Use Your Head: My Conversation With Myself About Climbing Helmets

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.

Little gumby Dustin. My try-hard face hasn't really changed, but my thoughts on helmets have.

Little gumby Dustin. My try-hard face hasn’t really changed, but my thoughts on helmets have.

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.

The Black Diamond Vector – my first helmet

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.

Black Diamond Vector in Action. Photo credit: Andrew Burr

Black Diamond Vector in Action. Photo credit: Andrew Burr

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.

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9 responses to “Use Your Head: My Conversation With Myself About Climbing Helmets

  1. I think for a lot of people it is a fashion thing. But beyond that, it’s a perception issue. Are you going to wear a seatbelt in a car? Are you going to wear kevlar as a cop or soldier? Are you going to take medicine if you’re feeling sick? I don’t think anyone is going to try to argue that any of those things aren’t readily available, aren’t easy to use, and don’t significantly increase safety/health. But what are the usual consequences of not doing those things? No seatbelt; 99% of the time no problem. Even in a average crash, I’d say you’re probably going to be ok; only in the serious crashes would the seatbelt save your life where otherwise you’d be dead. Wearing kevlar is heavy, hot, not flexible. And again, most days you won’t even be in a situation where you’d question if you needed the vest. If you don’t take medicine when you’re feeling sick, most of the time you’ll get better anyways. It may be a little less comfortable. It may take a little longer. But a lot of the time you can overcome being sick without the medicine. So it’s a question of your perception… do you perceive the odds of that catastrophic event to be great enough that you need the protection? Do you perceive the protection to be great enough to make a change great enough to prevent whatever bad outcome that may follow? If you perceive the risk to be that great and the protection to be that effective, then you do things like wear a helmet. If not, you don’t. There’s almost nothing in life you can completely control. Either way you should just be realistic about the possibilities and you have to accept outcomes.

    In terms of a climbing helmet, I’m not avidly against them, I just think that my other habits provide an adequate level of protection already. Like you I’m careful about my climbing partners. I won’t make bigger moves in sketchy areas if I’m not comfortable with something. I check my gear for wear. I climb indoors to be more prepared for what I find outside. And so for that, I find the extra space (in my bag), weight, heat, etc. to outweigh the benefit it may provide. Could this be misguided…maybe…but it’s how I feel, what I do, and what I’m likely to do for the foreseeable future.

  2. I heard someone say once, “At the end of the day, you are unlikely to hear anyone ever say, ‘Man, I wish I didn’t wear my helmet today.’ You’re more likely to hear someone express the opposite on the day that they needed it.” I’ve had similar thoughts about helmets, in the past, but I’ve seen enough situations where helmets have come in very useful to feel secure and happy to put one on.

    While climbing at the Red just as winter was finally melting away, my climbing partner was cleaning her route above an overhung cliff when huge blocks of ice and icicles snapped free and came crashing down. Two sizeable pieces actually hit her head, but boy was she glad to have worn her helmet that day.

    As a belayer, I, too was happy that I was wearing my helmet in that instance since the ice fell about 6 feet from where I was standing. Sometimes, it’s not the climber who benefits most from a helmet, but the belayer. Being so far from the action above, it’s hard to tell what dangers may be coming your way, whether it’s a loose rock, dropped equipment, or your climbing partner…

    Very often, trying to impress or being cocky/arrogant can lead to bad situations or mistakes. Being safe and wearing a helmet is one thing I know I can do to ensure my ability to climb yet another day.

  3. I have a friend who always wears a helmet when leading outside. It actually saved his noggin once when he fell upside down. He’s lead 13b outside (with a helmet) and he’s been climbing for awhile so he’s not a complete noob ha ha. His belaying is another story. He doesn’t care what other people think though. If people judge you for wearing a helmet then you just have to onsight their project =)

    I think it’s mostly an image thing too. A lot of skateboarders don’t wear helmets either because it doesn’t look cool, but when I was skateboarding they were also uncomfortable and who doesn’t like to feel the wind in their hair while riding? Feels like freedom. Of course I was younger, dumber and more rebelious. I always bring a helmet to the crag though. I don’t always wear it either, but I think it’s a good idea to always bring one, especially if it’s a new or unfamiliar crag. Or your belayer might want to wear it because an unconcious belayer is no good and you never know when you might encounter choss.

