Mountain Project Logo

My helmet saved my life on Sunday

Original Post
Rich Farnham · · Nederland, CO · Joined Aug 2002 · Points: 297

There is an ongoing, interesting conversation in the climbing community about whether or not to wear a helmet. I'm posting here today to add one data point to the discussion - my helmet saved my life on Sunday. While cragging at Animal World, a large rock came off the wall above us. It hit the wall about 20' above us and exploded into multiple pieces (mostly between softball and basketball sized) that shot into our group. No one saw the block coming. Our first alert was the noise of the rock exploding on the slab above us. At the same instant I heard the noise, my head was snapped hard to the left. We all dove for cover, but really it was too late - the rock fall was already over.

I had been hit hard in the head by something, and quickly ran my hands over the back and side of my head and helmet to determine the damage. I completely expected my hands to become covered in blood. I had a terrifying moment where I realized I might have just sustained a fatal head injury, but was in the middle of the few remaining moments of consciousness before I faded out. My hands came back clean, and seconds passed without an onset of new sensations of pain in the back of my head. Maybe I was okay? Is that possible after a blow like that?

At the same time, everyone else was starting to stand up from wherever they dove for cover and check each other out. My girlfriend asked me if I was okay, and I had her check out the back of my head. "Whoa!" she said. "Are you sure you're okay?" As you can see from the images below, there was a large dent in my helmet, and a puncture a small distance below that. There's obviously no way to know for sure what would have happened to me if I hadn't had my helmet on. But having worked as a paramedic for a number of years, I feel I have a decent sense for what my skull would have looked like if the helmet hadn't been there to absorb the energy. Perhaps the wound wouldn't have been fatal - but I would have been looking at a serious head injury. Instead, I ended up with only a large scalp bruise, and even got in a few more pitches later that day (at another crag...). The foam of the helmet is cracked in multiple places, and compressed over a large area. It performed it's job perfectly - the foam compressed to absorb a significant amount of energy from the rock, and the rest was spread over a large enough area on my head to keep it from being a real problem.

Rockfall damage
Rockfall damage

The amazing thing is that I was the only one in the group of 5 people that were standing close together on that ledge that was wearing a helmet, and I'm the only one that was hit with a significant chunk of the rock. One woman got a small scrape on her shoulder from a small piece of shrapnel, but nothing serious. That incident could have been a lot more ugly. We're not exactly sure what caused the rock to come off. The other party that was on the ledge had started to pull a rope, but we don't think they were actually pulling it at the time the rock came down. Perhaps it was made unstable as they pulled the rope, but took a few seconds before it came off the wall. It doesn't really matter. The point is we knew there was some loose rock on that wall, and we all should have been more careful. Earlier, when I belayed my girlfriend on the route that the rock eventually came off of (Talking Out Of Turn), I wore a helmet. I was concerned about a few loose blocks I had seen on the wall, combined with the amount of rain we'd had lately. When I was hit, I had just lowered off of Isn't Life Strange (which also has a few suspect blocks), and still had my helmet on. My girlfriend had expressed concern about the blocks as well, and in hindsight says she is surprised she didn't have her helmet on while she was on the ground. She had meant to put it on, but got distracted and forgot. I'm curious if the rock that came down is the one near the anchor on Isn't Life Strange that Chris and Mike mentioned. But I don't think I'll be headed back up there to find out...

Despite seeing many more climbers in helmets these days than 25 years ago when I started climbing, I'd say the majority of climbers still don't wear helmets. Dougald MacDonald wrote a great article in Climbing a few months back about the topic. From the article: "When I began researching this article, I expected to reach a simple conclusion: Helmets can prevent or mitigate life-changing or life-ending head injuries, so more climbers should wear them. But what I discovered was a complex landscape of product technology, regulations, and climber psychology. Helmets, I found, don't protect particularly well against certain head injuries, including concussions. The certification tests do not specifically target the kinds of climbing that most people do today. And the design trend—propelled by consumer demand—is toward lighter and smaller helmets that are arguably less protective, not more. In such a landscape, I realized, the safest climber is not the one who reflexively dons any old helmet for protection, but the one who uses his head to assess the risks and climb smarter."

I was very impressed with the article, and with his discussion of the grey areas in the topic. I always wear a helmet when I'm leading, even sport routes...except when I'm at the gym. I don't typically wear one when I'm standing around on the ground, except in the mountains, and when I'm concerned about rockfall risk. That concern usually comes from people moving around above me, and/or cliffs that have loose rock. I'll be interested to see how this incident affects my helmet use. There is no doubt that a helmet will not protect you from all risks. If the rock that hit us had hit me directly instead of exploding on the slab first, the helmet wouldn't have done a thing for me. Someone that saw the rock said it was at least 2-3 ft. square (not sure how thick). It is also possible to fall in a way that your helmet won't protect you. But I chose the Meteor helmet because of the good coverage around the sides and back of the helmet, and that coverage is what made the difference. More brands are starting to provide this side coverage, which I think is a good thing.

