The Great Debate: Helmets At The Crag - Rock and Ice

Sponsored by Petzl

By Owen Clarke

In 2019, seeing a party rope up for a multi-pitch climb without helmets is akin to a snow leopard sighting, or spotting one of those ancient guys who tie in with bowlines at the gym to top rope.

But for single-pitch climbing, particularly on sport routes, the practice of dome-protection is less universal. Watch any of the Weekend Whippers on our site. One in every five features a climber nearly becoming a vegetable, all because he or she failed to strap on a helmet. In almost all cases, the injured party is only one pitch off the deck.

As climbers, we practice our sport in a realm contingent upon strict adherence to safety standards. We wear harnesses with leg loops instead of just swami belts, we retire our ropes when they get old or log too many falls, lots of us even replace our carabiners if they’re dropped. Ironically enough, however, many climbers religiously adherent to these standards still shy away from protecting their heads.

Head and brain trauma isn’t the most common injury climbers face, but it is, without a doubt, one of the most debilitating, long-lasting, and avoidable. Head injuries are more likely to require hospitalization than any other climbing injury, and the repercussions of traumatic brain injury, if not fatal, can persist for weeks, months or years, affecting concentration, memory, motor function, and more.

Margo Hayes scopes out her route. Photo: Tara Kerzhner.

We’ve all climbed without a helmet at some point, or at least thought about it, and most of us have had close calls, or experienced some second-hand. The question is: why?

Often we are lulled into the belief that more inherent danger exists when embarking on multi-pitch routes, and thus a helmet is necessary. But the same hazards we wear a helmet to protect against in multi-pitch climbs are also present in single pitches. Falling rocks, bad whippers, dropped gear—it all can happen 50 feet off the deck just as easily as it can 400 feet, and the casual nature of single-pitch days can lead to a complacency which sometimes makes these accidents even more common.

Petzl athlete five-time U.S. National Champion climber Emily Harrington spoke with Rock and Ice about helmet use. Harrington admitted she didn’t grow up wearing a helmet while climbing, but these days she always wears helmets on traditional climbs, and sport climbs where rockfall or dangerous falls are common, particularly after a friend was hit by rockfall in the Owens River Gorge.

It just doesn’t make sense to leave her helmet behind when climbing because, Harrington said, “head injuries are devastating and for the most part, avoidable with a helmet.” Though she currently still climbs sans-helmet on overhung sport routes with properly spaced bolts, she’s trying to wear her helmet more often whenever possible. “It’s hard to adopt a new habit once you’re so used to something else,” she said, “especially when you haven’t experienced firsthand the consequences of not wearing one. And climbers are a finicky group. Sometimes I don’t carry an extra draw or my brush during a send attempt. Our ropes are getting skinnier and everything is becoming so light. Anything that feels like it may hinder the send is hard to adopt as a part of our kit.”

Photo: Tara Kerzhner.

This is where Petzl is changing the game, with new lightweight helmet models like the METEOR and SIROCCO, which come in at 240g and 170g (about the weight of a billiard ball), respectively. “I’ve used both the METEOR and the SIROCCO,” said Harrington, “for big wall climbing, trad climbing, and ski mountaineering. I must say they are light and comfortable and easy to wear.” As a result of these new models, Harrington noted, “I’ve been wearing my helmet more recently than I used to…”

Aside from weight, a major problem in the industry is the protection helmets offer. The vast majority of helmets on the market today are focused on protecting the top of the head against falling rocks and direct blows, but injuries from the front, rear and sides occur just as frequently in a fall, and are just as dangerous. A Climbing article on helmet use in 2013 noted that, due to industry testing standards, the protection most helmets offer for the front, rear and sides of a climber’s head is often lacking or nonexistent. “Helmet testing doesn't address the needs of modern rock climbers,” read a sub-header.

The Petzl METEOR (left) and Petzl SIROCCO (right).

The Petzl brand, however, has adopted a new in-house standard to meet this challenge, adding a TOP AND SIDE PROTECTION label to their products, which guarantees the helmet’s ability to provide a certain level of front, side, and rear protection. Both the lightweight METEOR and the ultra-lightweight SIROCCO offer this guarantee, as do the sturdy BOREO and the PICCHU children’s helmet. This means the helmets meet the industry standard EN 12492 and UIAA 106 tests, which focus on traditional top protection, in addition to the new Petzl in-house protocol, which involves dropping 5kg weights on the front, rear, and sides of the helmet to test all-around protection. As such, Petzl is now the only climbing helmet manufacturer that guarantees a level of protection from the front, rear, and sides, in addition to impacts from the top.

The added protection of Petzl’s new line is vital to mountain athletes like Harrington, whether for ski touring, rock climbing, or mountaineering. But for her, the important thing is that the Petzl helmets are easy to clip on and put out of mind. In Harrington’s mind, the METEOR and SIROCCO are synonymous with “comfort and weight like no other.”

“The new SIROCCO is incredibly light,” she said. “I often forget it’s on while climbing.”

