Tech skills: why wear a helmet

Posted by Dan Middleton on 21/06/2013
Not so dumb: John Roberts climbing in South Africa. Photo: Alex Messenger

Head hurting wondering whether to wear a helmet? Stay ahead of the game and make the decision based on the risks to you.

When do you wear a helmet?

It’s a given that almost all climbers wear a helmet when there is a significant danger of rock or ice fall. Whether winter climbing in Scotland, alpine climbing or rock climbing at crags with a reputation for looseness, most people decide that a helmet is worth wearing.

A high proportion of climbers would choose to wear a helmet at Gogarth and at mountain venues such as on Scafell or Cloggy. But as routes get shorter and steeper, or the rock more solid, climbers’ attitudes tend to change. A typical attitude might see a climber wearing a helmet at Horseshoe Quarry (a ‘loose’ sport quarry), but not at Stanage (a ‘solid’ trad crag) or Kilnsey (a steep ‘mixed protection’ crag).

Surprisingly, accident statistics don’t appear to back up this approach. Out of 450 Mountain Rescue callouts to assist climbers in England and Wales, only 3% were to aid climbers injured by stone or ice fall. A whopping 85% of rescues dealt with injuries caused by falls, with the remainder accounted for by illness, benightment and so on. Analysis of fatalities unfortunately tells a similar story: climber injuries and deaths are primarily caused by the effects of a fall.

This leads to the conclusion that when climbers are deciding whether to wear a helmet or not, they should also consider their chances of falling and how likely they are to hit something if they do. This is exactly the approach that Neil Bentley took during his famous first ascent of Equilibrium (E10), when he broke the mould for hard gritstone climbing by donning a helmet.

Do helmets provide fall protection?

One reason given by some climbers for not wearing a helmet is that they don’t offer any real protection in a fall. This isn’t strictly true: helmets offer some protection, which may, or may not be, enough to stave off injury. Many modern helmets do offer better all-round protection than their predecessors, making them more likely to protect against falls. They still won’t save you from a headfirst plummet from a great height, but they might make the difference if you clip a ledge, swing into a rib or get flipped upside down by the rope.

Another argument used is that helmets will only protect against minor injuries and don’t do any good against really big impacts. Again, this isn’t the full story: a study of climbing fatalities concluded that 25% could have been avoided if a helmet had been worn. Although most fall injuries are to the lower limbs, the next most likely place to be injured is the head.

What about enjoyment?

One final reason sometimes given for not wearing a helmet is that they reduce performance and enjoyment – by impairing balance, reducing vision and by causing overheating and sweating. Modern designs – and the results achieved using them – tend to contradict this view: Equilibrium is still considered to be England’s hardest trad route and both it and most of the other likely contenders have been climbed wearing a helmet. Lightweight, well ventilated foam and hybrid style helmets generally weigh in at around 300g or less, and become virtually unnoticeable once you are used to wearing them.

There is an argument that leaving the helmet behind on a redpoint attempt of a hard sport climb might make the difference between success and failure. If you want the route really badly (and most of us do!) then you’re probably going to choose not to wear a helmet. Just remember that getting flipped by the rope is a real danger if you aren’t careful. Make your decision after careful consideration of the route’s steepness and positioning of the clips.

Peer pressure

Are there any other factors which might convince a climber not to wear a helmet? Well, the obvious one is the effect of our peers. If our friends think wearing a helmet is dumb, chances are that we won’t wear one. Let’s take the example of bouldering. Have you ever seen a boulderer wearing a helmet? Some highball problems or problems with bad landings could put you at serious risk of head injury. And yet it ‘isn’t the done thing’ to wear a helmet when bouldering, so people generally don’t. Perhaps making a judgement based on risk – rather than being concerned about how cool we look – might pay greater dividends.

The last word

Part of climbing’s appeal is that our decisions have very real consequences. The best climbers have always been able to make decisions based on their own ability and the situation they find themselves in. So, when you’re deciding whether to wear a helmet or not, make a decision based on the risks to you, not based on what you see in the magazines or what your friends will think. It’s your head, after all, and you only get one

Dan Middleton is the BMC Technical Officer – contact him at dan@thebmc.co.uk

Expert Q & A

This issue’s expert is Richie Patterson. Richie is the Marketing Manager for Wild Country and has been climbing for 32 years.

Q. What’s the most important thing to consider when buying a helmet?

A. Two words: fit and function. Firstly, remember that you might wear a helmet for a long time, especially in the mountains, so any discomfort will multiply. Try a selection. There are lots of different head shapes and fitting methods, and most companies offer different sizes in at least one model. Don’t be fixated on one type; keep an open mind until you’ve tried some on. Secondly, buy one that suits your activity. If you’re only rock climbing, look for something light with good ventilation – like a Petzl Meteor, Wild Country Rock Lite or most of the other ‘bike style’ helmets – built with a thin polycarbonate skin on top of polystyrene. For winter, you’ll need something that will take more abuse and is ventilated differently. Again, this can be a polycarbonate shell, but the shell and polystyrene inner will be thicker (Wild Country 360, Metolius Safe Tech and many others). Finally, for ‘harder’ use are suspension helmets (no foam and a cradle inside) such as the Petzl Ecrin Roc or BD Half Dome. There are also modular helmets such as the Wild Country Alpine Shield where a lightweight helmet can be fitted with a shield for more protection.

Q. What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to anyone buying a helmet?

A. The thing I see most often is people failing to adjust the helmet straps correctly. This means that they’d be useless in a fall. If a helmet can move freely on your head then it simply can’t do its job. Spend a few minutes adjusting the chin, side (and any rear) straps so that the helmet sits firmly in place and can’t wobble. Ask someone more experienced if you’re unsure. Once adjusted, relax, every time you put it on it should be secure.

Q. I’ve dropped my helmet – do I need to replace it?

A. The obvious question is how far it fell: was it a few feet into soft snow, a few metres on to hard concrete or, like one of mine, bouncing off down a hillside? Examine it internally and externally for dents, dings and scratches; be very suspicious of anything that seems to go more than 1mm deep into the foam or shell. Make a sensible decision; you can always buy another helmet but you only have one head.

Q. Stickers: yes or no?

A. No, because you never know. Certain adhesives will degrade a shell.

 

Further Info

The BMC Helmet Campaign was launched in early 2012, aiming to help climbers make an informed choice about when they wear a helmet.

Download the BMC Helmet Guidebook - the latest advice booklet from the BMC Technical Committee covers all you'll ever need to know about helmets.

Get out on rock - DVD

Top-level climber and coach Neil Gresham teams up with Mountain Guide Libby Peter to bring you the latest rock climbing skills.

Read more tech skills articles.

 


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21/06/2013
Any chance of references for statements such as this: " a study of climbing fatalities concluded that 25% could have been avoided if a helmet had been worn. Although most fall injuries are to the lower limbs, the next most likely place to be injured is the head."
What study and by who? When you say 'most fall injuries' just what percentage exactly are we talking about, and where did this figure come from?
If we are supposed to be making informed decisions then we need the actual information. Please don't make this sort of thing vague or dumbed-down.
24/06/2013
I inverted after a fall on a climb and my gear popped. 8m fall resulting in a swinging deck out on my head and shoulders. I was knocked out and I had to buy a new helmet. The helmet did it's job and saved my head being caved in. Don't think about wearing a helmet, just stick a lid on your head. Climbing is risky enough without being blasé about your own safety. Be safe and enjoy ;-)

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