Climbing Without a Helmet? Now that’s Scary!

The following events are true, and no names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Do you remember your first climbing helmet? I do, I was sixteen and was hoping to make a trip to Seneca Rocks for some of my first multipitch adventures. Everything I’d heard about the place suggested there was a good bit of loose rock and it was unwise to go there without a helmet. Of course, being sixteen I didn’t have much money, but my parents wanted us to be safe, so they threw down for that first brain bucket, the burly and indestructible Ecrin Roc from Petzl.

As my climbing progressed, I generally wore it on multipitch climbs, but not often when cragging. And that really didn’t change until I met my future wife, as she told me about two serious accidents that left her with a first hand account of what climbing without a helmet can mean.

There’s a canyon at a climbing area outside Boise that has a band of choss that runs across the cliff near the top of most of the routes, making them a little more serious than most others in the area. A family was out climbing for the day, both parents and their young daughter. They had set up a popular route, and the dad was going up the climb one last time to clean it for the day, when he pulled off a bowling ball sized chunk of rock and fell. The rock hit his wife, who was belaying, in the head and killed her. She was using an ATC style device, and when she collapsed, the rope sped through the device, and the husband continued falling to the ground, breaking both legs.

A grim story to be sure, but some key lessons to take away. If the wife had a helmet on, she perhaps would have survived, and a Gri Gri would have certainly saved the husband from breaking his legs. Tracy went out and bought both the day after hearing about this accident, though she still occasionally strayed from using her helmet all the time until one more tragic event changed her mind permanently.

She was climbing at an outdoor competition in Idaho, the Pocatello Pump, when the climber next to her took a fall and ended up hitting a ledge with his head, then plummeting to the ground. His belayer had threaded the Gri Gri backward, and the climber wasn’t wearing a helmet. Tracy was the first on the scene, and knew pretty much right away this guy wasn’t going to make it based on his head injuries. After that she never looked back about wearing a helmet.

Nothing can affect your quality of life more than a brain injury, and a helmet is an easy way to help prevent the worst from happening. Many climbers will (thankfully) go their whole careers without witnessing events like the above mentioned ones, but that’s the point. It only takes one accident to permanently change your life, so why not stack the odds in your favor?

As Tracy and I spent more time climbing together, I started using my helmet more often, and now it’s a rare day you’ll see me without it. Often it feels like we are the only two people in Rifle wearing them, but a friend almost got killed there when a loose rock fell on his head as he walked under a popular cliff, so we don’t let the odd stares bother us.

So how about you, do you wear a helmet often? If not, what’s your excuse? We want to hear your thoughts, and if you leave a comment you’ll be entered to win a Petzl Elios or Elia helmet, courtesy of the good folks at Fire away!

43 Responses to Climbing Without a Helmet? Now that’s Scary!

  1. I don’t wear mine as much as I probably should. I use it when I’m plugging gear, in an area where there are people walking above the cliffline, or climbing on chossy rock.

    If I’m sport climbing though, there’s a good chance I’m not wearing one.

    Scott October 17, 2011 at 3:56 pm
  2. I still have yet to get a helmet, after about 2.5 years now of sport climbing. I’ve heard a few stories like this though, and have known the possibilities, and they scare the pants off of me. Helmets are one of those pieces of equipment that, while very important safety gear, often gets overlooked and passed up in lieu of everything else.

    Looking toward the future though and wanting to get into trad and multipitch climbing, a helmet is going to be essential. I’ve heard stories of friends exploring and establishing new lines down here in Arizona and pulling out chunks of rock the size of microwaves. Luckily I haven’t heard of those landing on anybody but it’s still quite an eye opener.

    Thank you for this article and reminder!

    Joey Wilhelm October 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm
  3. I happily wear my helmet every time I’m climbing or belaying now after witnessing what appeared to be a small, inconsequential fall turn into a nearly fatal accident because of a small turn that bumped the climbers head against a corner. It caused a fracture along the top of her skull and she was just lucky we were only cragging near the road and got her to the hospital within 10 minutes.

