A rock climbing helmet looks just as dorky as any other helmet. They can be just as uncomfortable and just as uncool.
However, unlike a skateboarding helmet or a bike helmet that only protects you, a rock climbing helmet protects you as well as everyone else in your climbing party. It’s a non-negotiable. You have to climb with a helmet.
Lots of climbers won’t even take you with them if you don’t have a helmet. They’ll politely tell you to find one or to find another party. After all, you’re all risking your necks together and if something happens to you out there, it happens to all of you.
Read on for the three biggest reasons why you have to have a rock climbing helmet.
If you haven’t experienced rockfall yet, just wait. It’s terrifying. Even small rocks, the size of golf balls achieve deadly speeds by the time they reach the ground. Sometimes, belaying a climber up a chossy climb is scarier than climbing it. Rockfall is by far the most deadly reason to wear a rock climbing helmet.
Not only is a helmet important when climbing and belaying, the approach to many climbs involve scrambling up steep scree fields or across boulders. In the North Cascades, I often strap my helmet on before the approach trail.
You don’t just need it in the alpine either. A lot of sport crags that are only one or two pitches tall have top outs and areas where people may be walking above the cliff. If they dislodge or toss anything, it’s coming right down on top of you. Normally there are also more beginners and uneducated people around a sport crag, which makes the risk of rockfall even greater. And they might not know to shout “Rock!” if something were to come loose.
This one should be obvious. Rock climbing is a dangerous sport. You might be taking twenty or thirty foot falls down towards sharp rocks.
You could flip around in the air and get tossed upside down. Or, you could slip off a hard move that puts you in a horizontal position. One bad fall could send your head right into the rock wall.
A head injury is bad enough in the middle of the city, let alone in the wilderness far from help, let alone halfway up a rock wall, tied to a rope. Basically, help is not close at hand. Getting seriously injured while climbing is definitely number one on the list of what not to do.
But a rock climbing helmet doesn’t just protect your head from a fall. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve mantled up into a tight spot and bumped my head on a rock above me because I was looking down at my feet or over at my next hold. It might not be life threatening, but man would it have hurt if I hadn’t had my helmet on. There have been several times when I probably would have fallen because of it.
Fortunately my climbing helmet hasn’t taken any big impacts yet. But every little nick definitely reminds me that this thing isn’t just for saving my life, it’s just nice to keep my head protected.
You’re in this together
This is probably the best reason to wear a climbing helmet. Even if you don’t care about the risks to yourself while climbing (which is loco) and even if you don’t care about dodging falling rocks (which is nearly impossible), you should care about your friends out there with you.
If anything happens to you in the mountains, it is your entire party’s responsibility to get you to safety. One false move could turn a fun outing into a desperate wilderness rescue.
Worst of all, if you sustain a serious head injury, chances are you won’t be doing much to help get yourself to safety. In the mountains, you rely on one another.
Now take it one step further, and imagine that you’re belaying your partner when something happens. A rock falls and knocks you on the head.
Suddenly, the belay is off, your partner could die if they fell before they realized what happened and found a way to secure themselves. On top of the risk to your partner, they now need to find a way to descend to you while you are presumably unconscious and bleeding out of your skull. All while in a remote mountainous environment.
Do I need to paint a sketchier picture?
Does it need to be a rock climbing helmet?
No, you don’t need to have the latest and greatest rock climbing helmet. They are no stronger than biking or skateboarding helmets. In fact, they might be a bit weaker.
Climbing helmets are designed to be lightweight and breathable. If you wear your skateboarding helmet out climbing, you might understand why. It might get hot, but it will keep you perfectly safe.
Far better to look a little goofy and have an epic day in the mountains then to look cool and die in the mountains.
Every year people make fatal mistakes while rock climbing in both tame and wild places. Little errors, simple oversights and lack of preparation can turn risk into real, life and death danger.
So please, stay safe out there. Wear a rock climbing helmet, get the proper training and act with appropriate caution. The mountains are a wonderful and terrifying place. They take incredible people from us every year.
Be sure to get out there this summer, but also be sure to come back safe.
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