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TOPIC: The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not

The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 4 months ago #137760

  • michaelmf
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Hello,

I am taking TCI's "At Home" Basic Tree Climbing Course, and i have a very serious question about the helmet.

In the course, they say,
  • Helmets protect the climber from falling objects, such as dead branches and twigs.
  • Helmets protect your head if you swing against the tree during a climb.
  • Helmets protect against falling branches that get broken or dislodged during a climb. This is especially important for people on the ground, because branches can land unpredictably as they bounce off other branches on the way down.
  • Helmets protect people on the ground against items that get dropped from the treetop, such as carabiners or water bottles. No matter how careful the climber, it's always possible that a small piece of gear will get dropped to the ground.

Obviously, this all makes a lot of sense to me. But when i entered a store in Denmark to shop for some of my gear, when we got to the helmet the salesman got surprised, "Didn't you say you're going to climb trees? You don't wear a helmet for that." I asked, "How come?" "Well, the straps may get stuck on a branch and snap your neck."

The guy was himself a tree climbing instructor here in Denmark, and he even went to consult with an associate who is a certified 'tree climbing instructors' instructor. They basically asked me to please not climb trees in Denmark wearing a helmet.

What to do? What are your thoughts on this? We know the risks of not wearing a helmet. What are the risks of wearing a helmet? Have you ever considered this risk of neck injury that they raised my attention to? If so, how do you weight the risks and choose the helmet? Does the answer to this question depend on whether the climb is a merely recreational climb or a climb for tree work, where branches braking will be a certainty?

Thanks in advance for your attention!
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 4 months ago #137761

  • patty
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Hello Michael,

It is almost impossible for me to think that a tree climbing instructor, particularly one trained by TCI or by Tim Kovar (who trained recreational tree climbing instructors in Denmark) would tell you not to wear a helmet while climbing. Somewhere, someone has misunderstood.

One of the most fundamental and widely accepted standards of tree climbing is that climbers wear a helmet for protection. We know of no cases any time, anywhere in which a helmet strap has been caught by a branch.

I respectfully request that you to go ask that salesperson to contact us if he has questions.

Thank you for raising this issue on our Forums.

Patty Jenkins
TCI Executive Director
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 4 months ago #137762

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Thank you, Patty! I will likely go back to that store later this week, and will try to find them and ask a second time. I'm also going to try to get a hold of the compendium they hand out with a popular course up here. A friend of mine has taken that course (and also climbs without a helmet).

Are there any tree climbers from Denmark in this forum who would be willing to share their experience with this?


P.S.: apologies for the vagueness in 'a store,' 'a instructor,' 'a popular course.' I'm a beginner, and don't want to single anybody out. I'm just doing my best to learn how to think like a tree-climber, know as much as i can about the risks, and how to best protect myself against them :-)
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 4 months ago #137763

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No apologies needed, Michael! You raised an important issue, and we're glad you did!
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 4 months ago #137765

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Most tree industry rules and guidelines throughout the world (where they exist) require professional work tree climbers to wear a helmet at all times at work sites whether on the ground or up in a tree. As Patty mentioned TCI instructors recommend and certainly require at facilitated climbs that every climber and/or person under the dripline of a tree wear a helmet.

In rec group climbs it is very common (it has happened to me multiple times) for climbers above to either accidentally knock dead wood loose or for them to drop objects, climbing gear, water bottles, wedding rings, you name it, it's fallen off of a climber. These are experienced climbers I'm talking about.

Obviously if a falling object is large or heavy enough a helmet is not enough to save a climber from injury. It's much like motorcycle helmets, there's a sweet spot where in relatively minor incidents a rider is saved from a life changing injury or worse.

To analyze the chance of a tree climber helmet causing a situation where a climber gets hung up and breaks their neck it is helpful to have a basic understanding of core rope and harness tree climbing practices. For example in rope and harness tree climbing the climber is constantly taking slack out of the rope as they climb. As we often say "we don't fall", that means if a climber does slip off of a limb they're not going anywhere because there's no or very little slack in the line. Just that practice alone practically eliminates the possibility of a helmet hang accident.

This can be discussed in more detail to cover other scenarios but by following the simple "take out the slack" rule "helmet hang" becomes a non-issue.

For my own climbing experience in a variety of tree species, weather conditions and locations I've never had any tree part that can hold my weight entangle my helmet, if it did happen the worst outcome would be momentary inconvenience. I'm guessing the person who told you helmets are unsafe is not familiar with mainstream basic tree climbing practices.
-AJ
Last Edit: 1 year 4 months ago by moss.
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 4 months ago #137769

  • Greenluck
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Helmets - I would recommend them. I would feel fairly naked without one now.

Should they be required? I guess that's up to the person, facility, trainer, class, or applicable safety standards if you are an arborist.

Their idea that it could catch on a branch and cause a problem is....well possible. I would be more concerned about heat related health issues in very warm environments; even vented helmets are hot as hell.

Does this mean you need to wear a helmet every time you do a private climb? No, that's up to you, it's your head.

PS: I think even the founder of TCI climbed without a helmet back in the day - at least that's what the historic grainy photos show. There may even be some TCI trained swamp loving climbers that rarely use them for personal climbs; at least according to HD youtube videos.
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 4 months ago #137774

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Many experienced rec climbers don't wear helmets, it's their choice, there are no regulations governing rec climbers. But to the point of the original post, there is no danger from wearing a helmet. I wear a helmet 99.9% of the time while climbing trees ;-)
-AJ
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 3 months ago #137788

  • michaelmf
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Thank you all for weighing in! I wrote to a couple of helmet manufacturers about this, and will share my findings below. But first, in response to AJ:

moss wrote:
Most tree industry rules and guidelines throughout the world (where they exist) require professional work tree climbers to wear a helmet at all times at work sites whether on the ground or up in a tree. As Patty mentioned TCI instructors recommend and certainly require at facilitated climbs that every climber and/or person under the dripline of a tree wear a helmet.

In rec group climbs it is very common (it has happened to me multiple times) for climbers above to either accidentally knock dead wood loose or for them to drop objects, climbing gear, water bottles, wedding rings, you name it, it's fallen off of a climber. These are experienced climbers I'm talking about.

Obviously if a falling object is large or heavy enough a helmet is not enough to save a climber from injury. It's much like motorcycle helmets, there's a sweet spot where in relatively minor incidents a rider is saved from a life changing injury or worse.

To analyze the chance of a tree climber helmet causing a situation where a climber gets hung up and breaks their neck it is helpful to have a basic understanding of core rope and harness tree climbing practices. For example in rope and harness tree climbing the climber is constantly taking slack out of the rope as they climb. As we often say "we don't fall", that means if a climber does slip off of a limb they're not going anywhere because there's no or very little slack in the line. Just that practice alone practically eliminates the possibility of a helmet hang accident.

This can be discussed in more detail to cover other scenarios but by following the simple "take out the slack" rule "helmet hang" becomes a non-issue.

For my own climbing experience in a variety of tree species, weather conditions and locations I've never had any tree part that can hold my weight entangle my helmet, if it did happen the worst outcome would be momentary inconvenience. I'm guessing the person who told you helmets are unsafe is not familiar with mainstream basic tree climbing practices.
-AJ

This is very helpful. But if the sample I've been exposed to in Denmark is representative of what they do in the country in general, there are at least two other climbing practices in use in the country, at least in the recreational realm. Many people "free climb," 3-points-of-contact style, using slings as tethers. Another practice is to lead-climb much like in rock-climbing, with someone belaying from the ground with a dynamic rope while the leader advances the anchor up the tree; the leader then belays the other climber from above while they go up the tree cleaning up the route.

--

In any case, someone pointed out in private conversation that the clasps in helmets made for climbing are designed to break under stress, contrary to bike helmets. I wrote to Black Diamond and Petzl about that:

My name is Mika, i'm a beginner recreational tree-climber, and there's a lively discussion going on in one of the forums i follow about the use of helmets in the sport.

The main question at the moment is about the risk of neck injury in the event of having the helmet strap caught in a branch during a fall. Someone mentioned that climbing helmet clasps are designed to break under stress, as opposed to bicycle helmet clasps, which are designed not to come apart so easily. But they couldn't give me a solid reference for this claim, and i couldn't find anything on the Internet. So, i decided to write directly to a few reputable manufacturers.