    I also initially had (and still have) the Ecrin Roc helmet which I didn’t enjoy wearing (though I still appreciate it’s durability) but, since finding a helmet that fits my head properly, I barely even notice it’s on.

    Thanks for the post!

    Matt Hoffmann October 17, 2011 at 4:11 pm
  4. Threading a Gri-gri backwards seems to be a common error. Did she notice the belayer next to her had set it up incorrectly? I myself have been guilty of seeing people do something wrong (unsafe) at a crag, and not intervening.

    Andrew October 17, 2011 at 4:23 pm
  5. Eye opening stories, indeed!
    I used to always wear a helmet strictly for muliti-pitch trad climbing. Until, I took a massive fall that shattered my ankle. I realized that accident easily could have been my head. Over the years, I have been religious about wearing a helmet while on lead but, not always on top rope. Some friends at times of projecting routes have urged me to leave my helmet on the ground. They claimed that it was holding me back. Ironically, I sent the project routes as soon as I removed the helmet. Not necessarily agreeing with the fact the route was sent because I took my helmet off….. more like, it was time to send after 5 previous attempts. If I the evil death stares at Rifle didn’t affect me so much, I would probably wear my helmet all the time. As it is, I am sensitive and don’t like to stand out in a crowd…. way to easily choosing social acceptance over my own safety. I’d like to sport a new helmet that I won so, I can show it off and brag about how I won it!!!

    Andrea October 17, 2011 at 4:51 pm
  6. Several years ago, I was wearing a borrowed helmet when I got hit with a softball-sized rock that came off the top of the cliff. It would have been a really bad day had I not been wearing one. I went and bought my own after that trip.

    Zack October 17, 2011 at 4:53 pm
  7. Reality check. All a helmet would have done in the first case is leave a prettier corpse. No helmet is going to make a difference with a “bowling ball” falling from high up. In the second case, a helmet might have resulted in severe TBI instead of fatality, still not pretty. Unfortunately, the climbing helmet standards are quite weak for side impact protection. And manufacturers typically design to the minimum requirements not higher safety.

    Helmet standards were created in the days before sport climbing so the main concern was impact from falling objects; in this regard, they are pretty good but can only do so much. But side impacts were an afterthought in the days when climbers rarely fell. As a result, most of today’s climbing helmets (including the Elios) are still inadequate for the most likely scenario they’ll be needed: swinging falls or hitting a ledge. The climbing industry has focused on fashion but failed to improve safety and the general public is fooled into thinking the UIAA/CEN stamp means much. BTW the magazines and AAC are also at fault for poor representation of climbers.

    Yes, wear a helmet. No, don’t trust it.

    Clyde October 17, 2011 at 6:37 pm
    • Thanks for all the great comments everyone! Clyde, it’s possible in the first accident she may have lived, as the rock was only coming from 30 or 40 feet up, but if it was really big then who knows. The second guy fell upside down, so again it may have saved his life, as it was an impact straight down on the helmet. Regardless, there are plenty of less extreme examples where helmets have worked well to keep folks out of the emergency room. You bring up a good point though, about helmets needing to get with the times. My understanding is that the foam style ones, like the Meteor 3, the new BD Vector and the new one coming soon from Metolius do a better job with side impact. Just like ski helmets though, these things don’t make you invincible, but they certainly stack the odds in your favor.

      Andrew – No, she hadn’t noticed it was threaded backward. Also, I would say it’s really not a “common” error, if you think of the tens of thousands of users days logged on Gri Gri’s, there are comparatively few accidents. But when they do happen, yes, this is often the mechanism.

      BJ Sbarra October 17, 2011 at 10:43 pm
  8. I’ve always kind of felt like I should climb with a helmet in many situations, but for a long time I have put off buying one for various reasons. A lot of the time I justify this based on an assumption of low risk (overhanging and/or well traveled routes, solid rock, etc.) which may or may not be true. The rest of the time I just do my best to be careful. Maybe it’s time to change that.

