Tech skills: Should I wear a helmet?

Posted by Dan Middleton on 02/04/2008
Should you wear a helmet? Photo: BMC.

BMC Technical Officer Dan Middleton takes a look at the reasons not to wear a climbing helmet.

It had been a glorious afternoon, climbing on the immaculate, rough rock of Black Crag. As I drove down Wrynose Pass afterwards, I noticed drivers coming the other way seemed to be staring at me. And we had almost reached Ambleside when I realised why - I was still wearing my climbing helmet. As I removed it, my passenger finally cracked up. He’d been struggling to control himself, wondering when I’d notice that it was still on my head.

There’s certainly no doubt that modern climbing helmets are now so light and unobtrusive, that we can forget that we’re wearing them. This is the intention, and these features have now become a primary selling point. Adverts highlight the low weight, stylish looks and comfort of these modern helmets, a far cry from some of their heavy and poorly ventilated predecessors. Is there really any reason not to wear one any more? I’m sure we’re all used to lectures on the risks of not wearing a helmet, but let’s flip things over - are there arguments against wearing a helmet?

Rotational brain injury
One reason given for not wearing a helmet is that they can actually cause greater injury to the brain. Some studies show that a helmet can cause a rotational brain injury. The friction between the outer surface of the helmet and whatever surface it contacts during a collision is thought to cause these injuries. The rotational effect is greater because the helmet projects away from the head; in effect there is greater leverage the bigger the helmet is.

To counter this, some motorcycle helmets are now manufactured with a soft outside covering which tears off during impact. If rotational brain injury was a major problem for helmet-wearing climbers, the effects could be at least partly reduced by helmet design. But the consensus of healthcare experts and researchers indicates that for climbers this is not a common occurrence, and even if it was, is outweighed by the protection provided against other forms of brain and head injury.

Strangulation
There has been at least one incident where a climbing helmet has caused asphyxiation, although this happened on a ropes course rather than rock climbing. There have also been several near misses reported by cavers getting hung up by their helmet. The problem is well known, with the standard for industrial site helmets stipulating a low force to release any chinstrap.

However the chinstrap on a climbing helmet needs to be strong enough to withstand a large force. Otherwise, in a fall the helmet would simply become detached after the initial impact, and then offer no subsequent protection. On balance, the chance of strangulation when climbing is minimal. It might be worth leaving the helmet behind for those squeeze chimneys at Stanage though…

Increased risk taking
There’s an argument that better safety equipment leads to increased risk taking. The theory is that the climber will feel less vulnerable because of the perceived protection afforded by their helmet. This feeling of increased safety causes the helmeted climber to take more chances; either of falling or of being hit by stonefall. One could argue that the limited protection afforded by climbing helmets means that they are then at greater risk of injury than if they weren’t wearing a helmet. Lack of statistical evidence makes it impossible to prove or disprove this theory. But you do wonder when you see people soloing with helmets on.

Helmets don’t offer enough protection
It’s a fact that helmets only offer limited protection. A bombproof helmet would be easy to make, but much more difficult to wear. Both the EN and UIAA standards for mountaineering helmets offer maximum protection to the crown or top of the head. Stone fall is most likely to hit this part of the helmet. The requirements for side, front and rear impacts are much lower, but in a fall you are equally likely to have an impact in any of these areas.

In the UK, statistically you are unlikely to be hit by stone fall when climbing. Much more likely is that you’ll fall, with the head the second most likely injury site after the lower legs. This leads to a strong argument for improving the off-centre impact protection of helmets, at least for rock climbing as opposed to mountaineering.

Final thoughts
Analysis of fatalities attended by Mountain Rescue shows that those wearing helmets generally died from injuries other than those to the head, in stark contrast to those not wearing helmets. And what about the many accidents where the rescue services are not called? In the event of a life-threatening fall ending up as a broken helmet and a bruised ego, it is unlikely that this would be reported. There is a large body of anecdotal evidence, which suggests that many climbers have had lucky escapes from serious injury as a result of wearing a helmet.

In conclusion, climbers should be aware of the protection that helmets can and cannot provide. To wear one or not is usually a personal decision, based on the circumstances. Far better to think for yourself as to why you might choose to wear one on a particular route, than to blindly wear one assuming it will protect you from all risks.

And in the event of the worst happening, it may just stack the odds in your favour - just don’t forget to take it off at the end of the day.
 

EXPERT Q&A

This issue’s guru is Mark Taylor. Mark gained a PhD in “the impact absorbing mechanisms of climbing helmets” in 2004 and he currently works as a research fellow at Leeds University specialising in fall arrest. He’s an active caver, climber and mountain biker.

Q. What’s the best type of helmet?
A.
This all depends on the intended use. Thick foam helmets are probably best for single pitch routes in the UK, as they offer the best all-round protection - most head injuries in the UK occur from climber falls rather than falling stones. When the routes become larger and more remote then durable protection from falling objects is far more important. Helmets similar to bicycle helmets can break in half after a large impact leaving you with no protection during the rest of your climb. Personally I use an original Petzl Meteor for single pitches and an Ecrin Roc whilst ice-climbing.

Q. How often should I replace my helmet?
A.
At the very least as often as the manufacturer recommends. Petzl for example state that helmets should be replaced every ten years. Any helmet that has sustained a hard impact will be damaged, and should be destroyed.

Q. Is the testing standard for off-centre impacts high enough?
A. In my view no. The testing standard that climbing helmets are subjected to was designed for protection from falling objects, but helmets used for climbing single pitch routes should offer better all-round protection.

Q. Can I put stickers on my helmet?
A. The answer has to be no, unless they’re approved by the manufacturer. The adhesives can contain solvents and other chemicals that may damage the helmet shell material.

Q. Do foam helmets offer the same protection as traditional designs?
A. Good traditional designs such as those by Petzl are still better than foam in the crown impact test. But modern foam helmets are now closer to traditional designs in terms of energy transmitted at the neck during a standard test, and in large energy off-centre impacts (not those mandated by the standard) foam helmets can actually perform better.



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