of assisting with that conversation – maybe getting a few more people to think about it objectively.
I’m finding more and more reasons to wear a helmet. If you think about it, maybe you will, too.