Should We Wear Helmets
November 30, 2008
The day I submitted my schedule for this year’s gear articles, including this piece on helmets, I had the unexpected opportunity to gain a real insight into the whole climbing helmet question. Having zapped off my email to High I set off to Matlock from Sheffield, on my bike, for a meeting in the afternoon. It had taken me a while to find my trusty (or is that rusty?) old bike, buried deep in my cellar, but unfortunately I couldn’t find my cycling helmet. Expecting that it had no doubt been chucked out long ago, having been mistaken for a piece of grubby polystyrene packaging, I just thought I would go without it.
For several years I’d cycled about 24 miles a day, to and from work wearing my helmet every time, winter and summer. I hated wearing my first helmet, a cheap bargain basement model. It always felt sweaty, no matter what the temperature and never quite fitted — plus it made me look daft. Luckily one day it broke (I stood on it) and I decided to invest a little bit more money on my next helmet. Having a better idea of what I wanted I bought a hard shell model that fitted much better, plus it was well-designed and provided tons of ventilation and, unlike my first helmet, I couldn’t even tell I was wearing it.
Very quickly, I got so used to wearing my helmet it got to the point that if I had to cycle anywhere without a helmet on I would immediately get extremely nervous — a little like driving in the front of a car without a seat belt on, suddenly very aware of your own mortality. In all those years I never once actually had need of my helmet (although that’s not to say I was
free of accidents). Anyway I couldn’t find my old helmet and being in a rush I just thought I’d go without it, after all I wasn’t feeling up to pushing the boat out speed wise.
The ride went smoothly, if a little sweatily (‘this bike must be broken, it used to be much easier to go up these hills’). After the meeting I set off back home, taking it easy. I must have been about a mile from home, speeding along (I was going downhill), enjoying the wind in my hair, the sense of freedom and calm that comes from freewheeling along on a summery evening. I was doing about 20mph, when I saw a parked car up ahead, with its occupants getting out. As I neared, at what appeared to me as high speed, I suddenly noticed an excited dog jumping around inside. Somewhere inside my head warning lights began flashing. Unfortunately in the half a second it took this message to reach my fingers in order to start applying a little pressure on the brakes, it was too late. In the blink of an eye I saw the driver’s door open and the dog jump out — straight into the path of my bike — and as is usually the case on such occasions, time slowed down.
The dog stopped dead in my tracks and cowered down beneath my approaching wheel. We looked into each other’s eyes both as scared as each other. I distinctly remember seeing its bony rib cage and thinking how they would make an excellent bike rack, followed by ‘this is going to hurt‘ and lastly the realisation that I was not wearing a helmet.
I was laying on the road, unable to breathe, a dull throb running through my head, my brain inside feeling as if it was somehow loose of it moorings and adrift — like a brain in glass jar out of a horror film. An old man was standing over me saying: “Don’t move lad” something I had no intention of doing. Strangely, I had the complete conviction that I had dreamed about having this accident, or had a premonition it was going to happen, even though I hadn’t, a common phenomenon with a head injury. I tried to tell the man this fact, but found I couldn’t speak or breathe and my vision was so blurred I couldn’t tell where I was. I suddenly realized my brain was a void of memories, or should I say I knew they were there but were somehow beyond my grasp. I couldn’t remember where I’d been, where I lived, what had happened or even who I was. I tried to lift my leg and for a second thought it was broken, as it felt extremely heavy. It turned out my bike was still clipped to my cycle shoes.
Regaining my breath I sat up and leant against a car, a crowd of people now standing around me and, regaining my breath, babbling on about my promotion. I saw my shaking hands were totally unscratched, a sign that my head had taken the full impact, my body crashing about 20ft down the road before it stopped — the noise bringing everyone out of their houses. I felt my brain begin to settle and a low dull ache take over. A man touched my head and I saw his fingers were covered in blood, prompting the bizarre remark from me: “Don’t worry, I haven’t got any horrible diseases.”
“Oh look at his head” an old woman cooed as I reached my hand up and touched my scalp, half expecting to feel my brains poking out, luckily only finding my hair matted with thick blood and grit, two deep open gashes an inch long on top of a huge swollen lump. Someone gave me a piece of kitchen roll and I pressed it on.
