My Thick Skull (and drink recipe)

Here I’d been thinking that I had nothing to write. And then I fell on my face and head. Yes, leave it to me to make the safest climbing possible – overhanging sport climbing – as dangerous as possible. Was at Wizard’s Gate, with my friends Quinn and Wes, was feeling good – all of us were climbing well. Anyway, I jumped on a hard (for us) sport route, and at the steepest part I pitched off, and my body was fairly horizontal but I think my foot stayed on the hold just a little longer, thus launching me into a back flip, and somehow along the way the rope spun me and I swung back into the wall head-first. Smashed my head and face, blood dripping into space, gnarly. Fortunately my neck is fine and I didn’t fracture my skull.

Really, I felt fine. I lowered, Wes put a sweatshirt on my head and we walked out, freaking people out on the trail, and thought about just going to the bar – fuck it. But we went to the ER first, good thing – 13 staples in my head and 14 stitches in my face and mouth. Just what I need – I got uglier.

I was not wearing a helmet. I’d been getting complacent when cragging on good rock – stupid, yes. But maybe not? I have no problem attributing blame to myself, for sure, but overhanging sport climbing without a helmet, on good rock, must be the single safest form of climbing. I’ll bet the “if you’d have worn a helmet” thing is, maybe, what? one in 10,000 with this scenario? Seriously, just stay inside. No, for real, stay on the couch and watch TV. Nothing will hurt you there. Then again, had I broken my skull or neck (though the helmet wouldn’t have likely prevented a neck injury anyway), that one case would’ve been catastrophic. Makes me shudder to think about. Just like if my rope would have cut and killed me – also extremely rare – I’d have wished I’d been climbing on double 11mm ropes. I don’t want to be defensive, but I also hate how anytime there’s an accident, every douchebag in the universe tries to jump to one single thing that would magically be the panacea for all evils, accidents, and tragedies in the universe (and such reactions often seem suspiciously close to the shallow self-justification of “Well, you wouldn’t catch me don’t that” – yes, you’re right, we wouldn’t, because you were inside on the couch). It’s weird, like, sure, a helmet would’ve helped some. I almost surely wouldn’t have the staples in my head (the least of my worries…), but would probably still have the gnarled-up face. So, IF I had worn a helmet, it’d have helped. Yet IF I didn’t have such a thick skull – who’d have thought it’d such an advantage? – I’d have been fucked. Better: IF I’d have been a better climber I wouldn’t have fallen. I’ve got more to say about all this, and I might ramble-on about it later.

For now, I will say that, in thinking about why I don’t always wear a helmet (aside from the bigger picture of thinking about times where it’s really not needed – like, almost always on overhanging sport climbs), a lot of it comes down to comfort. Wearing a helmet sport climbing feels cumbersome, as would climbing with double 11mm ropes. A new, wussy modern phenomenon? Ha! Get a clue. Half the old-schoolers never wore helmets even in the alpine because they weighed more than three days’ food. We base a lot of things on comfort. We don’t want to make things such a hassle that it removes some of the aesthetic feeling we love from these activities, even things like sport climbing (oh no, am I about to lose my alpine merit badge by saying this?). That’s why the dudes spouting “You always [insert helmet or whatever the ‘rule’]….” are poseurs, and they always have been, and they always will be, because anybody who’s been around knows that “you always” doesn’t exist. Situations vary.

My new helmet: Trango Skull Cap.

So, here’s my pitch for super light, low-bulk helmets. Because you’re more likely to wear them. I have a Petzl Meteor 2, but it’s significantly bulkier than their original one, and I don’t wear it that often. Pathetic of me, I know. I also know of zero people who’ve had head injuries from leading sport routes without a helmet. So forgive me. And, still, it damned near happened to me. Allow my dumb ass to provide the example: If it’s light enough, and low-bulk enough, maybe I’ll wear it. Just for those outlier instances – like last Tuesday. I’m glad it wasn’t worse, I’m glad I’m not drooling on myself, and I’m glad to get back out there doing what I love. Thank you, Malcolm Daly – a longtime pal and badass climber, who works at Trango – for the helmet. It weighs nothing and it’s super low-bulk. I’m hoping it’ll help keep me going, loving life, for as long as I can do it. Thank you, too, more immediately, to Wes and Quinn for taking such good care of me last Tuesday.

The QuinnWes Shake:

Wes and Quinn at Wizard's Gate.

After I splatted, Quinn and Wes not only remained cool and careful, ensuring I was safe on the way out, but they also hung with me in the hospital and then at home – they made the below spiked milkshakes and even stayed the night, just to be sure I didn’t have a closed head injury that’d show later (highly improbable, but the doc said it wasn’t a bad idea to have someone stay with me just to be sure). A few times throughout the night, Wes even got up and came to check on me. Thank you. I’m grateful for my friends. I wasn’t allowed to eat solid foods at first, due to the cuts inside my lip. So, the margarita and milkshake diet – doctor’s orders.

