Monday, 20 January 2014

Helmet or not to helmet?

So, the idea of this blog is to discuss injuries and injury prevention, so I thought I'd share some discussion on helmet wearing within rock climbing, as that clever piece of brain matter is quite vital!

The author climbing "Looning the Tube" E1 5b in the Dinorwic slate quarries, helmet in situ.
Now, there are plenty of sports that wear helmets, horse riding and cycling are the immediate sports that spring to mind.

Yet, out on the crags, we see climbers choosing not to wear helmets, yet a lot of them will wear helmets when they are involved in other sports such as cycling.
I understand that there are no rules and regulations that require climbers to wear helmets, that it is a personal choice (unlike, for instance, horse riding competitions), so I just thought I'd share ideas about wearing helmets.

Below is the BMC video from last year that canvassed opinions from climbers out on the Eastern Grit about helmet wearing.

Some people do have the opinion that a helmet limits visibility, impairing balance and cause overheating, however, modern helmets nowadays reduce this, and from a personal point of view, my helmet does not limit my climbing!
Sometimes, I think it's vanity, but luckily this is starting to change, with rock climbing magazines and guidebooks proudly displaying pictures of hard climbing/climbers wearing helmets! Helmets now also fit better and look slightly more aesthetically pleasing.

Also, some people only think that helmets protect you from falling objects, so some that will choose to only wear a helmet at crags that are classed as "unstable", such as quarries such as Horseshoe Quarry, however, most head injuries I've seen have been from falls have been where the climber has inverted by catching their leg behind the rope (such happened to a friend at Pen Trywn - luckily, he only had minor concussion and was right as rain after a few days), or from swinging underneath an overhang or round awkward corners (seen this a few times on the grit, fortunately no serious injuries).

In contrast to this, in Paul Pritchard's recovery from his head injury from a rock fall in Tansania , on the Totem Pole, which resulted in his hemiplegia, the doctors who initially assessed the extent of his injury reported that if he had been wearing a helmet, the angle at which the rock hit his head could have resulted in him being killed outright instead of resulting in a recoverable (albeit long!) head injury.

And statistically speaking, head injuries account for 12.2% of accidents in the US (similar figure acquired by UK Mountain Rescue Teams), and the majority of these being lacerations rather than serious injuries. There is a higher likelihood of a fracture or overuse injury. But it's still 12.2%!

From a personal point of view, I don't wear my helmet when bouldering or indoor climbing, although some will argue that there is a place for helmets in these environments. From my point of view, it's a calculated risk, as I'm generally not high balling routes when bouldering, and most indoor routes are straight lines and well thought out for clipping etc. When soloing, I don't wear a helmet, as it's not going to be much use if I fall off!
When I'm out trad or sport climbing, the helmet is always in the bag, and the decision is made on arrival at the crag to wear it or not, dependant on the crag and route. I generally wear a helmet sport climbing in the Peak, on the limestone, do to the nature of the rock, whereas trad on the grit is normally a route-by-route decision. 
I took my helmet out to Kalymnos, and rarely wore it, and at times wish I did, due to some routes still being loose and friable (especially on Telendos), but when you come back without incident, it gives you time to reflect and ensure you do so next time.

So there you have it, take from it what you will, but do remember, recovery from a head injury such as a bleed or hemiplegia is much longer than from a finger injury, and much more serious (if anybody knows someone who's had a stroke will know it can be a long road to recovery).

Paul Pritchard's craniotomy in 2012
Copyright Paul Pritchard

So next time you go to the crag, will your helmet be packed? Personally, I know mine will. 

References/Further Reading

Paul Pritchard 1999 Totem Pole

BMC articles: 
Head Case 
Keeping a head; a head injury case study 
Tech skills; why wear a helmet 

Personal experience!

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