For some reason I suddenly felt incredibly embarrassed and shakily stood up and said I was okay. Someone asked if I wanted an ambulance, but for some reason I said: “It’s okay I’m a climber, I’m used to it.” The car I’d leant against was now impressively covered in blood and I asked how the dog was. The reply of “don’t worry about it” seemed to indicate that the dog had come off worse. Standing up I attempted to get on my bike, thinking better of it when the crowd said I should perhaps walk. And so I hobbled away and after that I don’t remember a single thing.
About an hour later I was standing in my house — not knowing how I got there — my head and top covered in blood, mumbling to a friend who was looking after my kids how: “I’d had an accident” and that it might have “involved a dog.” It took about an hour for my memory to return to normal (any recollection of what I did for an hour did not) and off I went to sit in casualty for five hours to be diagnosed with concussion.
Hang on a minute, what’s this cycling story got to do with climbing helmets? Well sitting in casualty, blood still oozing out of my head, gave me a perfect opportunity to dwell on the whole rock helmet debate.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE CLIMBING HELMET
In the past there were just helmets. Helmets used for everything from winter climbing, rock-climbing and mountaineering. This helmet was designed primarily to provide a high degree of protection from falling objects — a design criterion that stemmed from its origins in Alpine mountaineering. The introduction and adoption of the helmet by Alpinists worldwide was a quantum leap in safety, with models like the Compton and Joe Brown saving tens of thousands of climbers from injury or death. Very quickly these helmets became popular for general rock-climbing, although their drawbacks of weight and lack of adequate ventilation became more apparent. The helmet fell from widespread favour during the late ’70s and ’80s as climbers looked for a free style, cutting away anything that would hold them back and inhibit their connection with the rock. A perfect image to demonstrate that is the classic photo of Ron Fawcett soloing L’Horla on Curbar wearing just a pair of thin shorts and a chalk bag. I suppose helmets also became associated with ‘the establishment’ and following rules and went against the long-held rebellious nature of UK climbing. If you look at sports like snowboarding, skiing and skateboarding you can draw similar comparisons and though people make lots of excuses why head protection is ignored by many, it’s fundamentally down to the fact that wearing a helmet is ‘dorky’ and un-cool.
And so helmets fell from favour for the majority of climbers in the UK, saved for designated ‘loose’ crags, winter and Alpine mountaineering only — due to the belief that helmets are purely there to protect you from falling stones.
If we look at the mass acceptance of helmets in cycling and the resulting huge decline in cycle-related head injuries, it’s possible to see how the widespread adoption of helmets for rock-climbing may take place. To begin with cycle helmets just got better. They became lighter, and both fit and ventilation improved, overcoming most of the understandable helmet objections, many of which can be levelled at climbing helmets. Styling and flashy design began to be applied to what was once a purely functional piece of protection, making helmets desirable, sexy and in some case a status symbol. Cost became less important once they became fashionable with people paying what climbers would consider an incredible amount for a fancy helmet.
Very quickly, helmets became socially acceptable and very quickly lost that ‘spody’ image, becoming cool and radical. If you weren’t wearing a helmet you were the odd one out, plus wearing one meant you could push the speed and rip up that envelope just that little bit more.
WHAT DO I MEAN BY DEDICATED ROCK-CLIMBING HELMET?
A dedicated rock-climbing helmet is designed to provide an equal amount of protection from both falling objects (rocks, ice or meteorites) AND from impacting the rock or ground itself. In the past a helmet was judged only on its crown impact strength stemming from its mountaineering origins. This is still important as even in non-mountain based climbing rockfall is a danger, but head impact (the head hitting something) requires a further off-centre strength. This may mean that the helmet’s crown strength is reduced in order to achieve an overall protection level but in the case of rock-climbing this is okay as accidents (generally better gear and rock) are less likely.
Secondly, the helmet must be designed to stay comfortable over a much broader temperature range to stop the wearer removing it because it’s unbearable to wear.