Now it’s Monday. Margarita Monday at the Cordes cabin. But for the rest of the un-acclimatized margarita world, perhaps something a little softer might be good – you know, ease into the work week. Softer can be good, like when you bust your face and head open. Thus:

Shake #1:

Bailey’s Irish Crème liquor (creamy, beige…)



Vanilla ice cream

A little water (or more Bailey’s)

Shake #2:

Same stuff as above, add or subtract what you will. Instead of Bailey’s, use Disaronno (an Italian amaretto liquor)

Mash it up in the blender. It’s a delicious, refreshing, summertime drink. Drink. Get up the next day and do what you love. Think about whether or not to wear a helmet.

21 thoughts on “My Thick Skull (and drink recipe)

    It’s as simple as that. Now, there are some really lightweight ones out there dude. Petzl or the Trango you mentioned are examples of those.
    Take it from me, the guy that almost got the skull ripped out of the body by a freaking bomb and now has neck problems, I wear a helmet EVERYWHERE (well, except for the gym…) and it saved me a lot of grief in the past couple of years.
    I know, it’s not cool to wear a helmet. But you being an alpine climber should know better. Oh well, another one for sketchy Kelly.

    PS: Sorry, I didn’t mean to be patronizing you but a helmet does help a lot. And it saves you a trip to the ER.

    • Thanks Uri! I know, you’re right, and you certainly have the perspective from which to speak. It would seem pretty silly to give myself a brain injury due to my laziness — indeed, some nice light helmets out there. I’ve never been very cool to begin with, so a helmet won’t make me any worse!

      • Let me know when you choose the helmet, i’d like to learn from you and maybe get a new one. My helmet is the old and trusty Petzl Elios but I need to get a new one

  2. Glad that you are OK! Wow. I was looking you up for some libation inspiration and returned with a good reason to wear a helmet.
    One earns scars and pays for tattoos. Way more cred with scars.
    Heal up fast,

  3. Shite, that looks like a good one!

    Glad to hear you are alright. I go back and forth on the brain-bucket thing myself, mostly (as you point out) based on context. I’ve been trying to wear one more regularly now that I’ve got kids running around. It’s always on ice and alpine climbing, usually on big wall climbing, sometimes on “trad” climbing (as the saying goes these days), and pretty much never on sport climbing. It’s smart of you to point out that life, especially the kind of life climbers lead, will never be 100% safe (would we want it to be?) and that there is always going to be a limit to how cautious a person is. It’s also smart of you to return to the question of “how safe is safe” after an accident like that. Hell, we should all ask ourselves that question with some regularity, even without a 13 staple reminder.

    Glad to see there is no permanent damage. Heal up quickly. Chicks dig scars (or so I tell my wife).


  4. Oooohhh dude! That frankenstein imitation makes me cringe! I’m glad your thick skull came in handy. Whew!

    FWIW, there was a big pro/con helmet discussion in the long track speedskating world a short while back (see: Short trackers always wear helmets, but long trackers never do. In the end, it seems to be all about risk. When we climb in a gym, we don’t perceive risk. It sounds like your perception of this climb was similar, no? I don’t think I would have been wearing one either….

  5. Taking a simple day hike today in VT…slipped on a wet rock crossing a stream.
    10 stitches in my forehead and a fractured thumb.
    Was with a nurse. You’re right about good friends!
    Feel better!

  6. Jesus, man. Cool it, just a lil,’ okay?

    You know, just until you’re fully recovered. Then you can go on right ahead killing yourself. Christ. Now I know how my mother feels.

    • ha, thanks hvh. yeah, am workin’ on it for sure. damn, i shouldn’t say this, but i haven’t messed myself up in more than a month now! oops, i’d better shut up.

  7. great post!
    hey, when you get that helmet, can you please post a photo? it looks nice and low-profile, but it’s hard to gauge just from the pic how much coverage it provides. thanks in advance!


  8. Hi Kelly – great blog post, gripping story, scary pics, lucky escape (?) its got it all!

    I’m posting ‘cos someone quoted some of your comments above in an online forum – they were quite admiring of your dismissal of the “always wear a helmet” brigade, and I took exception to the comments. No issue with you at all, and its always your choice to wear a helmet or not – but i think if you reflect on some of your blog comments over time, you might reach different conclusions.

    You start off with “I don’t want to be defensive, but…”

    Got to say you sound defensive! You just cracked your nana because you weren’t wearing a helmet! Sure, a helmet wouldn’t have saved your face, probably, but it would have almost definitely saved you the 13 staples in the top of his head. Those staples that were apparently “the least of [your] worries”…Was your surgeon more worried about potential brain injury rather than the cosmetic injuries to your face?

    You call it a 1:10 000 chance that you injured your head on an overhanging sport climb – I don’t think so. I’ve personally whacked my (helmeted) head on overhanging falls, and I’ve seen people turn upside down and very narrowly miss serious injury on popular sport climbs a couple of times. I agree, it isn’t a very high risk, but it is way higher than 1:10 000.

