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This is going out primarily to those who have been climbing for 20yrs + Back in the day, helmet use was optional and not particularly popular. These days, things seemed to have taken a dramatic change. Do you always use a helmet? Do you only use a helmet on Trad Climbs? What about sport climbs or indoor walls?

I am looking for both pros and cons on wearing a helmet, please. I am also interested in when and why helmet wearing became the norm. Was the transition gradual, or was there a person or event that prompted the change to helmets?

I own a helmet, wear one, but at times climb without one.

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    I edited your question, because your asking for peoples "thoughts" on helmets could have resulted in a vote to close based on the Q being "opinion based". I added two sentences in the next-to-last paragraph to reinforce the title of your question. If you don't like these edits, just roll back to your original. I like the question. – ab2 Sep 15 '18 at 17:17
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    There is two questions here and I am not sure which one you really want the answer to (unless it's both, but then it should be two separate questions): When did wearing a helmet in climbing become a norm and what are the pros/cons of wearing one. – imsodin Sep 15 '18 at 17:37
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    I suspect this depends where you are and who climbs there. They were certainly the norm in UK youth activities in the mid 90s (outdoor top-roping and abseiling) as protection mainly against falling rocks. – Chris H Sep 16 '18 at 6:54
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    I'd like to point out that wearing a helmet in technical ice climbing has been the norm for decades. The amount of crap being shed from above made sure of that. Here's C. Bérubé (oldschool climber I had the pleasure to work with) climbing near Québec in 1978 with insane gear that we'd look at with horror, except for the helmets. onf.ca/film/piler_de_crystal – Gabriel C. Sep 20 '18 at 17:57
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    I did my first technical climb 50 years ago. Helmuts were standard then, except possibly when messing around bouldering with heights of only a few feet. We joked that you called "rock!" so that you'd look up, and get the rock on your face instead of on your helmut. – Sherwood Botsford Sep 23 '18 at 15:51
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You should always wear a helmet when climbing outdoors due to the risk of rockfall. The only downside to wearing a helmet is that it is slightly less comfortable than climbing without one, but this is a small price to pay for potentially saving your life or that of your climbing partner. I always wear one outside and would not let anyone who was not wearing a helmet belay me since they would be more likely to drop me if they were hit by a rock.

Helmets are also useful if you are climbing a route and do not notice the rock outcropping above your head until you bang your head into it as I do on occasion :-)

A recent event that occurred at one of my local crags illustrated the importance of wearing a helmet. The climber in this incident dislodged a dinner plate sized rock that was several inches thick and it hit his belayer on the head. Fortunately, she was wearing a helmet and survived despite being knocked unconscious. The climber was saved from decking by a attentive bystander who had the presence of mind to grab the rope. (This also suggests that it may be a good idea to belay with an assisted braking device in addition to wearing a helmet but that's a separate topic.)

As for when wearing a helmet became the norm, I would say that it isn't really. Where I climb, I see roughly the same number of people without helmets as those who are wearing them.

  • Worth noting that some helmets (read: good helmets) protect against lateral impacts with the wall, as can occur if you fall on lead with your leg behind the rope. It's not just falling choss that you need to be worried about. – Adonalsium Sep 17 '18 at 16:47
  • @Adonalsium That is a side benefit of wearing a helmet, but you shouldn't be flipping upside down when you fall anyway since you should be taking care not to put your leg between the rope and the wall. The primary benefit of a helmet is protection from rockfall. – Qudit Sep 21 '18 at 22:45
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    Yeah but mistakes happen, we're human. Good helmets are explicitly designed to protect against both rockfall and lateral impact. – Adonalsium Sep 24 '18 at 12:40
  • @Adonalsium That's why I said that it if a side benefit. All UIAA and CE certified rock climbing helmets are tested for vertical impacts and impacts 60 degrees off vertical so as long as you are using a helmet certified for rock climbing, it should provide a reasonable amount of lateral protection as well. – Qudit Sep 24 '18 at 14:26
  • Helmets also can get in the way on moves where you're very close to the rock or off widths. The biggest thing I've seen is new belayers think they don't need to wear them when they are actually way more prone to rock fall than the leader. – m4tt1mus Apr 2 at 14:16
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The BMC history of helmets puts it at 1996 with the introduction of the Petzl Meteor helmet which was a combination of a hard shell and foam helmet. This matches my recollection of when things became popular. There is also a little evidence in this Climbing article

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I haven't yet been climbing for 20+ years, but from my 8-or-so years experience of climbing in European and Asian countries I can tell that helmets did not become a universal norm yet. It all depends on the type and on the location of the climb.

