Thursday, 7 August 2008

Soloing and helmets (by Peter)

Me soloing at Haytor, Dartmoor (© Sarah Clough)

There was a recent thread on asked the question "Do you wear a helmet for climbing?." On this I was happily pontificating in my customary way for a while about wearing a helmet for everything except bouldering, including sport climbing; and berating others for taking different choices. However, I then received an e-mail from a friend which included some photos from a recent trip to Dartmoor. Included in these were some of me soloing on Haytor and not wearing a helmet!

When leading or seconding trad or sport climbing, my rationale for wearing a helmet is as follows: -

  1. It is not atypical in a crag environment for rock fragments (of varying sizes) to be dislodged, either by the leader, or by people (sheep?) above. I have experienced this on sport climbs and on supposedly solid outcrops.
  2. It is equally not atypical for the leader to occasionally drop gear. I could work out the force generated by a Rockcentric No. 10 when dropped from 20m above if it wasn’t immediately obvious that this would be quite considerable. Again I have experienced this.
  3. I seem to have a fatal attraction for any roof, bulge, or any other head-high protruding piece of rock. A mild abrasion for my helmet, might be a bit more sore if applied to my scalp.
  4. While climbing helmets are designed primarily to guard against the preceding impacts, if I did manage to hit my head when falling, then I would very much prefer to have something between the ground and my head than not.
So far, so logical and with a wide-range of light-weight modern helmets available, then there seems little excuse to not wear one. Personally I never notice that I am wearing my Grivel Salamander once I have put it on.

Grivel Salamander (© Grivel Mont Blanc)

So, why is it that I don’t wear a helmet when soloing? I guess you could argue that a fall would be catastrophic anyway and so it doesn’t matter. But wouldn’t I still be at least marginally better off with a helmet than without? Surely the risks of being hit by something from above are as great when soloing as leading (especially at tourist destinations such as Haytor, above); in fact they are probably greater as there is no back-up system if you get stunned, or even just startled.

I’m not sure that I have an answer for why I am so pro-helmet when ropes are involved and don’t seem to think about putting one on when soloing. The closest I can come is that I don’t solo anything apart from outcrops (Haytor above is probably as high as I go). This maybe makes it feel rather different to me. Perhaps I think of this type of soloing as being closer to highball bouldering (though admittedly without the mat).

Mytoesis (V0), The Dreamers, Bishop, CA

I recall Jenn mentioning me climbing the above Bishop highball in "route mode", i.e. slowly and deliberately, so maybe there is something to thus. Perhaps I wouldn’t normally have a helmet with me when bouldering, so maybe its not surprising that I don’t wear one on high-balls. But again perhaps logic would dictate that I should and that I should on solos as well. I’m not clear what the answer is, but I certainly have some food for thought.

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