In conclusion, my goal in writing this is not to preach to anyone that they should always wear a helmet. I will probably continue to evaluate the situation, and wear one when it makes sense. I suspect that my algorithm for that decision just got a bit more conservative, but I know I won't be wearing a helmet full time. Perhaps this story can be a data point for others to help them make a the decision to put on a helmet when they might not have before.

And lastly, I want to give a HUGE thanks to Petzl. I'm writing this today because of the fine design of your Meteor III helmet. The one I was wearing that day was destroyed, and I will be happily purchasing another just like it.

teece303 · · Highlands Ranch, CO · Joined Dec 2012 · Points: 596

Glad you are alright!

I'm surprised you weren't knocked out, even with a helmet.

Even if the rock is bombproof: carabiners and cams can still dent your head!

Any more, I got over my silly sense of looking like a dork and wear my helmet, while leading, belaying, whatever. I kinda like the contents of my head.

It's a personal choice, though, and I don't rag on my friends that don't wear helmets. Heck, I didn't used to wear one either.

Also, I read that article, too. It was a really well reasoned and objective look at helmet use.

David Gibbs · · Ottawa, ON · Joined Aug 2010 · Points: 2

Glad you had the helmet. Looks like time to buy a new one, and be glad you had that one.

matt c. · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 155

glad you are ok!
Thanks for sharing!

Ian Stewart · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2010 · Points: 155

Glad you're OK.

I know that I definitely don't wear a helmet as often as I should; I really only ever put it on when I'm trad climbing, even though 100% of the times I've come close to needing a helmet was when I was on the ground belaying.

Actually, that's not true...I've hit my head a number of times while climbing. Look down, place foot, look up, WHAM! It doesn't take much force to make it hurt. A lot.

I think my main issue is that I just don't have the right helmet. I have an Elios, which I find very uncomfortable and awkward. I should really try out some of the other options like the Meteor, but even still that's one issue I find with climbing helmets: the lack of selection is kinda shitty. There are literally thousands of different bike helmets, but you're limited to what...less than a dozen climbing helmets?

One thing I've noticed with helmets though is that if I'm wearing one, the likelihood of me hitting my head seems to jump drastically. First day I ever wore a snowboard helmet, WHAM, right into a tree, hard. Hiking with a climbing helmet? Every...single...tree branch will take a jab at my noggin.

419 · · Sacramento · Joined May 2010 · Points: 510

Great story. I hope it inspires one more person to wear a helmet.

I'm glad you place more credence in helmet safety than looking like a dork while wearing a helmet. I feel naked without my helmet. As a potential first responder, I feel uneasy when other people climb without a helmet (especially if they are making "other" poor safety decisions).

Mitigating risk I can control by wearing a helmet,

Boissal . · · Small Lake, UT · Joined Aug 2006 · Points: 1,541

Scary! Glad you had a brain bucket on and didn't expose your friends to an explosion of meat jelly...

To echo the previous poster, I've never been hit while on the ground but I've had a couple of instances of the

Ian Stewart wrote:Look down, place foot, look up, WHAM!

I came very close to taking a gigantic (and probably very gruesome) whipper a few years back because of this. I was cruising a 5.7 I know very well, enjoying life, looking around. I had no helmet on and very little gear between me and the belay. I was distracted by a fixed cam , played with it a while, failed at getting it out, started moving again and stood straight up into a sharp fin of choss. I hit it hard enough that I bit a chunk of my tongue off and almost pitched. I had to hang there for a couple of minutes waiting for the nausea to pass and my eyes to show me for than a black background with moving white dots. All I could think of was the 60+ foot fall I'd have taken had I hit a bit harder.

Ian Stewart wrote:One thing I've noticed with helmets though is that if I'm wearing one, the likelihood of me hitting my head seems to jump drastically

Truth. I swear it turns your head into a rock magnet. I guess the extra 1/2" isn't something your body is used to dealing with.
Malcolm Daly · · Hailey, ID · Joined Jan 2001 · Points: 380

Great, sobering thoughts about wearing a helmet. While on the ground. At a sport climbing area.

I love my Petzl Meteor.

The photo makes it look like the blow to the helmet came more from the side than from the top, leading me to think that a lightweight suspended helmet (Elios, Armour, Half Dome, etc) may not have protected you as wel.

Climb safe,

Gwut · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2013 · Points: 80

I bet you won't be getting one of those light weight foam helmets that are all the rage any time soon then?

Tim Stich · · Colorado Springs, Colorado · Joined Jan 2001 · Points: 1,503

The Bowling Alley nearby was the scene of a similar rockfall incident years ago with my friend Scott and I. We escaped being hit, but my pack too a good shot. The thing to realize is all cliffs are like this really, especially after rains. Go walk along the edges of the cliff at your local crag and you'll see this.

