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“A direct hit might have killed me”: 5 Climbers and Their Worst Head Injuries

Climbing head injuries can happen anywhere: from the Salathé on El Cap to your favorite little sport crag. Here are five climbers' nightmare scenarios.

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Woman climbs with a helmet.

Danika Gilbert

Overlook Cliff, Ouray, CO

The Incident: I always wear a climbing helmet, but one day I took it off between climbs and forgot to put it back on when my boyfriend started leading. Thirty seconds later, a grapefruit- sized rock careened down. I pressed against the cliff, and the rock grazed my skull, opening a gash. A direct hit might have killed me.

The Takeaway: Friends saw me covered in blood that day, but many still don’t wear helmets at that crag, even though stuff comes down regularly there. I’m not sure what the disconnect is. Rockfall is unpredictable.

Man climbs in the mountains with a helmet.

Chris Weidner

El Capitan, Yosemite, CA

The Incident: I was climbing the Salathé Wall and was leading the pitch off Sous le Toit Ledge. It starts with a 5.6 ramp, then goes up a slightly overhanging crack. I clipped into an old fixed piton, then back-cleaned the piece below me. Just as I was reaching up to place the next cam, the piton ripped out. I fell 30 feet, and landed headfirst on the ramp.

The Takeaway: I had a helmet on; it broke in three places, and I really believe that it saved my life. Other than pure sport climbing, I pretty much always wear a helmet.

Carol Kotchek

Bubba City, New River Gorge, WV

The Incident: I had just started up a four-star, 5.10 sport route when my foot slipped and I flew straight back into a tree, spun around, and slammed the ground on my side. Most of the impact was absorbed by my leg, but I had a contusion on my head too. The foam inside my helmet detached from the outside plastic, so I know the helmet absorbed some impact.

The Takeaway: When things go bad in climbing, it happens fast. I learned not to take sport climbing too casually—I was heading up the route with a gym mentality—and always to wear a helmet.

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Man climbs in Utah with a helmet.

Reid Pletcher

Practice Rock, Boulder Canyon, CO

The Incident: I always wear a helmet trad climbing, but I left the helmet in the car for a day of sport. After five routes, I made an impulse decision to try a trad route to end the day. I fell, two pieces pulled out, and I landed on a ledge. I got two skull fractures, brain contusions, and a subdural hematoma.

The Takeaway: The doctors told me I might have survived because I wasn’t wearing a helmet, as this allowed more swelling and relieved pressure that otherwise could have resulted in termination. I always wonder what would have happened with a helmet. Maybe I wouldn’t be here at all. Maybe it would have helped. I will never know.

[Read: Why Do So Many Climbers Not Where Helmets?]

Man with face covered in blood after he climbed without a helmet.

Kelly Cordes

Wizard’s Gate, Estes Park, CO

The Incident: I hopped on a wildly overhanging 5.13a sport climb, and I had a heel hook when my forearms flamed out. My hands came off, my heel stayed on, and somehow I flipped upside down, spun, and swung back into the rock headfirst. Leave it to me to take the safest form of climbing and make it as dangerous as possible. I got 13 staples in my skull—I could have put a TCU in the gash—and 14 stitches in my face.

The Takeaway: I tend to wear a helmet. Though, as time wears on, I’ve gotten more lax about it. If you say, “Always, always, always wear a helmet,” well, what about in the gym? You’ve got to be smart and look at the probabilities.

How to find the best climbing helmet for you

Guiding principle

Only buy a helmet that’s comfortable to wear—and that you’re comfortable wearing. If you hate your helmet because it has too much or too little ventilation, pinches your sunglass stems, or you feel like a dork with it on, you’ll never use it.

Get the right fit

Make sure it sits horizontally across your forehead, just above your eyebrows. Those cute kids with their helmets tilted back over gap-toothed grins might as well have targets painted on their foreheads. Try on multiple sizes for the best fit (keep in mind you may wear a hat underneath— always choose a low-volume hat without any “button” on top). Adjust the chinstrap and headband so the helmet is centered on your head and won’t shift backward (exposing your forehead) or side to side (exposing the temples). Test the fit by snugging up the headband and shaking your head with the chinstrap unbuckled. The helmet should stay put. Before buying, wear it with your pack on—make sure you can still look up comfortably.

Helmet or No Helmet? The top factors influencing climbers’ decisions

You’re more likely to wear a climbing helmet if…

  • Peers wear helmets and encourage their use.
  • You believe helmets are comfortable.
  • Your favorite crags have loose rock.
  • You believe helmets are acceptable fashion.
  • You stick to grades you can onsight without falling.
  • You are older and have more climbing experience.
  • You believe helmets are effective at reducing head injuries.
  • You have witnessed a major injury at a climbing area.

You’re less likely to wear a climbing helmet if…

  • You believe that helmet use reduces performance.
  • You climb 5.12 or harder.
  • You believe helmets “take away from the aesthetic look and feel of a climbing scene.”
  • You frequently climb overhanging routes.
  • You believe helmets are too expensive.
  • You learned to climb indoors.
  • You believe the rock is solid at your favorite crags.