Casque, sturzhelm, whatever you call it, whether or not to use a backcountry skiing helmet is an open question. Vociferous helmet advocates remind one of evangelicals when they push for helmet use, while other voices look at the numbers and question the efficacy of hard hats. What to do?
One of my favorite observations about helmets is somewhat philosophical. The fact is that most ski injuries are not head whacks, but rather torn up knees, broken bones and other unpleasantness such as twisted backs. Preventing many of those injuries is tough, if not impossible. Along comes a helmet. “Aha,” we think, ” I might spend a year rehabing a knee, but at least I won’t get a head injury.” In an unpredictable world, a helmet offers a bit of certainty about not getting at least one type of crippling injury. Or does it?
My favorite article about helmets was written by gear expert Clyde Soles, published in 2005 in Gear Trends (2015 defunct link removed). Clyde makes the believable point that “Embracing the fickle nuances of fashion as much as the logical needs of safety…wearing a helmet of any kind seems to make intuitive sense when flying down a snow slope at 25 miles per hour… [but a] helmet that does not meet stringent, though voluntary, testing standards offers little more protection than a cardboard box.”
So the first step with picking a helmet is know what testing standard it goes with. Next, it’s necessary to know what that standard actually offers in protection — usually very little though they do have a protective effect in a head impact (as many empirical tales can relate).
Consider the latest Giro ski helmet with an ASTM F2040 standard. According to Clyde testing to that standard requires three drop tests that prove the helmet will protect a skier from major head injury at 14 miles per hour with a flat surface, and gives some protection against more concentrated impacts or penetration. While such performance will no doubt reduce the severity of injury at higher speed, in my opinion it’s a rather minimalist standard and some cause for concern.
Expert skiers routinely ski faster than 14 mph, and dropping cliffs (even small ones) involves significant speed. In the backcountry you might want protection from trauma during an avalanche. How fast? Try around 90 mph for a soft slab. All with rocks and trees at the ready for concentrated impacts.
My take: Our family uses helmets, but we don’t make a god out of them. From research I’ve come to know they’re important for bicycle safety, but appear to be less important for skiing. Conversely, a knee injury might threaten your athletic career but doesn’t involve being fed by a tube for the rest of your life. With that in mind, it’s disappointing that ski helmets offer so little protection. Why no outcry? Answer: According to Clyde, serious head injuries comprise only 2.6 percent of ski hurts, and skiing in general is a fairly safe sport (more people are killed by lightning than by ski accident.) Since we’re not seeing a parade of ambulances hauling head injured skiers, helmet advocates get an easy pass on apparently being more concerned with the name of the device than actual function. It appears that so long as it’s called and sold as a helmet Casque, or sturzhelm, people are happy. Even if it’s little better than wearing a thick cardboard box.
(For more WildSnow blogging about helmets, enter the word “helmets” in the blog search box to the right.)