It’s hard for me to think back to a time before I regularly wore a climbing helmet. I know those memories are real, because I have the photos to prove them, but these days I never climb without one. I do, however, remember the story of how I got my first helmet. When I was a teenager and learning to trad climb, I wanted to check out West Virginia’s Seneca Rocks, but everyone said it was a bad idea to visit the chossy quartzite fin without a helmet. I told my parents I needed one to be safe, and they threw down the cash for a beefy Petzl Ecrin Roc that I immediately slapped a big, red TNF sticker on, and basically became Alex Lowe (in my mind anyway). It was rad.
And while I do have photos from college showing me wearing a helmet at places like Seneca, it was a while before I embraced wearing one all the time. The longer you are in the game, the more close and, sadly, not-so-close calls you witness or hear about, and the more you realize you should probably protect the one brain you get. The development of modern versions of helmets that are light and breathable has certainly helped as well, leaving only the style argument for not wearing one. It’s been encouraging to see increasing numbers of climbers wearing helmets, even in sport climbing areas such as Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado. And I think it’s worth giving some kudos to the gear companies for working hard to create a product that keeps our brains safe while improving the comfort and style of our head protection.
For a while it seemed as if there was a fierce competition among the major companies to see who could produce the lightest helmet. The height of this helmet arms race might have been the orange Petzl Sirocco. When I first got one, I loved how light it was, but like many climbers I didn’t really dig the fashion aspect. Let’s be honest, there are times when it might seem fun to look like a neon orange penis, but climbing generally isn’t one of them. (Unless it’s Halloween in Indian Creek, then all bets are off, but that only happens once a year and if you’re there, you’ll know when it’s OK.) That being said, there were days when its supreme functionality outweighed the fashion faux pas; for me, such times generally occurred on big trad climbs in the Black Canyon when every ounce counted, or when I was out bolting by myself and my only companions were the wind, rain and thunder (although a passing lizard would occasionally give me an extra long glare).
When I saw a preview of the latest iteration of the Sirocco at the Outdoor Retailer trade show last July, I knew it would be an instant hit, possibly rivaling the Black Diamond Vapor in my mind for the title of the best lightweight helmet out there. At 170 grams (size M/L), it’s more than 20 grams lighter than comparable helmets such as the Black Diamond Vapor or Mammut Wall Rider. And similar to the Wall Rider, this helmet uses hybrid construction, with a shell of EPP (expanded polypropylene) foam and a rigid crown injected with EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam for better protection from direct impact to the top. The redesigned version also comes down lower on the back of the head. And while it’s heavier than the original, I think we can all agree it’s much more fashionable, and that’s certainly worth a couple extra grams.
While I was on a trip to City of Rocks this summer, the temperature soared into the 80s and low 90s, but my head stayed relatively cool, thanks to the excellent ventilation. I do question the color choice of offering it in black–if you spend any time climbing in the sun you probably don’t want something that’s going to make your head hotter, but fortunately it’s also available in white. The adjustable suspension system is simple to use and comfortable, so you never really notice it’s there. You can easily attach a headlamp, which was helpful when I was cleaning anchors in the dark in Indian Creek, and it also works with the Petzl Vizion eye shield for the winter warriors out there who don’t like to get their pretty faces all beat up with ice shards.
Since I got this helmet a few months ago, my trusty Black Diamond Vapor (186-199 grams, depending on size) has sat languishing in the gear closet, like an old dog envious of the new puppy in the house. But as much as I’ve been loving the new Sirocco, there are some things that detract from its greatness. For one, it rides a little high on my head and isn’t as low-profile as the Vapor. For those who stay away from helmets because of looks, this may be worth considering. Also, the chin strap attaches with a magnetic buckle, just like the previous version did. Unfortunately this buckle easily collects tiny magnetic particles, which was especially problematic at the City. On one occasion I was leading a pitch when the chin strap suddenly came unbuckled halfway up. When I got to a no-hands stance where I could inspect the problem, I saw that a bunch of tiny metallic particles from the ground had attached themselves to the magnetic contact points. It was easy to wipe them off to make the connection secure, but this could have been a real problem if my helmet had fallen off, especially if I had been high off the deck on a long multipitch climb. From then on, I made sure to clean the contact points each time I put the helmet on, an extra step I don’t have to do with other lids. This is a minor inconvenience, but I think using magnets for this is a solution in need of a problem that actually creates another problem in the process.
When it’s all said and done, however, you can find bird feathers heavier than this thing, so if you need a lightweight helmet, the revamped Sirocco is an impressive piece of equipment. I’m honestly not sure where helmet design can go from here, besides some kind of force-field generator that is powered by a chip implant in your neck. But until that dystopian day arrives, the Sirocco is a top offering for a comfortable, lightweight helmet that also (finally!) looks good.
BJ Sbarra has been climbing for 25 years, and works as a climbing coach at the Colorado Rocky Mountain High School in Carbondale, Colorado. He is an avid first-ascensionist and the co-author of Western Sloper, a climbing guide to western Colorado. More of his work can be found on his website SplitterChoss.com.
Much more stylish than previous version
Magnetic buckle can be problematic
Sits higher on head than other lightweight models