I do not personally know anybody who would wear a helmet when climbing indoors. Neither have I seen anybody wearing a helmet when bouldering, regardless of whether it is indoors or outdoors.

On the other hand, helmet seems to be seen as essential in multipitch climbing, as well as on via ferratas. And that is mostly due to the increased risk of rock fall that comes with alpine environment and multiple groups of people climbing one above another. I have personally seen a belay device fly past me while on a multipitch climb. Another time it was a giant rock, which luckily did not hit anybody on that wall, because no helmet would have helped with that.

Outdoor sport climbing, however, seems to be a bit of a grey area with regard to helmets, at least in the places where I climb. Unless a wall is known to have rock falls, most/many people choose not to wear a helmet, because it is seen as unnecessary. And if somebody is wearing a helmet, it is usually the belayer. Which, I would argue, kind of makes sense, because falling rocks knocking out a belayer is a bigger danger than a climber hitting his/her head when falling. Well, at least the consequences are usually less fatal.

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Helmet Policy

Some climbing centers and organisations mandate helmet usage even indoors for younger or novice participants.

Safety in Outdoor Education Policy for Schools & Youth Groups for the Isle of Man states:

All participants on outdoor crags should wear helmets and it is recommended that those leading on artificial inside walls also wear them.

That policy was listed in the 2008 policy document.

The UK's The Scout Association POR (Policy, Organisation and Rules) state:

Rule 9.34 Climbing and Abseiling

a. Climbing helmets must always be worn by all those climbing or abseiling on natural features, except in the case of 9.34c.

b. Climbing helmets need not be worn by those climbing or abseiling on artificial walls provided the activity leader is satisfied that the climber or abseiler has sufficient skill not to react unpredictably. Novices must always wear helmets, except in the case of 9.34c. The use of helmets for climbing using auto belay systems must be determined by the activity risk assessment.

c. A Sikh wearing a Turban may choose to climb or abseil on natural features and artificial climbing walls without a helmet.

This rule was in the POR from at least 2011.

The Boys Scouts of America appear to have a similar rule

When not to wear a helmet — Auto Belays

There is a demonstrable risk to climbers wearing a helmet while using an auto belay as there is the possibility of straps getting caught on a hold as they descend.

Adventure Activities Licensing Authority [AALA] [Board Meeting; 8th October 2013]4 reports that:

July 2013 - A 9 year old girl was descending a climbing wall in a shopping centre when her helmet got caught on one of the holds.

An earlier AALA report from 2011 details a similar incident:

A 6-year-old girl nearly asphyxiated whilst on an indoor climbing wall. She was wearing a harness and helmet and was attached to an inertia wire. Having lost her foot and hand holds, she twisted on the wire and the plastic adjustment strap at the back of her helmet caught on one of the projections, suspending her weight by the chin strap. It took staff members and members of the public several minutes to climb up and release her, by which time she was blue.

The report concludes with:

It may be better to discontinue using helmets on climbing walls and towers.

  • +1 for also mentioning the downsides of wearing a helmet indoors. I had never heard of that before. I wonder if the straps on the helmet get caught often enough to outweigh the risk of falling objects. Obviously, there aren't falling rocks but climbers still drop things sometimes. – Qudit Sep 26 '18 at 22:42
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Google Trends Shows consistent searches for "Rock Climbing Helmet" since at least 2004 Google Trends for "Rock Climbing Helmet"

Agreed that rockfall is always a concern.

I like to wear a helmet any time I lead climb, because of the risk of damage to the back of the head if you get your leg trapped behind the rope and are flipped upside down.

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    That graph looks like decreasing interest, NOT consistent. – James Jenkins Sep 24 '18 at 17:21
  • @JamesJenkins, I wouldn't say decreasing, I'd say stabilising. People show spikes of early interest, possibly related to an incident that wearing a helmet would have prevented, then it becomes normalised without big spikes equally without the big dips. It makes me wonder what happened in May/June 2005. – Separatrix Apr 2 at 7:51

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