At the moment this kind of helmet can be broken into two camps. Thick foam/hard shell (BD Half Dome, Petzl Elios) and thick foam/soft shell (Petzl Meteor, Grivel Cap and others).
THE GRIM REALITY OF HEAD-BANGING
Your brain is made up of around 1.5kg of soft spongy material, suspended in an oily liquid within your skull, which is approximately 10mm thick. This unfortunately makes your head the perfect shock absorber with the crushable fragile skull and soft squashy brain doing a great job of absorbing all that nasty kinetic energy stored within that speeding rock or your own falling body. The downside with this is that, as we all know, the human brain is vital for a long and fulfilling life, so it’s worth understanding what your head is up against, if for no other reason than it might spur you into protecting it.
The most common head injury is concussion. Many climbers have experienced some form of head injury, either in a head impact during a fall or by a head strike from a falling object. I’ve seen several people get ropes caught behind legs in a fall and bash their heads on the way down, or jumping off boulders and slipping on mats or wet grass and stunning themselves. Concussion can cause unconsciousness, disorientation, sickness or loss of memory. This is caused by the brain being swirled around within the brain’s supporting fluid, causing bruising. Damage can also be caused by the brain smashing against the inside of the skull as the brain rebounds from an impact resulting in more severe bruising and swelling that can increase pressure on the brain leading to such nastiness as long-term brain damage, coma or death. The brain is full of tiny blood vessels that keep the brain supplied with oxygen and in a hard impact these can become torn. The blood that bleeds into the brain is unable to escape and causes pressure against the brain, with serious and sometimes fatal results. Blood clots forming in the brain are also extremely dangerous and may strike long after the incident.
A high, or sharp, impact may result in a skull fracture and direct damage to the brain beneath. A fractured skull can also result in a piece of broken bone being pushed into the brain, causing pressure and bleeding, plus a scalp wound at the fracture site that may allow infection into the brain. A severe, massive, widespread injury can cause immediate deep unconsciousness with the risk of an obstructed airway. If that’s not bad enough it’s thought that single head injuries and even multiple, low-impact head injuries have also been linked to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
If that doesn’t convince you here’s some non-climbing related facts. In the US more than 70,000 persons need hospital emergency room treatment each year for injuries related to skateboarding, an activity like climbing that stigmatizes helmet use. In one state in the US, head injuries cause three-quarters of about 900 bicycle deaths each year; 82,000 people suffer brain injuries each year while playing sports in the States. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, a bicycle helmet reduces the risk of serious head and brain injury by 85%.
The common helmet response of: “If the rock is big a helmet won’t save you anyway” is crap and although wearing a helmet will not make you invulnerable to any of these injuries, it may change a fractured skull into a concussion, or give you a long sit in the A&E, rather than a very long lie down in the morgue’s fridge.
DEDICATED ROCK-CLIMBING HELMETS NOW AND INTO THE FUTURE
So what’s the state of play with rock-climbing helmets at the moment? Well it’s not too bad, and it’s getting better, with exciting models accelerating the adoption among climbers. The Petzl Meteor (left) was a massive step in the right direction and although it’s greatly misunderstood, is in my opinion the best-dedicated rock-climbing helmet on the market (more about that later). I have very serious doubts and concerns about some of the other ‘soft shell’ helmets caused by what I consider poor construction and design much of which is compounded by (what I consider) to be poor regulations and proper testing. It’s still early days and I have some confidence in groups like the BMC’s Technical Committee to push for a higher standard although a major stumbling block seems to be agreeing what that standard should be when related to the real end user. Although, as I say, I have some concerns about a few models that seem to me to be blurring the lines between a thick hat and a helmet, if this is what it takes for people to begin wearing a helmet then that can only be a good thing.
So what about the future of climbing helmets? Well, firstly, manufacturers have to get away from traditional headband type suspension cradle. This works great for mountaineering, as the cradle absorbs a great deal of impact on the crown, but means there is very low energy absorption at the rim. Secondly, and most importantly, this design is just hot to wear. Anyone who has ever worn a headtorch on their head will testify to how hot the head gets. This means no matter how much venting you’ve got, your head will get hot and sweaty. The Petzl Meteor system with its three foam adjusters is perfect, as there is minimal contact with the head itself and it is very quick to adjust. The system seems to have been greatly misunderstood, with people cranking the adjusters down tight enough to cause marks on their heads. Frankly, people like this are obviously idiots and don’t require helmets in the first place, as they will no doubt be tying in incorrectly and climbing with their harness undone (rant over).