    Look, I know what you mean when you complain about people saying “you should ALWAYS” whatever…, and yes you can doubt their credentials (armchair critics everywhere…). I also don’t think you are being deliberately self-serving in your comments. But how many times do you have to injure your head before you re-assess the risk compared to the cost (wearing a helmet)? I think that justifying not wearing a helmet on the grounds that they are uncomfortable or weigh as much as 3 days food is not only untrue but comes close to the “Shallow self-justification” you accuse others of.

    If you don’t want to wear a helmet, thats cool – but disparaging the critics of that decision as arm-chair climbers DOES sound defensive. (Or maybe I’m protesting too much myself, got to say I did feel like a dick being the only person in Thailand climbing with a helmet 😉

    Anyway, rant over. Thanks for taking the time to blog, you’ve put together a cool site, and I’ll enjoy reading about your climbing. Heal fast!

    • Thanks, Alex, good points for sure. Indeed I’m probably way off with my 1:10,000 guesstimate — since my spill I’ve heard of a surprising number (just a few, really, but I more than I’d have thought) of folks who’ve flipped over and smashed their head in leader falls.

      Lots of the guys I climb with, and who don’t wear helmets on this sort of terrain, sport climb enough, usually on steep, safe terrain, and are so good at falling (seriously! I know that sounds funny, but being aware of the rope’s location, your body position, a super soft catch belay, etc, can make the difference) that they’ve literally taken thousands of falls without incident. Of course, a brain injury just that one time is enough to ruin one’s life. I suppose that’s where I get back in to my possibly defensive-sounding mode, b/c it always tweaks me when folks take an exception and try to use it to prove a rule, or suggest living life based on every exceptional circumstance that could happen. That’s when it comes to the point of spoof-worthy absurdity — double 11mm ropes (in case one cuts; i read about an incident recently…)? check. bigwall harness with reinforcements everywhere for cragging (ya never know, there has been a tragedy or two with harnesses…)? check. you know what i’m saying, i’m sure. so, indeed somewhere along the spectrum we make these decisions individually, as you note. my decision, at least since cracking my noggin’, has been to wear my helmet. got a superlight helmet (Trango skullcap) that doesn’t bother me at all, and since that “rare exception” i speak of did, in fact, happen to me, i’m feeling like wearing it. of course, my mind also goes, “what are the chances of that happening to you *twice*?” ha. i have to cut-off my thinking when that starts happening, just put on my helmet and forget about it. i’d also feel even stupider if it happened to me twice.

      anyway, thanks again, take care.

  9. It’s one’s own choice to wear or not to wear a helmet. The reasons for not wearing one, IMO, are ridiculous… complaints about them being heavy and bulky just aren’t true with modern helmets. Basically, folks are either lazy about it, or don’t want to wear one because it’s not fashionable. It’s ROCK climbing people! ROCKS are HARD! It’s gonna hurt when you hit your head! Majority of people wear a helmet mt. biking. A lot of people are wearing them skiing these days. But because magazines rarely publish pictures of climbers with helmets, our perception is that they are not cool and for noobs. Sport climbing, where one is pushing their limits and taking falls is THE time to wear a helmet. All it takes is a hold to break, the rope to get caught behind you leg and wham-O! Despite the decision to wear or not to wear a helmet… think of the burden you’d put on your friends and family if you became a drooling mess after a serious head injury. That decision is now effecting everyone you know! All it takes is high profile climbers like yourself, Kelly, to speak up about the use of helmets and head injuries in climbing and things will start to change.
    I wear my helmet EVERY time I tie into a lead rope outdoors. I never even realize its there once it’s on my head. Why? Because I witnessed my best friend break a hold, hit a small ledge and flip upside down knocking himself out… on a sport climb.

    • Good points, Marc, thanks. As compared to many sports/activities, seems climbing is a bit behind the curve (one example being the general lack of serious approaches to, and knowledge of, training (with exceptions, of course), etc). Not sure, perhaps it’s partly due to the whole counter-culture roots (increasingly less applicable on the whole, I’d say, but not entirely so — still a big spectrum of climbers out there), where people love just doing it how they want to do it, without organizations or rules. Yet indeed it holds true that we have influences, such as photos and seeing others at the crag, etc. None of us live in a total bubble (inhabitants of Boulder perhaps notwithstanding — hahaha!). I suspect that as time passes helmets will catch on — again, we’re a bit behind the curve. Let’s hope not too many people get seriously damaged in the meantime. Thanks again.

  10. i wore a helmet sport climbing every day for a month in Thailand. Some people were giving me some crap and asking about it, didn’t seem like a bad idea considering the amount of people that might drop something on you at some of the crowded spots, as they were asking and I was explaining a rock the size of your fist hit my helmet from above, but no one believed me and thought I made the noise to be funny.

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