When my wife and I first started dating, we picked up nicknames pretty quickly: Captain Safety and Sketchmo. Captain Safety always checked people’s knots, almost always wore their helmet and used clear communication while climbing. Sketchmo only wore their helmet occasionally; said, “Well, of course my knot is tied—I do this all the time!”; and thought, “Do you really need me to tell you you’re on belay?”
Yes, I was Sketchmo. I actually considered myself a pretty safe climber. After all, I did get my first helmet when I was a mere 17 years old. I’d been into climbing for a couple years and I wanted to visit Seneca Rocks in West Virginia. I’d read about the notoriously loose quartzite and knew it was foolish to climb there without a helmet. So I convinced my parents I needed one to be safe, and acquired what would be the first in a long line.
But even after that, I only wore my helmet ice climbing or on long trad climbs, because my perception was that those were the times when my head was the most exposed to danger from loose or falling rock or ice. Cragging felt safer, with hazards that were more manageable. And, quite frankly, no one else was wearing a helmet in that setting, at that time. But my attitude started to change after I met my wife-to-be, Tracy.
Tracy had been first on the scene to a couple of gnarly climbing accidents involving head injuries at cragging areas. They were harsh reminders of how quickly things can go south in our favorite activity—even when you’re not on some seemingly extreme alpine route. Thankfully for me, this was also right around the time that helmets started to get lighter and more comfortable. Not that I didn’t love my first Petzl Ecrin Roc—I had a big TNF sticker on it, just like Alex Lowe—but that thing wasn’t winning any awards in the ”light is right” category. I still remember holding the first Petzl Meteor with awe. How could it be so light and still protect my head? It was like magic!
I know some feel helmets give a false sense of security, but the way I see it, I have an airbag in my car but I still also wear my seatbelt.
With lighter helmets and an increasing awareness of what could go wrong, I started wearing my helmet on single-pitch trad routes. That eventually led to keeping it on while sport climbing—no doubt partly because I live in Western Colorado, where a lot of our crags are pretty new and chossy. I’ve grown used to being hit in the head by little chunks knocked off by my partner’s feet as they get the second, the tenth or even the 30th ascent of a route that’s “still cleaning up,” as the developers like to say.
I now wear my helmet every time I go climbing, whether it’s on a long, multi-pitch route in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, or something more mellow at a local sport crag. While rockfall is the most oft-cited reason to wear a helmet, there’s always the possibility of a funky fall into a corner or some other feature. People often say you don’t need a helmet in super steep terrain, where there are fewer things to catch or land on, but I know a highly seasoned climber who sustained a massive head injury taking a fall on very steep terrain. I’ve even seen someone take a head-first whipper at Indian Creek in Utah.
Many folks who are into serious sport climbing might scoff at the extra weight and bulk of a helmet, but I take sport climbing somewhat seriously and all my hardest sends have been while wearing a helmet. It’s just another part of me now—something I don’t even consider not wearing. For a long time, Tracy and I would joke that we were the only people at the crags in Rifle, Colorado, wearing helmets—but then a good friend took a softball-sized rock to the head under the Project Wall there, and these days even Rifle has given way to the helmet trend.
I know some feel helmets give a false sense of security, but the way I see it, I have an airbag in my car but I still also wear my seatbelt. Why pass on a precaution I can take so easily? At this point, I’ve also seen the results of traumatic brain injuries, and it’s a sobering reminder that we only get one brain. Wearing a helmet seems like a small price to pay to keep my head as protected as possible—and given that helmets are so light and breathable today, there isn’t an excuse anymore.
Of course there are instances where a helmet won’t do much—a big enough falling rock will mess you up, no matter what you’re wearing and a long enough fall onto your head will do the same thing. But even then, I’d rather be wearing one and get some added protection than having nothing at all. It’s also important to note that the newer models of helmets are increasingly designed to bear impacts on the side and back, where impacts can occur from falling into a wall.
Today I have multiple helmets: something like the Black Diamond Vapor for sport climbing and something more substantial like the Petzl Boreo for ice climbing or longer alpine climbs where the rockfall hazard is higher. There are a lot of great options out there, and if you’re not sure what helmet is the right one for you, check out this handy guide.
Safety will probably always be a touchy subject. It’s very personal, especially in climbing, an activity many people associate with personal freedom. In the end, you have to weigh the risks versus rewards and come up with the solution that works for you. I wear a helmet riding my bike around town and was one of the first people in my peer group to consistently take one with me backcountry skiing. So for me, wearing a helmet at the crag—all the time, every time—is a simple habit I hope will help keep me safe for years to come.