Should I wear a climbing helmet?
I’d imagine most climbers have asked themselves this question at one time or another. Pick any popular crag in the UK and there is usually a mix between people who are wearing a helmet and those that aren’t. Obviously the most sensible thing would be to wear one all the time, even on the walk down to the crag just in case you were to trip and fall on your head – but who is going to do that? We must all assess the risk of the situation personally every time we go rock climbing and make up our own minds. This is a great skill that climbing teaches that can be applied in many other areas of life.
In this blog I’ll discus some potential incidents that often get swept under the carpet in the climbing community, some of which have numerous climbers unstuck to say the least.
There’s no doubt climbing in an indoor gym is a safer environment than most outdoor venues. Climbers wearing helmets indoors are usually beginners, kids or groups. However, this definitely does not mean there are no risks. A climbing helmet is designed with two main purposes in mind – to lessen the damage to the wearer from falling objects or from unexpected movement resulting in the head colliding with something hard – these two risks are still present in indoor walls.
To give you an example from my experience, a few years after I started climbing I was top roping on the wall at my school. Nearing the top I heard a thud hit the matting below me. My phone had fallen out my pocket narrowly missing my belayer. Occasionally when explaining this incident people respond saying, ‘Surely a mobile phone isn’t enough to knock your belayer unconscious?’. I’d agree that would be quite unlucky but that’s missing the point, it is definitely enough to cause a painful reflex in the belayer that might result in them letting go of the break rope and cause further negative consequences. This situation would have been less risky if the belayer had been wearing a helmet as well as if I’d been more careful to empty my pockets.
It is also possible to take awkward and unexpected falls indoors, even on top ropes. Excess slack in the system caused by the rope getting wrapped round large holds can cause a climber to fall further than they were expecting. Especially beginners who have not taken many falls could twist badly and strike their head. For experienced climbers when leading, there is significantly more risk of this happening as falling on lead is always slightly out of control. It is very easy for the rope to pass behind one leg when above the last quickdraw and falling at this time can cause that leg to be whipped up violently when the rope goes tight, swinging the back of the climbers’ head into the wall hard. Climbers learning to lead should definitely be made aware of this before leaving the ground.
All the dangers involved with climbing indoors are certainly present when climbing outside and then some. Breaking off holds, loose rock and dropping gear is all bad news. It’s unlikely that these things would happen to one individual climber regularly which perhaps is why they get forgotten about. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security.
While having a phone dropped on one’s head is more than irritating, dropping a whole set of nuts is surely displeasing and sending a block the size of a TV in the direction of your belayer is another matter. Breaking off holds is impossible to foresee and often leads in the climber falling off, if that hold then knocks the belayer unconscious there will be some serious fallout.
If you are reading this and are yet to take your first trip outdoors, don’t be put off. There are some things you can do to improve your odds – like wearing a helmet. Just because the crag is a sport crag or is climbed regularly or your mates say it safe doesn’t mean that it is safe. A number of sport venues near us in Dorset have lower offs just under a band of loose rock. Although the climb itself is fairly solid don’t forget to have a more thorough look around. When going to a new area wearing a helmet would be wise for a climber of any experience.
Trad & Multipitch Climbing
Trad and multipitch climbing pose another layer of risks. These routes are climbed less frequently which means a lower likelihood of anyone caring for the crag as well as a smaller chance of there being climbers before you that could have already removed loose rock. If you do find yourself trying to decide whether to rope up on a route another team has just set off on, consider that anything they dislodge or drop will be coming your way.
Trad climbing on sea cliffs and long mountain routes often require abseils either to get to the start, return to the ground or retreat from the route. Abseils particularly in these environments come with dangers. When lowering off the ab rope can repeatedly rub over rock and wiggle blocks free that looked solid enough at first glance. Care needs to be taken to remove anything suspect before dropping over the edge in a large radius around where the rope may rub. Anything that does become dislodged will be right above you so a helmet is a good idea and always backup your rappel device in case it all goes Pete Tong.
Overall, climbing wouldn’t be much fun if it was totally safe. Wearing a helmet is a personal choice to be made by that individual, just same as it is the decision of the climber to leave the ground on a risky route. I’m not trying to convince everyone take up bowls or tiddlywinks in place of rock climbing, on the other hand it would be a greater shame for someone’s climbing career to be cut short by injury. Hopefully this information will make the decision of whether to wear a helmet easier than it was in the past.