I hold and turn my helmet like a classroom globe, dragging my fingers over each mark, each sign of wear. Every indent, every groove represents a route, a pitch, a move, a memory.
Note: this piece is published in the new Zine, Volume 17, now available to order.
In my hands is my beaten-up shield. It’s lightweight gray plastic with a foam interior and a back that is ventilated with polygon cutouts. It’s been with me from my very first toprope three years ago to the peaks of Moab desert towers, up thin alpine ridgelines, and across beautiful glaciated summits.
When I first hesitantly bought this hunk of plastic, I convinced myself to spend the money on a more expensive model—not because it was lighter in weight, more aerodynamic, or anything of that sort, but because it looked the best on my head. Who would have known that my slightly vain commitment to myself would be the reason I am still here today?
Lately, it’s seen better days. One side is cracked. On the inside, the label is streaked with my blood. It looks as if a medieval knight jousted the back where it protects my lower skull. It’s a reminder that I was lucky and that there’s a full life I still want to live.
I watched the coils of our sky-blue rope sway, the heap draped across Alex’s shoulders, as we hiked up to the Redgarden Wall in Eldorado Canyon for the first time. It was a chilly October morning. Alex flew into Denver less than ten hours prior, and both of us were running on black coffee, adrenaline, and stoke.
I finished placing my skirt of clanking metal and nylon on my harness and started up. The route zigzagged left and back; it was thin at some places and bouldery at others. We climbed past shadows of pines growing out of the red-and-gold sandstone and moved fluidly in the way the route commanded. We stopped at belays, swigged water, and caught up on how great that pitch was, even better than the last. The soft TV-static-like sound of the creek below was background music to our climb. We were being challenged and having fun, laughing through the spookiness of the hard moves. It was a great day out—then came the fifth pitch.
Alex and I stood on a block the size of a dorm refrigerator just two pitches from the finish. I worked my way up a clean arête, clipped a piton, placed a piece, and stepped into the airy, unprotectable traverse as I had seen in the topo.
I made small, delicate moves. One by one, I placed my feet high as my hands read the conglomerate sandstone, looking for nubs and dimples to pull on. Each move, each new stance felt precarious. It was a lot harder than the 5.7 pitch I had expected. The farther I moved out, the more I realized that I might be off route, but I was past the point of return.
The tips of my fingers were pasted on small crimps, my feet supported on thumbs of rock. My last piece of protection was fifteen, maybe twenty feet below me and to my right, but I didn’t look down. I kept moving forward, only thinking about going up.
I saw a rock horn the size of a cell phone with chalk on it, the biggest hold on the face yet. I dropped my right knee, extended my right arm, and was two inches short from grazing the hold. Confident and in the moment, I winded up and committed. I threw my body toward the hold and, as if in slow motion, watched my hand swipe, missing my target. Life sped up. Air rushed into my lungs. I blinked and woke up next to my partner, hanging at the belay ledge in a daze.
I could see Alex yelling in my ear, but I didn’t immediately hear words.
I reached up to touch my face and felt a thick layer of crust. Rough lines ran from the top of my head down to my chin. I removed my helmet slowly, which was still intact, slid my hand along my forehead, and touched my hair. My fingers met sticky and firm goop, coagulated blood. Alex removed his shirt and compressed the back of my head with his left hand, I noticed his right was glued to the phone on his ear.
I felt so confused. I didn’t know what had happened. It was only from Alex’s reaction that I realized something wasn’t right. His voice shook but was masked with confidence as he told me that I was ok. That we’re fine.
I later learned that I fell thirty some feet, hit a ledge, kept falling, and slammed against the wall and was knocked unconscious, left dangling four hundred feet off the deck. Alex somehow pulled me back onto the ledge where we hung, waiting for help.
It was early afternoon when I first started the pitch, but as we dangled there in our harnesses, in the middle of a wall with my head down, chin to my chest, Alex’s hand pressed against my skull, the sky started to dim. The wind started to pick up, and I realized that time was passing us by.
The sky was black by the time I saw the light from a headlamp descending above us from the corner of my eye. The man, whose face I don’t remember, secured me to himself and slowly brought me to the ground where dozens of other people waited. A dozen headlamps spotlighted me. All this attention from strangers, volunteers who left what they were doing and stood in the dark to help. Alex came to the ground shortly after. We were both now safe thanks to Rocky Mountain Rescue volunteers.
That night, I found myself in the hospital with a major concussion, an acute brain hemorrhage, and fourteen staples in the back of my scalp.
Months later, I walked into an REI and headed for the climbing section. I didn’t browse. I didn’t dillydally. I bought a helmet and took it home.
I hold this one now; it’s the exact same model as my last, but instead of a dull gray color, it’s a bright and proud neon green. This one is ripe for new memories—it’s clear from past experiences and lessons. It hasn’t journeyed yet; it hasn’t been around campfires or up mountain summits. But this helmet is going onto a head that has lived.
This helmet is protecting a life. It’s enabling future adventures, renewing my spirit, and protecting who I am as a person to those around me. This is more than a hunk of plastic and foam—it’s what has kept me alive, and for that life, I am grateful.
David Rozul is a San Diego climber inspired by getting up high and feeling small. He enjoys meeting strangers and swapping stories. David now lives in Phoenix, Arizona. He would love to hear from you: email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.
We have also published six books: The Desert, Graduating From College Me, American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .