Thursday, July 18, 2013

Head Games

About two and a half weeks ago something extraordinary happened, extraordinarily bad to be precise.  I fell off a boulder (last move of Secret Splendor, which is about 6 feet tall), which is nothing new. However this time I bounced off the pads at the base and hit the back of my head on a rock. Hard. Hard, like I imagine getting hit by a 2x4 would be. Stunned and a bit in shock, I sat there recuperating from the initial force of the hit and trying to figure out what to do next. Sacrificing a t-shirt to stop the bleeding a bit, I realized that although the impact had been substantial, I knew what day it was, who the people were around me and where I was. So far so good. Nothing else seemed to have been seriously damaged in the fall. Dilation of the pupils: OK. No vomiting, dizziness, or any apparent skull fracture. Clearly time to get out of there.

The scene in the ER a few hours later

I packed up my stuff and walked out with the friend I came up with. Occasional handfuls of snow helped keep the bleeding in check and after a leisurely hike down to Bear Lake and drive home, it was off to the ER for a cleaning and six staples in my scalp. The next day I took it easy and the day after of course I went climbing at the Boulder Rock Club (where I nearly had a rerun of the same accident, bouncing off a pad). Needless to say, it wasn't great times but I felt (for no good reason) that I ought to get back out there so to speak. Trail running was certainly done with even more caution than usual

A few more indoor sessions were followed by a day at Evans Area A the day before the staples came out. The truth is that, for me anyway I became much more aware of the potential for harm outdoors and it will probably be at least a month or more before I am back at the level of confidence I had before I fell. In a way this is a good thing as it should help keep me safer and more careful about potential problems with landings. In another way, it's a bad thing as what should have been a safe fall wound up being a potentially dangerous/lethal fall and I will be second-guessing these situations for a long time to come.

Should I have had a spotter? Probably, though I have fallen off that move solo many times before. Should I have worn a helmet? The outcome says it might not have been a bad idea and having helped take a well-known bouldering author to the ER long ago in a similar fall situation, I had been warned that this kind of accident could happen. That boulderer is well known today because of his helmet use while bouldering.

There is a great article on helmet use and design in the current issue of Climbing that emphasizes the risks that climbing poses to the head and more specifically the brain. There is increasing awareness with articles like this and films like The Crash Reel that there is a price to be paid eventually for repeated blows to the head. In the world of climbing, there has been relatively little attention paid to the affects of low-grade head and body impacts so far, especially in regard to bouldering. The Climbing article mentions that Metolius had plans for a bouldering helmet but that idea will have a lot of resistance to overcome from the bouldering world.

Alexander Huber solo on the Brandler-Hasse V 5.12a

For my part, I regard thorough padding of a problem to be part of the protective gear in the sport, much like a helmet for trad climbing or alpinism, making helmet use redundant, especially if you have a good spotter. This time I misused the gear, fortunately without too serious a consequence, as far as I know. I work primarily with my brain and have a vested interest in keeping it as coherent as I can. I know that for any serious climbing I may do in the future where potential for head-impact is genuine, I will be wearing a helmet. Frankly I am surprised that some of the serious highball problems being done these days don't involve helmet use. And if children are bouldering on anything at all serious, I strongly recommend considering it. But regardless of fashion or past practice, understand that if it happened to me, it can happen to you, only you might not be as lucky. Be safe out there!


OutFromUnder said...

Thank you so much for this post! I strongly recommend watching "The Crash Reel". I would never have seen it, or heard about it, so thanks again for another great post. Keep that brain of yours!

Anonymous said...

If, say, one week BEFORE this incident you had resolved to wear a helmet in situations where you thought a head impact was a possibility . . do you think you would have been wearing one while climbing on that particular problem?

Peter Beal said...

Anon, A good question. Short answer is that since head impact is always a possibility on short steep problems, I always pad them up thoroughly or leave them alone. This time I misjudged the coverage. In neither instance would I be likely to wear a helmet since to me, the pads are the equivalent to a helmet. However on a taller more dangerous problem it's making more and more sense to me to have some real head protection.

Doing a problem that you might fall on that has a jagged hard talus landing without protection of some kind is insane.

Unknown said...

The Verm on helmets