One criticism levelled at these helmets is their vulnerability to damage, being apparently far more fragile than the hard shell helmets an example being a friend of mine who’s got through three ‘soft shell’ helmets in the last two years. In their defence hard shell helmets can also become damaged and fatally flawed but this is often harder to spot. I think this is partly down to climbers having unrealistic expectations of a piece of protection that’s constructed and designed to work differently from their old school climbing helmets. The classic lids like the Petzl Ecrin Roc (right) (perhaps the best helmet for design, construction and all-round performance) and Edelrid Ultralight are very robust, whereas the Meteor, Cap and Startec helmets are much more vulnerable to damage while being transported around. Is this a bad thing? After all shouldn’t you be looking after your protection anyway? You don’t stand on your rope so why would you stand on your helmet? You can break a £100 cycling helmet as easily as a £50 climbing helmet but if this drawback is outweighed by their benefits you buy another, which is exactly why my friend got through three models of the same helmet.
A secondary area that’s very important is the integrity of the suspension. Helmets where the cradles rip out, or the straps wander and migrate so they no longer fit, or buckles that are hard to adjust or operate are common with only Petzl having what I consider high quality (because they are dedicated pieces, not off the shelf components) buckles and clips that work and do not compromise the fit. There would be a massive outcry and recall if a harness was produced with buckles that constantly slipped, or migrated so it no longer fitted correctly, that needed re-adjusting every time you put it on, yet in the majority of helmets I’ve used, this is often the case.
I think styling will become more important and radical, with brighter and more flamboyant colours, designs and shapes although this will only come with more people buying helmets and making it more worthwhile. People need to get over the cost of a helmet making it possible for manufacturers to break through the £50 barrier. The excellent HB Dyneema helmet (which I don’t put in this rock-climbing category being a trad all-rounder) points the way to what could be possible, combining that kind of bulletproof featherweight shell with a foam inner that will provide better off-centre impact protection, plus a secure cool suspension and finished off with sexy design (how about an in-built mini LED headtorch to finish it off?).
So what’s having an accident on your bike got to do with rock-climbing helmets? Sitting in A&E I had time to think about how lucky I’d been. How strange after so many gnarly chop routes to come so close to buying it on a road not far from home, an accident that came unexpectedly and caused by such a simple thing as an over-excited black dog. What if I’d gone headfirst into a car coming the other way, or a sharp kerb, what if my skull hadn’t been quite so thick? A friend of mine once visited someone in a head injuries ward in Sheffield (full of bikers, cyclists, climbers) and said he never once climbed or cycled without a helmet on and sitting there I remembered Neil Bentley saying: “There are worse things then dying” when he bought his helmet for Equilibrium, a helmet that later saved his life in the Dolomites. We make so many excuses for not wearing helmets, like it makes us feel too encumbered. If that’s true why encumber yourself with ropes and hardware? After all how often do you ever fall off?
I’ve spend months climbing in the mountains and only ever had the odd stone bounce off my head, years driving and never needing my seatbelt, thousands of miles on my bike with not one accident until then. But that’s life, you could buy a rock-climbing helmet tomorrow and wear it forever and never once need it (although I guarantee once you start wearing a modern helmet you won’t go back). Yet there is always the possibility that one day while doing what you enjoy, not a care in the world, along comes your very own metaphysical ‘black dog’, something unexpected, a single falling stone, an unexpected jarring slip into a corner, a rope behind a leg, that may, if you’re not as lucky as I was, leave the last thought you ever have echoing in your head being ‘I’m not wearing a helmet’.
HEAD INJURIES – WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
Confused. Dizzy. Feeling sick. Slurred speech. Impaired vision. Headache. Drowsy. Heavy breathing. Fluid seeping from ear/nose. High temperature. Twitching. Fitting. Weakness or paralysis down one side of the body.