    Doug October 17, 2011 at 6:38 pm
  9. I’ve been climbing for 18 years. I should wear a helmet all the time. I know I should. But the fact is I don’t. If I’d tradding, yes. Aiding, yes. Guiding, yes. Bolting new routes, generally yes. But if I am sport climbing on rock I consider solid, I don’t wear one. I know all the risks. I have been first on scene to major climbing head-related injuries. There is no good reason why I choose not to wear one all the time. Some of it comes down to size/bulk, as well as being an annoyance in hot weather. But improved helmet designs are increasingly addressing these concerns.

    If I do happen to get brained when not wearing a helmet, I will be cursing myself as I bleed out.

    Lee October 17, 2011 at 6:42 pm
  10. This is a very good read. It is a reminder on what all of us climbers already know, brain buckets are important – you only get one brain! It is very easy to use weight and space arguments for not wearing one, but this is not acceptable.

    ilana October 17, 2011 at 6:55 pm
  11. I was preparing to lead Little Help From my Friends, endless wall, NRG. Trying to decide if i should wear my helmet. I thought about it. I had climbed it before both on lead and top-rope. It’s a slab climb. I felt I knew the climb well. I went back and forth for a few minutes. Finally, the thought popped into my head that this was the dumbest argument I could have with myself. This is the type of thing you hear about, the last thing someone remembers is debating whether to wear a helmet, then they wake up in the hospital. I chuckled to myself, reached for my helmet and tied in.

    Ashley October 17, 2011 at 9:09 pm
  12. I stumble around on rock like a drunk hobo stumbles the streets of Denver. Needless to say I don’t take my helmet off my head…

    Climberism October 17, 2011 at 9:43 pm
  13. I personally do not wear a helmet, despite the obvious risks. A young man’s foolish bravado, perhaps; climbing makes me feel free and helmets do not. However, Alex Huber has been filmed wearing a helmet free-soloing. I read an interview where he was asked why, his response: he may be in control of his climbing, but falling rock is beyond even his powers. Something to consider if you climb where loose rock is common (also, on a hyper-hypocritical note, I have had my girlfriend wear a helmet while belaying me at an especially brittle zone). Keep looking up and remember, safety fifth. . . Best, Xan

    Xan Calonne October 18, 2011 at 1:32 am
  14. Those are some serious incidents you are talking about. I’ve been witness to some minor injuries that could have been prevented if the climber was wearing a helmet. I wear my helmet when multi-pitch climbing (always at Seneca), and when leading single pitch. I don’t wear it when belaying single pitch, top roping, or bouldering.

    Gif October 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm
  15. Thanks for posting this, there are so many people I have seen not wearing helmets at the crags and they think I am crazy for wearing one. The number of uncontrollable hazards in any given climbing area are alarming and the number of distractions people bring to the area are sometimes baffling. Dogs, kids, loud conversations and loud music can be dangerous distractions. We are all our brothers keeper while climbing, we are all responsible for checking knots, belays, harnesses, rigging and helmets. In some places all it takes is one fatality and the area will close.

    Doug Robertson October 18, 2011 at 7:42 pm
  16. I was taking a new guy up the Hanging Teeth, one of the 5 open books in the valley. While we hiked up, we found a helmet in the woods! Just sitting there. I told him the top was a scree funnel and he should take the helmet. He did.

    3 pitches later I’m on top, bringing him up. The rope is running through the scree funnel (my bad, but it’s a mess up there.) The rope dislodges a rock about the size of a fist. You know the scene, it rolls as if in slow motion towards the edge…

    I yell “ROCK!” as it trickles down into the corner my partner is in. Then silence. He gets up and I apologize about the rock, ask if it hit him. “Yeah man! Right in the head! sure am glad I found this helmet!”