    What I think would suck though is if it helmets become a requirement at certain crags like it is at certain skateparks. I like having a choice. Also, I don’t think every climber has gone so far as to analyze and assess the risks. When you see some climbers outside it makes you wonder. I’m sure there are climbers who think it can’t happen to them or those who climb without understanding the consequences of their actions. Seems like the longer we climb, the more we see. For better or for worse.

  4. I like this article. And you’ve obviously thought hard about it. I usually don’t wear a helmet, but I don’t have a good reason not to. In other news, I’ve made a move up in safety – I use gloves now for belaying. I feel way more comfortable with it. Maybe I’ll add a helmet soon too.

    Even if this article doesn’t push a lot of people over the edge and makes them get a helmet, it’s a little tickler. Enough articles like this, and people will start getting helmets en mass. Well done, sir.

  5. Taken from Facebook:
    (From John S.)
    Hey Dustin! Just read the blog. I’m surprised you didn’t mention wearing a helmet to belay! Even on steep terrain, rocks break. On steep terrain, the chances of a rock hitting you that you (as the climber) broke off are slim, but are a major possibility if you’re on the ground.

    Also, dont be so quick to generalize (as most gym climbers do) when you are or are not going to wear a helmet. I mean, would you wear a helmet if you’re boouldering by yourself? What if the landing is bad? Would you wear a helmet if there is a tree in the steep cave that you could be in danger if hitting if you fell?

    Do you wear a helmet when you ride a bike? Captain Will Obvious Anglin’s FB post shouldn’t be so influential on you either. Something kind of unique about climbing is that if you do EVERYTHING 100% right, there are only 3 things that can kill you: Nature, Other people, or equipment malfunction that was undetectable prior to the incident.

    Putting on a brain bucket is a good idea. Always. There aren’t any climbing instances where a helmet is a bad idea. Deciding not to wear a helmet (when you have one and are aware of the dangers associated with climbing) is a conscious decision to be less safe than you could be.

    Now, I agree with not wanting to be too preachy about it. I’m not going to walk down the crag wall and tell people to wear helmets. I wont even tell my climber to wear a helmet. But if I’M climbing, you better believe I’ll tell my belayer to wear a helmet in MOST circumstances.

    Like everything in rock climbing, its all about CALCULATED risk.

    • My response on Facebook:

      truth! well said. I should have mentioned wearing one to belay, because I plan to do that more frequently – partially because as a light climber, I get yanked up pretty violently sometimes. definitely will protect against falling rocks, protruding ledges, or a falling climber’s butt.

      in terms of bouldering, I really don’t like doing that alone. if I were highballing (something I’m not really attracted to), I would wear a helmet. and depending on the landing (and quality of my spotter/pad situation), I may wear one. but generally, I’m all about clean landings, ample pads, and quality spotters when I wrestle pebbles haha…

      calculated risk indeed!

  6. Taken from Facebook:
    (From Tyler N.)
    I wear a helmet all the time outdoors, always when leading or belaying trad, and a lot of the time when I’m belaying in areas I know to be even slightly chossy (you’d be amazed how much a pebble sized stone from 50 ft can do).
    Do I wear it bouldering, at the gym, or on closely-bolted hard overhanging routes? No. But on techy stuff, slightly overhanging, vertical, or slabby, I always wear it.
    Better safe than sorry.

  7. Taken from Facebook:
    (From Mark A.)
    one can’t legitimately argue for less safety in a situation where there are so many objective hazards, particularly when there’s a simple way to ameliorate. but in the end, these are personal risk/reward choices. you owe only yourself and those to whom you are responsible.

  8. Yessss. Also, helmets are super fashionable, especially when they make your head look like an alien. I would wear one all the time, if they provided better peripheral vision. Never know when you could run into a wall.

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