Don’t Play Climbing Helmet Roulette

Chicago area climber Justin Berry being littered out after a block of quartzite dislodged, smashing into his forehead and knee

I’ve written 3 different versions of a post for Pemba Serves about helmets and the outdoors.  Each one prior was full of stories that I had of how a helmet saved my life, or that of someone else that I know – like the time my long-time climbing partner Jay knocked loose a fist-sized chunk of granite from 70’ that knocked me flat, or Justin’s aid-climbing accident that had him littered out, or tales of my various bike wrecks that had me in stitches – not the funny kind of stitches.

But really, pictures and videos speak more than words. Let’s face it, if you participate in sports that carry an inherent risk – like biking, skiing, climbing…not wearing a helmet is playing Russian Roulette. The riskier the sport, the more bullets in the gun. I was going to put the end scene from The Deer Hunter in here, but you get the idea without Christopher Walken explaining it to you.

Why, then, are climbers complacent? Why aren’t more of us wearing helmets? True, bolted and established routes aren’t prone to loose rock and dropped gear, and unsupervised Scouts aren’t at the tops of every climb in every crag to tumble Foster’s-can sized rocks loose. But the risk is still there. A momentarily distracted belayer gives too much slack, an awkward fall off a greasy hold, a block that hasn’t moved in a million years blows loose on a hot summer day – we’ve all seen these things happen or had these things happen to us. Yes, accidentally getting your leg wrapped in a fall is about as likely as getting hit by a distracted driver on your bike commute.

Justin’s helmet saved his life

Which is the point. You can be a competent, attentive, diligent climber and still have an accident happen – just like even the most attentive, aware, and rules-of-the-road following rider can get hooked by a cellphone talking SUV driver, and just like a cautious and casual skier can get blindsided by some oblivious kid racing to get in line at the terrain park. They’re called accidents, not intentions, and you can always make sure you walk away with a story to tell, just by wearing a helmet.

You wear one on the bike, right? On skis/boards? Then why not on rock? Here’s some reasons why you should wear one for all of the above.


Bryan Kuhn fell in love with climbing at a summer camp in high school, and is known to still take his gear for a walk every now and then – if he’s not already biking, paddling, or hiking local MVC trails.  Bryan used to say ice climbers were nuts, but that was almost a decade and a lot of Midwest waterfall ice ago.  “Too many expensive hobbies, too little time…”

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