Helmets, accidents and moving on from an accident in climbing

From Climbing.com's great article arguing for more uses of helmets

From Climbing.com's great article arguing for more uses of helmets

"The perception of helmets is not just an individual climber’s problem; it’s an industry-wide problem. Sport climbers are never photographed with helmets. Petzl, Black Diamond, CAMP and Mammut all make terrific helmets, but the sponsored sport climbers never wear them. Why? Who has to die before the entire industry will promote helmet use for all climbers?

The climbing helmets that are being made these days are light and comfortable. My current helmet, and my favorite so far is one of Petzl’s newest helmets, the Sirocco. The helmet is made out of car bumper material, is extremely lightweight and the most comfortable helmet I have ever worn! Some climbing guides prefer the Sirocco due to its longevity. Petzl has other helmets, including the Elia, the women’s specific suspension helmet that has a cutout for a ponytail. I just tried on a Black Diamond Vapor, another lightweight, well-ventilated comfortable helmet that I am thinking about purchasing; Mammut, and CAMP are other companies that make phenomenal helmets."

From an well written (shocking) article on CruxCrush - you're going to need to 10 minutes to read it fully, but well worth your time. (although in relation to helmets, they're regularly shown on people climbing big walls and multi-pitches - should they be used always?).

Climbing is one of the safest sports you can do:

"In fact, the huge majority of climbing injuries are non-traumatic—finger and elbow tendonitis, shoulder pain, and similar overuse injuries—or cuts, sprains, broken bones, and other non-life-threatening injuries, mostly in the lower extremities. In 2009, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study by Nicolas Nelson and Lara McKenzie of U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission data on climbers admitted to emergency rooms. Injuries to the lower extremities accounted for nearly half of the climber ER visits between 1990 and 2007, with ankles bearing the brunt of the damage. In the same study, head injuries (including neck, face, eyes, ears, and mouth) accounted for 12 percent of the total—an average of about 275 a year. (There was no data on who wore a helmet.) Other studies and surveys have shown a 4 to 8 percent rate of head trauma among all climber injuries."

We don't tackle each other which removes a large proportion of injuries that are common in other sports! - but they do happen. And unfortunately the ones that make the headlines are usually the ones with the very sad endings.

Personally, I don't wear a helmet while bouldering or sport climbing. I almost always wear one while trad climbing (on the rare occasion I do so nowadays!). Even taking away the risk of rockfall, there is a greater chance of gear pulling out in a fall on trad climbing, and many lines follow corners or blocky faces where there is many more protruding objects in the case of a fall. Come to think of it, most of the incidents I've come across in climbing have involved a head injury (most thankfully being minor with a graze) or at the very least a large dent in a helmet.

Injury Reduction

It seems there's a few causes of injuries that could be reduced. Some are obvious: more use of helmets would help. Taking trad as the most common form of rope climbing in Ireland, why is it that more people seem to wear helmets on muti-pitches than single-pitch climbing*? Sure, there's possible rockfall from a group above while on a multi-pitch but there's also a pretty good chance of something being pulled off a single-pitch (one of the worst accidents I was ever there for was caused by just such an incident) or just a bad fall from gear ripping. Unfortunately, it goes against the 'cool' factor - and unfortunately many of those who live on the blind optimistic gene (I can think of two well known Irish trad climbers who have taken big falls that were only saved by a wire only barely staying in, or a cam on only two pieces, that would have resulted in a ground fall from significant height - and afterwards thought it was all fine, even though everyone else knew....). After reading this article, I know I'll be re-thinking my use of helmets. My initial thoughts tell me that most of the crags I climb at are clean smooth walls of limestone in Europe, but I can also have to tell myself to forget about those large blocks that the goats knocked off the top of the crag of Ceuse only narrowly missing the walkway, or the similar incident in Rodellar....... What odds are you willing to accept?

For those who've experienced an accident from the other side

One of the interesting things that is also rarely spoken about in articles writing about an accident is those who have experienced an accident firsthand, i.e. been there after someone has been injured and had to help in the rescue. I've been on site for several now, from the minor sprain to the full-on helicopter evacuation and straight-into-surgery. My own experience is that it takes anything from a couple of days to a couple of months to get over such an incident. After that serious one I was on site for many years ago, I'll never forget the day after going up to do a HVS route at Fair Head (well below my grade at the time): I was absolutely terrified. I didn't climb for almost two months after it. A recent accident left me dealing with the psychological un-motivation aftermath again, only this time I'm older/wiser in how to handle it. Note to all: spend some time relaxing, talking out the accident with friends/family, and get their support coming back - you may not realise it's impact psychologically as you can feel rattled, unmotivated, etc.

It seems to have been the best solutions I've come up with. Has anyone else experienced accidents? How did you deal with them afterwards?

*I wonder whether a lot of the bold trad climbs I see that get glamorised are like Formula 1 in the 70's (watch the film 'Rush' for a good insight): many people look back on it romantically but almost no-one would go back to it bar the few reckless people, or those who pretend to ignore the risk. Controversial line of the week! Granted, moving on involves changing the routes (or never climbing them again) and I suspect climbing's ethics would never let that happen :)

Note that this isn't a critique of trad climbing or for it's end - only a specific type of climb. I may have largely quit trad climbing myself but this was how I was introduced to the sport and I have the utmost respect for the discipline and those to practice it. It is only trying to acknowledge that all things change, and whether this is the right change.

Neal McQuaid