It’s a good idea to buy and wear a climbing helmet, especially if you’re climbing at areas and cliffs with loose rock or if you’re climbing below another party. A helmet protects your head from falling missiles, projectiles, and dropped gear.
Back in the 1970s I was climbing the first 10 pitches of the Salathe Wall to Mammoth Terraces on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. While leading a crack on the 4th pitch, a party of Germans high above us began hoisting their haul bag when it dislodged a shower of rocks. I heard their guttural shouts and then saw the rocks bouncing down the steep slab above—right toward me.
I wedged into the crack, making myself as small as possible, and instinctively folded my hands behind my helmeted head. A two-inch rock hit the helmet, denting it, and then a softball-sized chunk slammed into my right shoulder. I was dazed and confused. My right arm and shoulder felt like raw throbbing hamburger. I didn’t know it then, but my right shoulder blade was cracked from stem to stern. My partner lowered me back to the belay ledge and then helped me rappel to the ground with my one good arm. I was lucky to be wearing a helmet though. That little two-inch rock that rapped by helmet could have been fatal.
Since then I always wear a helmet in suspect terrain, especially if I’m climbing a desert tower or up in the mountains. I’m not always a good boy, because I sometimes don’t wear it while sport climbing. I am aware, however, that all cliff terrain is dangerous and potentially deadly, and the helmet is always in my climbing pack ready to be used.
Here are a few suggestions on when to wear a climbing helmet: