“Helmets were bulky, heavy and uncomfortable. Although I usually wore one ice climbing and in the mountains, I never did while rock climbing,” Michael Kennedy recently wrote in Alpinist 72, referring to common practices in the 1970s. Forty years later, thanks to advancements in materials and design, helmets are now so light and low-profile that it’s harder to justify not wearing one, even at the sport crag, as one of my partners recently admitted.
Black Diamond describes its Vision MIPS (Multidirectional Impact Protection System) helmet as “the most durable foam helmet” in the company’s lineup. Weighing slightly more than half a pound (8.4 or 8.8 oz., depending on size), the excuse about heaviness is no longer viable. (The Petzl Sirocco retains its title for the lightest climbing helmet on the market, at around 6 oz.) The early designs of lightweight foam helmets were notoriously fragile; if one rolled out of an open car door or off a rock while you were loading a backpack, there was a real danger of the delicate foam getting cracked or dented. Now, factor in the durability of the Black Diamond Vision MIPS, and you have light, comfortable head protection that will hold up throughout frequent use.
I still often ditch the sweaty melon bucket for overhanging sport routes–where it’s unlikely that I’ll hit anything but air if I fall–but as soon as the angle dips back to vertical or less than vertical, a helmet becomes a real asset, regardless of whether it’s bolts or hand-placed gear catching my falls. On any route that depends on footwork and the friction of rubber on rock, there is greater chance of having an off-balance fall. I’ve learned first-hand how quickly I can get flipped upside down when a toe slips and just barely catches the rope on the way down, knocking me off center. Or, as what happened to Kennedy in his recent Alpinist article, you might swing sideways and slam into a corner or tree, perhaps even your belayer. It’s simply foolish to believe that you can always control any number of variables that can unfold in a fraction of a second at any time. A foot can skitter off a smear while you’re pulling up slack in the rope to clip protection, an edge can flake off as soon as you’ve committed your balance to it, or you simply get pumped and desperate, and make a poor choice in a moment of tunnel vision–I’ve experienced all these scenarios in my 25 years of climbing. And I haven’t even bothered to mention the obvious hazards, such as falling rocks and dropped gear (a good reason to wear a helmet while belaying).
Not that long ago, when I started climbing in the ’90s, pretty much all helmets consisted of a hard shell to protect from impacts on top of the head (falling rocks/ice). There was almost zero protection from impacts to the front, back or sides of the head. Thus, it simply didn’t make sense to bother carrying and wearing a heavy, bulky plastic thing to places where rock- and icefall was less of a concern, as Kennedy wrote. These days, it just makes good sense.
The MIPS technology adds another level of protection against brain injury. Originally used in bike helmets, this “Multidirectional Impact System” is a logical addition to climbing helmets. As Black Diamond explains it, “the MIPS system is designed to protect against the rotational motion (or kinematics) transmitted to the brain from angled impacts to the head. This added protection system has been proven to reduce the rotational violence to the brain by absorbing and redirecting oblique impacts to the helmet.” In short, it improves your chances of walking away in the event of an ugly fall like the ones I’ve been describing.
Another bonus is that these modern low-profile suspension systems allow helmets to look as sleek and cool as they ever have. Way better than the bobble-head appearance of yore. And of course any climbing helmet worth a damn has integrated clips for a headlamp.
The one tiny critique I have for the Vision MIPS is a “pro” as well as a “con”–it’s easy to adjust. The plastic brace that keeps the helmet from sliding backward (ensuring the forehead is covered) is prone to loosen whenever I don or remove the helmet. I quickly learned to double check the fit every time. On the other hand, this easy adjustment is nice when I’m at a cramped belay and want to put the helmet on over a hat with minimal futzing.
On a recent day out, I redpointed a thin, 5.12d slab route on my second try. With my helmet on, I noticed that I climbed more confidently, with less hesitation. I stayed in the flow, pasting my feet to the blank limestone with hardly a second thought, covering some good distance between bolts where there was definite potential for a rolling, sideways tumble. On those delicate friction stances, hesitation can make all the difference between scampering through or skittering off. It was nice to embrace the tempo of the movement and scamper through, feeling relaxed and safe.
As often as Alpinist Digital Editor Derek Franz writes about his exciting falls and mishaps, he actually does send a few climbs on occasion and comes home in one piece 99.8% of the time. That’s still not 100%, however, so a helmet is probably a pretty good idea.
Lightweight (8.4 or 8.8 oz., depending on size)
Very durable for a foam climbing helmet
MIPS (Multidirectional Impact System) technology
Easy to adjust
Low-profile suspension system (looks as sleek as a helmet can)
Integrated headlamp clips
“Easy adjustment” also means it’s prone to loosen and it’s wise to double check the fit every time.
Currently only available in black