    To this day, I still think helmets are situational. But I was very grateful to have found that helmet in the woods that day.

    dave October 19, 2011 at 1:39 am
  17. ive inverted before, fortunately i did not hit my head those times, but its always a strong possibility with an inversion fall

    i usually wear it on trad lead and multi, rarely on sport though … that may change with a new lighter helmet

    eric October 19, 2011 at 5:33 am
  18. Interesting… this is the second article I’ve read this morning that has popped the question: “Can you be too safe?” The first was about wild animals running loose in Southern Ohio:

    One of the commenters said: “Im from Ohio Zanesville area, I locked all doors, closed windows and went over emergency stuff with the family, and had the kids sleep in my room and I slept on the coach with a shotgun, pistol and pepper spray you can never be too safe.”

    I read that comment and think “Well, maybe you can be *too safe*.”

    Similarly with the author discussing walking around the base of a sport cliff wearing his helmet. Not climbing or belaying, just walking around. Yes, there’s stuff going on above you. And yes, that one guy that one time got hit in the head by a falling rock. But, geeze, you’re getting into the risk zone of somebody walking down the street in New York. Do they need helmets? And surely, your risk of injury is much higher on the I-70 drive into Rifle than just walking around on the ground there. Do you wear a helmet in the car? I hear satellites sometimes fall from orbit – maybe we should all be wearing helmets whenever we’re outside! I mean, “you can never be too safe.” Can you?

    Kate C October 19, 2011 at 4:19 pm
    • Hey Kate – Nope, don’t wear a helmet driving, though I always wanted to be a rally race driver… The point about the rock fall at Rifle was to illustrate that everyone there tends to think it’s sport climbing, why bother, when in fact I’ve seen more spontaneous rock fall at Rifle than any of the other random choss crags around here, so even at a place like that a helmet is a good idea. I don’t wear a helmet hanging out at the base, but I usually am paying attention if someone is climbing above me and I don’t have one on. Too many close calls.

      BJ Sbarra October 19, 2011 at 4:28 pm
  19. I need a helmet… other than my skateboard one… i should be more diligent in wearing one.

    Dude October 19, 2011 at 5:28 pm
  20. I have been climbing 36 years, almost entirely lidless. This summer a nearby climber rapped off the end of his rope near me and cratered. Leg was horribly shattered but survivable. He also hit his head on a rock at the base, breaking his skull and neck. Despite our best CPR and evac efforts, he did not survive. Lesson learned? I need to buy (or win) a helmet. I have a family to think about.

    Sean Cobourn October 19, 2011 at 5:47 pm
  21. A couple of weeks ago, I was climbing with two good friends at one of our favourite crags in the well known mountain of Montserrat, Spain.

    While we were preparing our gear for some sport climbing, a little bit further, there were two guys starting a multipitch route. We were talking with them for a while, looked like they had been climbing for years and they knew what they were doing.

    So, one of my friends started leading a warm up route; I remember perfectly being looking up, staring at him and checking his moves when, suddenly, the area of the sky closest to the wall turned black! I remember it perfectly: the guys on the multipitch messed it up and a a bloc of the size of a horse started to fall direcly to us.
    As it kept falling, it started to break into smaller pieces and, while warning my friend on the wall, I told myself to never let go the grigri brake side of the rope and tried to position my body as close to the wall as possible (the wall was slightly overhanging).

    I remember perfectly the huge noise when the rocks hit the ground. I opened my eyes, looked at my friend leading on the route (and way above the last clipped bolt), looked around… veeery fortunately, everyone was alright.
    We all looked at each other, being perfectly aware of the terrible outcome we just got out of. None of us, neither my friends nor another guys on the neighbour route were wearing a helmet. Now, both my friends wear a helmet when sport climbing, and Im saving money to get one as soon as possible.

    Oriol Soriano October 19, 2011 at 6:02 pm
  22. As often as possible. I admit I’ve always been a bit cautious and as such had a helmet going back as far as a (yuck) Joe Brown Super. Nowadays though I try and always roll with one.

    Marc October 19, 2011 at 6:18 pm
  23. I’ve climbed on some scary choss, but one of the closest calls I’ve ever had with rockfall was toproping at the most popular sport crag near town. A beginner climber wandered way off-route and pulled off a rock about the size of a frisbee. There were about 5 of us sitting around the belay, which was in a little corridor. The block missed a buddy by about 10 inches.

