Everyone is quick to point fingers online when they see someone take a fall without a helmet, but I’m willing to bet at least half of the people commenting “WEAR A HELMET MORON” under Weekend Whipper vids have left their dome protection behind at least once in their climbing career. I usually wear a helmet, but I’m not without my lapses either.
We all agree there are very few circumstances where a helmet wouldn’t help prevent injury, so why do we leave them behind at all?
Helmets are always a hot topic. They effectively prevent head injuries, which are perhaps the most debilitating injuries one can suffer. But, like in many other action sports (skateboarding, motorcycling, snowboarding, the list goes on…) a strange stigma against helmets has grown in the minds of many climbers, usually on the grounds that they don’t look cool.
On paper (or Facebook comment sections) helmet use has unanimous approval, but the reality is often different. Sport climbers in particular commonly eschew helmets, despite the fact that rockfall, gear failure, and gnarly falls can occur at sport crags just like they can on big walls. Sure, a helmet can be cumbersome in some instances, like squeeze chimneys, but by and large it is a reliable, easy-to-use piece of safety gear that can mean the difference between driving home happy or getting helivaced from the crag to the ER and spending the rest of your life sucking up oatmeal through a straw. I once took a fall and hit my head so hard I cracked my helmet. I shudder to think what would’ve happened to my head if I hadn’t been wearing it…
The main argument you hear from people pushing back against helmet usage is the “It’s My Life” argument. “I accept the risk, so who are you to tell me what to do?” At face value, this makes sense. All of us are comfortable with a different level of risk in climbing, so why should anyone else but ME decide if I wear a helmet?
Ultimately, this argument just doesn’t hold water.
Wearing a helmet when climbing, like wearing a mask during the pandemic, isn’t just about you. It’s about everyone.
Climbing isn’t a solo activity. Someone else is on the other end of your rope. You and your partner(s) commit to looking out for each other each time you rope up together. If you deck on a climb at the crag and crack your head open, it’s no bueno for everyone. Your buddies are going to have to rig rescue systems, fix you up, and maybe watch you die. If you’re on a multi-pitch or in the backcountry, it’s even worse. Your lack of a helmet may start a spiral of events that ends up putting everyone around you at risk. Rescue operations aren’t just extremely expensive, technical, and time-consuming, they’re often dangerous.
Even if you’re at a local crag with easy access, by not wearing a helmet you’re potentially placing folks in a situation where they have to provide medical care and assistance when they otherwise wouldn’t. And yes, even if you’re soloing in the middle of nowhere, folks are going to come after you, risking their lives to retrieve your body after an accident you could’ve walked away from if you’d been wearing a helmet.
I’ve had several partners over the years refuse to wear a helmet when sport climbing, and it’s pretty frustrating. No one has the right to put their belayers/partners through hell just because they can’t be bothered to wear a helmet.
By not taking reasonable precautions for your own safety, you’re making the situation less safe for everyone around you. We could all do better, me included. Being a good partner means wearing a helmet. Be a good partner. Wear a helmet.
Rock and Ice is committed to a diversity of ideas. The opinions published here do not necessarily reflect those of Rock and Ice.
The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.
He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.