The Petzl BOREO (left) and Petzl PICCHU (right).

It’s true that many climbers, like Harrington, used to eschew helmets. We’ve all seen the photos of Chouinard blasting up walls in a knit toboggan, or the Stonemasters leading routes in the Valley with only a mop of unwashed hair to protect their noggins. But those guys also roped up in swami belts. They anchored in with pro we wouldn’t dream of touching now. They climbed in boots we wouldn’t wear except as a fashion statement. Climbers used to hip belay, now we don’t. Climbers used to climb with hemp rope, now we don’t.

Rocks fall. Holds break. Gear drops. And no matter how long we’ve been climbing or how easy the route is... sometimes we take whippers that knock our noggins against the wall and make us forget what we ate for breakfast that morning.

That happens on big walls, and it can happen just as easily on single-pitch routes.

It’s 2019. Helmet up, folks.

14 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Helmets At The Crag”

  1. Wow – very surprising petzl is pro helmet. Whole I agree helmets are good this is such an obviously biased point of view it makes me laugh.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, but as long as Rock and Ice continues to feature covers and photos of climbers not wearing helmets you’re at best sending mixed messages. At worst – you’re being hypocritical.

  3. i almost died in 2015 because of a 7m fall while sport climbing…broke my skull and lost my sense of balance on the right side. lukily i was wearing my helmet as i was practising for a multi pitch climb in the alps. since then i‘m wearing a helmet everytime going outside…

  4. I used to only wear a helmet when Mountain Climbing, sea cliff Climbing or when I suspected loose rock. When I was climbing at the Oregon Pipes above Hobart Tasmania at base of a popular route the leader knocked a small rock which hit on the top of my helmet. I now wear a helmet every time I climb.

  5. Plenty of multi-pitch climbing (including Peter Croft recently doing his “Venturi effect” on film) is perfectly reasonable sans helmet and this was accepted until very, very recently. Good grief. Helmets have always been appropriate in a setting where you’re likely to get smacked with something – alpine or ice or, in a traversing fall which is not commonplace. The modern tendency to wear a helmet for everything is excessive and it reflects, I suggest, confusing safety itself with the icon of safety. Wanting to be safe, and wearing a helmet no matter what, DOES substantiate your zeal but it doesn’t change the realities that matter.

    1. I tend to disagree. Having seen plenty of lose rock on sport climbing spots and seen blocks pulled off on sea cliffs my question is why would you ever not wear a helmet outdoors. They weigh almost nothing. Its always a personal choice and a helmet is certainly not a complete solution or an excuse to act negligently. So should never be mandatory when climbing in a personal capacity but it is a reasonable choice. Rock is hard, heads less so.

  6. If Petzl believed any of the crap they wrote in this article they’d establish a hard and fast rule for every one of their sponsored athletes: In every climbing photo of you, you must be wearing a helmet. If we catch you without a helmet in a climbing photo, we dock your already meager pay.
    However, Petzl won’t do that. Even if it sells more helmets. Thus, the feel good nonsense written above is just that. Nonsense. Actions speak louder than words, and in the utter absence of any action, Petzl’s desires are clear.

  7. Well I guess this article is sponsored by petzl so it makes sense it’s basically a petzl helmet ad… was thinking this was going to discuss the main reason why people don’t wear helmets: they don’t look as good for those Instagram pics!

  8. Sponsored by a helmet manufacturer, classic. However, correct. I always make sure that my belayer is wearing a helmet

  9. Yes there is irony in this as indeed most pictures published in the magazine shows climbers without a helmet. And Rock and Ice certainly has work to do in promoting helmet use. And yes, it is in Petzl’s interest to encourage people to wear helmets. But that is not the point, the point is that a helmet can save your life whether you are multipitching or cragging, whether you are belaying or climbing. The point is: wear a helmet. Not wearing a helmet is never cool.

  10. The only close call I ever had was while bouldering all because a sheep at the top of the crag threw a rock at my head. Luckily heard it coming and moved. But in terms of rope climbing I always wear a baseball cap. Been climbing for 20 years never had any issues. Should we all be wearing helmets for bouldering aswell? My main point is dont stand under someone while they are climbing even if belaying try to stand to the side also DONT FALL. I have never taken a fall outside even while pushing grades but many times called take and controlled my slight drop into the rope.

  11. In January of this year my girlfriend fell 10m on to her head when being lowered. Her neck was instantly broken and she required surgery. After the operation was a success to fuse parts of her neck back together the surgeon said had she not been wearing her helmet at the time, the outcome could have been A LOT worse. The helmet absorbed a huge volume of the impact. I’m very proud to say the helmet in question was a Petzl Meteor. Thanks to her wearing it, we have a special person still with us today.

    I’m a huge, huge advocate for wearing helmets and just as importantly, wearing the correct type of helmet at the crag. In an age of ‘perfect’ social media posts, vanity and a longing to keep up with social trends, it’s more important than ever to demonstate safety as a social norm, not a reluctent requirement.

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