    Justin Brunson October 19, 2011 at 6:32 pm
  24. Great stories to think about when outside.
    As for me, I realized after letting helmet after helmet tumble down from the base of climbs, that I always wear a helmet biking. I also wore one playing hockey. Considering the greater risks involved, I decided to always wearing a helmet climbing.

    That decision was reinforced a few years back on a road trip. Several times at a “solid” cliff, holds broke, shattered underfoot and rained down….also a hailstorm almost caught us (another good reason to wear a helmet).

    Truth be told, I’ve never been one of the “cool” kids…and now I reap several benefits. Being bald, sunburn isn’t an issue with a helmet on my dome. I’m no longer chasing my helmet downhill. Finally, I’m not concerned when those acorns are falling, that is why they call it “fall” right?

    All that said, I still get the occasional comment like this past weekend when I was asked, “climbing a bit of trad?” I was puzzled why he asked. I’m sure it was the helmet.

    Dale October 19, 2011 at 6:54 pm
  25. Helmets are often not needed. Until they are. I have been hit with rock fall numerous times. Or traversed under a roof banging my head the whole way (I’m clumsy). Only problem is my helmet is suck, heavy and doesn’t fit so I don’t always wear. But usually

    Steve Kraus October 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm
  26. I scan brains all day, they are precious, you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone, wear a helmet!

    Karen October 20, 2011 at 5:40 pm
  27. I wear my helmet almost always even on sport climbs. A tiniest rock or a biner flying down the cliff can send you to a hospital and end your climbing day. Why risk?

    Dolgio October 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm
  28. *sigh* So much talk of helmets this past month. I guess I will be wearing mine in the Red this weekend.

    vanessa October 20, 2011 at 11:13 pm
  29. My family was up visiting for the weekend so my wife and I took them to our local sport crag which is conveniently located 15 minutes away. The area has easy access and a wide range of moderate climbs, so most of the rock is picked dry and clean as a whistle.

    For some unknow reason while I was midway up a route, a boulder the size of a bowling ball fell from atop the cliff. I heard it crashing through the underbrush above first, and then saw it hurtle over the edge, watching in horror as it aimed right where my mother and sister were sitting. My mom screamed, pushed my sister out of the way and dove to the ground, barely missing the boulder as it exploded into hundreds of shards. As they lay on there bellies in the dirt, everyone sat in stunned silence for a moment to take in what just happened. We were lucky.

    Not that a helmet would have helped in this situation, but it just goes to show that you never know what will happen. Better safe than sorry.

    Dan October 21, 2011 at 2:03 pm
  30. I have worn one on every climb outdoors from day one and will always wear one every climb. If I forget it I go home. I wear it anywhere near the cliff. I wear if I’m walking by other climbers. I’ve been climbing 11 years.

    EJ October 26, 2011 at 4:00 am
  31. Always wear a helmut, even when sport climbing at Rumney, if it ‘s crowded I wear it all day, I got hit with falling ice many years ago(broken arm), helmut wouldn’t have helped then, but I’ve never forgotten it,…lotsa dings on my helmut

    Ralf November 2, 2011 at 1:16 am
  32. I always wear a helmet (and it is a Petzl one!) when climbing. Yup, I even wear it top roping, belaying and setting anchors up top. In other words, I wear it all the time at the crag, any crag, no matter what I’m doing. Why not? — stuff comes down from above and whether you are climbing, belaying or sitting around waiting for your turn, you are a potential target. Tying in at the top of a cliff while setting anchors would seem to imply there is a chance of falling there too, and probably a wild fall on a non-stretchy bit of webbing or slings so hitting one’s head is definitely possible if you go off the edge setting up your top rope.

    My helmet is lighter than a bike helmet, comfy, ventilated, good looking and keeps my hair out of my eyes too! If I win this helmet, I’ll have a spare to lend to the many new climbers I take out to Devil’s Lake!

