I remember arguing with my partner about wearing his helmet before starting a climb for the day. “It’s only 5.9,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” I insisted that wearing a helmet on a multipitch trad climb shouldn’t be up for discussion. After a few more tries at explaining my discomfort, he started up the climb. Helmetless.
“Oh fuck,” he said.
He was climbing the second pitch up when a lot of slack started to give in the system. I pulled in two arm lengths of slack before hearing the sickening sound of my partner’s body hitting the rock. I looked up; there he was. Dangling on the end of the rope. Upside down. Unconscious. Fifteen feet to my left. Out of reach. Blood starting to seep from his skull and down his shoulders. His unconsciousness felt like several minutes. I was running through systems in my head of how I was going to get us off of the climb. We were a couple miles’ hike into a wilderness area with no one else around and hours from a hospital. Luckily, my climbing partner regained consciousness, and we were able to assess his injuries, descend the climb, and hobble out of the wilderness.
After processing the accident, I realized wearing a helmet is not just a personal choice—it is a choice that affects your climbing partner and the people around you. From that moment on, I decided to stand my ground. If you do not want to wear a helmet, I will not belay you. Simple. You would be surprised at how disgruntled some people are at my request. But why?
Internally, I constantly have the conversation with myself about the proclimbers in the spotlight of major climbing magazine publications and sponsors publishing helmetless photographs of their climbers for public rhetoric. Shouldn’t sponsored role model climbers demonstrate climbing with a helmet? There are countless climbing photographs on social media—photos that seem to be littered with helmetless climbers. What sort of message does that send to the climbing community (and outside the climbing community) when the images we see 80 percent of the time display a climber without a helmet? How do we send a message to the community that we want to digest climbing photographs with people wearing helmets? Besides, helmets look rad and colorful these days, especially if you decorate them with stickers and art.
We can all do better—regardless of how strong you think you are, how you think you won’t fall, or how you’ve climbed in your area of choice hundreds of times without ever witnessing any rockfall. Just remember: gravity never sleeps. The possibility of learning the hard way when it comes to your life just isn’t worth the risk. So don’t be a bland bare head. Instead, be one of those alluring helmet heads.
Shay Skinner embraces the identities of being a writer, climber, and outdoor adventure photographer. She’s also semifamous for turning a Clif Bar wrapper, a Smartwool sock, and climbing tape into a tampon while on her first big wall in Yosemite. After beginning her climbing career in Indian Creek eight years ago, that quickly became the place she turns to for emotional refuge and healing. To see more of her photography and to experience more of her journey through life, struggles, and vulnerability, her blog can be found at skinpoetryphotography.wordpress.com.