Ian Stewart · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2010 · Points: 155
Gwut wrote:I bet you won't be getting one of those light weight foam helmets that are all the rage any time soon then?
Why not? This post made me start looking at helmets again, and after reading a bit about it and watching Petzl's video, I'm really wanting one of the 165g Siroccos:…
Taylor J · · new mexico, new england · Joined Nov 2010 · Points: 375
Gwut wrote:I bet you won't be getting one of those light weight foam helmets that are all the rage any time soon then?
The petzl meteor is a lightweight foam helmet.....
Gwut · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2013 · Points: 80

They are just like a helmet without a shell.

Rick Blair · · Denver · Joined Oct 2007 · Points: 266
Ian Stewart wrote: Why not? This post made me start looking at helmets again, and after reading a bit about it and watching Petzl's video, I'm really wanting one of the 165g Siroccos:
Wouldn't this scirroco be susceptable to penetration by jagged/pointy stuff?
Craig Childre · · Lubbock, Texas · Joined Aug 2006 · Points: 4,885

That's intense... Great write up. Good info. I am prone to being lazy about my bucket when no one else is in the crowd is wearing one. A bad habit I need to remedy.

· · Unknown Hometown · Joined unknown · Points: 0
Rick Blair wrote: Wouldn't this scirroco be susceptable to penetration by jagged/pointy stuff?
Nope. It's not packing foam. Go check one out at the climbing shop. The foam is actually a lot more durable and crush proof than the type of foam used in the meteor. Hence why it doesn't need a shell.

(The color is a result of the fact that this type of foam is only produced in a very limited number of colors (3, I think).)
Scott Stanko · · Co · Joined Mar 2014 · Points: 0

Glad you are okay Rich! Super scary.

Ian Stewart · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2010 · Points: 155
Gwut wrote:They are just like a helmet without a shell.
Sure, but why do you need a shell? If the foam is sufficient on its own I see no reason to use a shell, especially if you'll have to replace your helmet after the shell is dented anyways. I wouldn't be surprised if the upper dents in the OPs helmet just bounced back into shape if he were wearing a Sirocco (though I'm guessing that lower divot probably would have still left a mark).

Looking at the lower dent again, I don't even think a helmet like the Elios covers down that low. I think most people assume the back coverage is more for fall impact, but in this case the extra coverage came in handy for rockfall, too.
Em Cos · · Boulder, CO · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 5

I used to wear a helmet most of the time, until one day I was belaying my partner on a single-pitch sport climbing route, very clean. Near the top of the pitch about 80 ft. up, she dislodged a pea-sized rock which nailed me right in the top of the head. Obviously I wasn't injured seriously but it HURT. I had an extremely tender pea-sized bruise for a few weeks. I would've happily worn a helmet to avoid even that small bruise, and since I can't think of a single climb where rock fall of at least the size of small gravel is very possible, that's when I decided that helmets are for always, not for sometimes.

On a more serious note, I had one very serious blow to the head where my helmet may have saved my life, but it most certainly saved my partners life. I was wearing a helmet and was belaying my partner from a semi-hanging belay on a multi-pitch climb. Even with the helmet, I had a pretty serious TBI which resulted in 6 months of headaches and memory problems. I don't know if the blow would've killed me without a helmet, but it certainly would've been worse and it was already plenty inconvenient. As it was I felt like I was lucky to remain conscious and was able to catch my partner as he fell and maintain my brake hand, I am certain that without the helmet I would've been knocked out and his fall would've continued to the ground far below.

I just mention this because I too believe that most safety decisions are personal choices, unless you're sharing a rope and then it is at least a team decision, and I hope everyone will keep in mind that your helmet may protect your partner as much as it protects you.

Dan Austin · · San Francisco, CA · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 0

Glad to hear you made it out of the accident OK!

I'm interested and a little surprised to hear that most occasional-helmet-wearers opt to wear them more often while leading than while belaying/hanging out on the ground. Even as a sport climber, I'm much more afraid of rock (or gear) falling on me than I am of flipping. I guess I feel like flipping is something I can 'control' by being diligent and safe about rope positioning and falling, whereas rock fall is generally unpredictable and commonplace.

Realistically, I probably will continue not to wear a helmet while climbing single pitch sport unless it's a particularly crumbly crag. But for me, wearing a helmet while belaying or on the ground is something I'm going to aim for as close to 100% as possible, regardless of how 'bomber' the crag is.

Ben Jefferies · · Flagstaff, AZ · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 0

I had an experience this Sunday which further illustrates the main point of this thread. My climbing partner took what would have been a mild whipper, except that two pieces blew. He ended up making contact with the rock on the way down, including a pretty good tap on the head. He was wearing his helmet, was fine, and finished the route. We both discussed the incident and said our main lesson learned was always, always wear the helmet, even when the route is overhung.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

General Climbing
Post a Reply to "My helmet saved my life on Sunday"

Log In to Reply