Articles - Beginner's Guide: The A-Z of Helmets
Photo: Clyma Coll.
by Bruce Goodlad
Helmets...why wear one?
The brain is the most easily damaged organ in the body…unless you’re male. Once damaged it can’t repair itself in the same way as rest of the body, so a bash on the head can lead to long-term problems that could ruin your life. Climbing exposes the head to two main types of threat: things hitting it from above, such as ice, rock or dropped climbing gear, or being injured as result of a fall.
In the early days of my winter climbing career I tried to ‘swim’ my way up the Runnel in the Northern Corries one early December. There was loads of fresh snow about and not knowing anything about winter, or snow, I thought that this was a sensible place to be. Then everything went white: the small cornice above us had collapsed; I was knocked off my feet and carried down with it, bashing my ankle on a rock. I was carried off the hill by some very nice men from the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team, one of whom I ended up working with in Antarctica. You can imagine the conversation on the ship when we realised we had met before. . .
All very interesting but what has it to do with helmets? Well, when I sorted my rucksack out after the event I discovered that my helmet, which had been in my sac, was cracked. It should of course have been on my head and it got me thinking, if a small knock to my ankle could break it then what could the same rock have done to my head. And what was my helmet doing in my sac? With hindsight I think it was because we weren’t actually climbing, therefore didn’t need one on. Rather a bizarre idea! From then on as soon as I started approaching a winter cliff, the helmet went on and stayed on. In the intervening years I have seen many things falling from above. I have also seen people die from slipping, falling over their crampons or over balancing while putting their harness on at the base of a climb. They may have survived if they’d been wearing a helmet!
What I am driving at is that a helmet is no use unless you wear it. The concept that a helmet is only for winter and alpine climbing is fundamentally flawed. Loads of stuff falls off rock climbing crags too. Cloggy can become a shooting gallery on a busy weekend and ponder the piles of loose stones on most of the belay ledges in the Llanberis Pass! I was climbing at Machaby, a 9-pitch crag in the Val d’Aosta the other day. The rock is perfect gneiss, and not a loose hold on it. I had just put my helmet on and was flaking out the ropes when I heard a whistling noise, then a belay device smacked into the ground beside me. Looking up, the closest people were 6 pitches above me, and the device was dented, and so would I have been had it made a direct hit. Another common idea is that helmets are not for sport climbing. Well, a friend of mine fell off a route at Pen Trwyn, the rope snagged his heel, flipping him upside-down. The back of his head was the first thing to hit the rock. Luckily he was wearing a helmet, which was cracked by the impact. . .
There are two basic categories of helmet construction these days:
- Lightweight polystyrene-type designs
- Helmets made from a plastic or carbon mix
Polystyrene helmets are designed to disintegrate on impact so absorbing the shock, consequently removing any temptation to carry on using them after an impact. The flip side is that they are more easily damaged in transit. I ruined an early Petzl Meteor by stuffing it into my sac next to a pair of crampons, and then sitting on the sac. The result was a pair of crampons through the helmet, which then had to go in the bin. The advantage is that they are incredibly light and comfortable so are better suited to rock climbing. In the ice climbing arena where you may receive a number of blows to the head in one day from falling ice, a polystyrene model won’t be much use if it disintegrates part way through the route or in your sac on the way to the crag. A polycarbonate or plastic shelled helmet is far more robust. These are less prone to damage in transit and will take repeated small knocks more readily. The flip side is they are heavier and it is much more difficult to tell if they have been damaged.
There are a couple of helmets that utilise a bit of both designs, and these are a great compromise. I would always choose a hybrid or a model with a polycarbonate / plastic shell for winter climbing due to its robust construction.
Helmets all have to conform to basic tests. These were the old UIAA standards, which were pretty much adopted by CE. Unfortunately the only real test a helmet has to pass is a crown impact, a lump of rock landing right on top of your head. If the force is offset then the helmet may not give such good protection. This is especially the case where there is little clearance between the helmet and the forehead. I once saw someone end up with the inside shape of their helmet permanently embossed on their forehead when hit by a lump of falling ice.
The BMC Technical committee have done some excellent work in this area and some of their findings can be found on thebmc.co.uk/safety/tech/articles/issue26_off_centre This may not affect your decision making when you go to buy a helmet, but it is useful to know how the fit and the positioning of the helmet on your head relates to possible impacts from directions other than vertically above.
Buying a Helmet
Once you have chosen the general design, lightweight vs. more robust, you need to try a few on. Personally I would make a pain of myself and try on everything in the shop. The helmet should be adjusted so that it will sit securely on your head without the chinstrap done up. You should be able to wiggle your head about and it shouldn’t just fall off if someone pushes it. At the same time it should be comfortable, otherwise you won’t want to wear it. It is worth bringing a hat along so you can make sure that the size you buy can accommodate the extra layer. The ability to change the size easily on the hill is important, as you may have a hat on and off through out the day if alpine climbing, or even rock climbing in the mountains in summer. I would always choose a model that has some sort of retention system for a head-torch. Unfortunately everyone except Grivel has gone over to hooks on the sides that you will catch your slings on. The Grivel system of elastic is much more sensible. A number of helmets have the option to fit a visor for ice climbing. I am fairly ambivalent about this feature but some people love them, feeling they climb better with eye protection. Personally I feel like I am peering through a semi-defrosted windscreen, so it’s really a matter of preference.
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