Do you take the risk of neck injury into account in designing your helmets? Would the clasp come off if caught in a branch or something during a fall?


This is what I got from them:

Black Diamond: "Thank you for reaching out to us. We make and certify our gear for mountaineering and climbing purposes only. For this reason we don’t have any research on what would happen in your specific scenario. For liability reasons we would recommend only using our helmets for rock climbing. Sorry I couldn’t give you a more constructive answer on the subject!"

I followed up with a question about whether they have ratings on the breaking strength of the clasps, and they said: "We have ratings on everything we make, however we do not have a published rating for the buckles on our helmets."

Petzl: [They wrote back in Danish for some reason, so I'll have to paraphrase: For work on the ground, they recommend Vertex ST, with clasps designed to break under 25daN force. For work on heights, they recommend Vertex Best or Vent, with clasps designed to break under 50daN force. They stress the importance that the helmet stays in place during a fall scenario, and didn't seem concerned about the neck injury issue, pointing out instead that their priority is protect the head from trauma.] I followed up asking whether they knew anything about the breaking strength in bike helmet clasps, and they said, "I don’t have any information reg. breaking strength. Sorry." I also thought it was counterintuitive that helmets for work on heights had tougher clasps, and they replied, "I think the risk of suffocation is much lower than doing some serious damage to your head."

--

This is enough for me to make a personal decision, and it's as far as I'll go into this this time around. But I'd be happy to learn more if anybody has more information to share :-)


Cheers,
Mika
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 3 months ago #137789

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That's great research and follow-up Mika!

Ok, so the original "expert" opinion you quoted makes sense. They were referring to a tree climbing style based on rock/wall climbing, ie: belayed lead or "following" climbing, solo climbing etc. on dynamic ropes. That is not a mainstream (in the world of professional or recreational rope and harness tree climbing) recognized safe way to climb trees with rope and harness. There is a much greater problem than breaking your neck from a helmet hang up with this style of climbing. If you fall on a dynamic rope in a tree there is a very strong possibility that some part of your body will contact a tree limb with strong impact before the dynamic rope has enough room to absorb the force and catch a fall.

The other style you refer to, using multiple slings or lanyards to capture progress and establish safe positions during a "free" climb has very low risk of a helmet hang since a climber can only fall the length of their sling.

To wear or not wear a helmet is a rec tree climber's choice but I strongly believe helmet hang is not an actual risk if the climber is following best practices for rope and harness tree climbing.
-AJ
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 3 months ago #137790

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Great point about why one should not lead-climb a tree with a dynamic rope, AJ!

I have a suggestion to the folks developing the material for the TCI courses, especially the online ones: please include a thorough discussion of the various ways in which tree climbing is different of other climbing disciplines, particularly rock climbing! It would be great to have the actual numbers, but from my personal experience most people come to tree climbing from rock climbing. In fact, I had never met any adults climbing trees recreationally with safety precautions before coming to Denmark --- and even in Denmark my impression is that people climb trees mostly because there are no rocks in the country :p
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The Risks of Wearing a Helmet or Not 1 year 3 months ago #137795

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Thanks michaelmf. That's an interesting issue. I've never heard of people being concerned about the risk of snapping their necks by wearing a helmet.

I have personally climbed without a helmet very early on twice or so times and even branches brushing up against my head caused scratches and grazes and were irritating. A helmet was one of the first things I bought and since then I can remember many times that I would knock my helmet on branches as I advanced up the tree.

I remember dislodging a solid green pine cone with my rope near my canopy anchor approximately 10 meters above me. I saw it coming and dipped my head and it hit me straight on the top of my helmet. It was a completely painless thud. I'm pretty sure if I didn't have a helmet on I could have been knocked unconscious.

Also there's advancing your line onto branches directly above you. Sometimes you need to throw a throw line or your long lanyard over a branch straight over the top. Its certainly within the realm of possibility to be hit in the head with a throw bag or a heavy steel carabiner.

In my opinion the risk of being knocked on the head is far far greater than the risk of being hung. I wouldn't go up without a helmet now days.

Thanks for taking the time to correspond with BD and Petzl.
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