    Anne F Hughes November 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm
  33. I got hit in the “head” with a rock for the first time two weeks ago while Multi-pitching. I was looking down to get some food from the back pack and BAM. I was fine since the impact on myhelmet. Helmet looks totally fine afterwards. I am also fine. I’ve wavered between wearing and not wearing especially single pitch climbing. For multipitch I always wear one. Glad I did!

    Luke November 7, 2011 at 11:13 pm
  34. I have to say, most of the time I’m sport climbing I don’t bother to wear one. Depends on the area and the quality of the rock, and the location of other climbers/tourons, but most of the time I opt not to wear one.

    That said, in my first year of climbing I took an inverted fall and shattered one of the Petzl Meteor helmets. I would probably be in the hospital or dead now if I hadn’t been wearing one. Thanks for the reminder.

    Mike November 10, 2011 at 6:54 pm
  35. Pingback: Joy and Climbing with Best Friends | vertical flash point

  36. This is a great thread. I have climbed for over 20 years and worked as a guide for over 16. I have gone through (and still go through) many fazes of rocking a helmet. In general, almost always wear one leading regardless. I used to only use one for multi- pitch and trad climbing. Until I got flipped upside down two different times sport climbing.

    As a guide we are wearing them most of the time as are our clients (there has to be something to it not just for liability reasons we are pro risk managers). Every year we hear about people getting head injuries from rock fall or getting flipped. Sport crags in the US are often choss piles which have been cleaned up. I know a number of people who have been hit by rocks in rifle.

    One thing I have not read much in here is why people don’t wear a helmet. Kate seams to think we are being too safe. So maybe for her it is to maintain the risk factor and the adventure.

    For myself I often choose to not wear a helmet top roping clean rock or belaying cragging routes unless I have a reason to believe there is loose rock. I also choose to not wear one deep water soloing or while teaching people to DWS. This is because the helmet strap could choke me in a fall.

    Other wise I can see very little reason not to use a helmet. The newest ones are comfortable and supper light.

    Amos December 4, 2011 at 8:02 pm
  37. Some of you may remember Rob Slater, who died descending from the summit of K2 in 1995. Rob also did the first ascent of the Wyoming Sheep Ranch and the first solo of the Pacific Ocean Wall in Yosemite. Rob was also the first person to climb all of the Fisher Towers and a pioneering BASE jumper. But more than anything, Rob is remembered by those who knew him as an incredibly courageous and intensely loyal friend. I am Rob’s twin brother Rich and I have written a book about Rob called “Honed: Rob Slater, Summit of death, either way I win.” The link is: Cheers.

    RS December 14, 2011 at 10:19 pm
  38. Well I think I left my helmet in Chamonix 17 years ago.
    My climbing now is mostly limited to gritsone and not the loose variety.
    However if and when I climb where there are objective dangers I think I would purchase a new helmet. Now what has happened to Galibier?

    Mark Richardson December 21, 2011 at 7:09 am
  39. After a bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree, I have more invested in my education then any sane person owes on a house, so you bet your behind that I wear a helmet. 99.9% of the time. And that 0.1% of the time I’m not wearing it? I feel naked and like impending doom will rain down on me at any moment.

    Christa March 31, 2012 at 2:39 pm
  40. Have you ever noticed that when parents post videos of their wonder-kid climbing 5.hard, that the kids are never wearing helmets? Hey, parents, you’re supposed to deliver them safely to adulthood. I’ve been climbing with my 13 year old for about 5 years, and when we’re climbing outside, we have helmets on. I can’t imagine sending him up to hang the draws for me without a helmet on. Neither of us have been clocked by falling rock, but we’ve both stood up under ledges and taken good whacks.

    Eric April 24, 2012 at 9:11 pm
  41. I’m originally from Wisconsin and never wore a helmet until moving to Colorado. Even though I had been climbing for about 4 years, when I moved here I felt like a new climber. Luckily I had the sense to join the Colorado Mountain Club, where helmets are required. It has now become a very good habit!

    Eben May 18, 2012 at 11:47 pm
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