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Petzl Helmets With Top and Side protection—The Total Safety Protocol

by Barrabes - 0
A part as delicate as your head deserves total protection. Regulations are demanding and comply with all safety parameters, but Petzl has implemented a new protocol that provides even greater protection in the event of falls or impacts to the entire surface of the helmet.

Head protection is essential while climbing. Photo Sam Blé / Petzl

The helmet has been and, although fortunately less and less, continues to be one of the safety elements in which there is most inconsistency among climbers due to the protection we know it offers and the little use that is made of it. Practically ignored in sport climbing until not so many years ago, it is nowadays more and more common in many mountain sports. As happened in cycling or skiing, in a few years it has gone from being an anecdotal element in sports equipment to become an indispensable part of any activity.

It is only in activities such as caving, where knocks on the head are a constant occurrence, that the use of helmets has never been questioned. Until well after the middle of the 20th century, climbing was done without a helmet, regardless of how exposed to falling rocks the openings were in areas with such a bad reputation such as the Dolomites or Riglos. Only a fluffy woollen cap provided minimal protection against the usual falling rocks.

Something began to change in 1958 when Kurt Diemberger and Wolfgang Stefan climbed the Eiger Nordwand, another famous rock face with flying projectiles, in their brand-new mountaineering helmets. The climb of the Eiger Nordwand had been particularly tragic for years, and its ascent was reported in many of the newspapers of the time. Diemberger recounted: "The appearance of our photographs in helmets in several newspapers revived sales. We did not make any profit, but it is pleasing to think that, thanks to the quality publicity given to this useful accessory, our ascent helped to increase the safety of many mountaineers embarking on great projects and to save more than one..”

From that moment on, the use of helmets in mountaineering began to become more and more popular, and always with the same intention: to protect against impacts caused by falling rocks. It was not yet considered or taken into account that a helmet should also protect against falls and cushion impacts across the entire surface of the head.

The use of a helmet in mountaineering these days is a no-brainer. Photo Thomas Senf

Rigid helmets with a hemispherical structure fulfilled their protective function but were not particularly comfortable, nor easy to adjust, nor ventilated, nor light. For these reasons and others (they were not cheap either), their use was reserved for routes fundamentally exposed to rocks, for activities such as opening new lines, caving or winter couloirs.

Gradually and in parallel, two facts have evolved to combine perfectly: on the one hand, the manufacture of helmets, especially thanks to in-mould technology, has created much more practical designs in terms of weight, fit, ventilation, price and even design. On the other hand, the awareness that the helmet is a very important element in safety and the need for mountaineers to wear it.

Sport climbing fall with head impact against the wall. Photo Petzl

What is the regulation on helmet protection?

For our peace of mind, we not only have one standard for climbing helmets, but two. On the one hand, the Euronorm EN-12492 regulates the impact absorption that, both in the zenithal area of the helmet and in the lateral, front and dorsal parts of the same, dropping an object of 5 kilograms of mass the force that our head receives, can never be higher than 10 kN.

Helmet Regulations EN-12492 and UIAA-106. Diagram courtesy of UIAA.

The difference in the tests between vertical absorption and lateral, frontal and dorsal absorption is that the object, apart from having a different shape, is thrown from a height of 2 metres in vertical absorption and at a height of 50 centimetres in lateral, frontal and dorsal absorption, considering the latter areas to be at 60º to the highest point of the helmet. We will come back to this fact, which is more important than it seems, later.

On the other hand we have the UIAA-106 standard. Unlike the euronorms, which are compulsory if the manufacturer wants his product to be categorised, the UIAA (International Union of Mountaineering Associations) standards are voluntary. They guarantee us as users, however, higher levels of protection than the already demanding euronorms. In the case of the UIAA-106, which complements the EN-12492, the test methods are the same, but the force received by our head may never exceed 8 kN.

Another Step: Petzl Top and Side Protection

With these protection standards, it seems clear that certified climbing helmets should be quite safe, but are the helmets we use in the mountains really that safe? The quick answer is yes, they are very safe. They protect against a wide variety of impacts that can be received in the mountains where the greatest danger usually comes from above, but there are other less obvious dangers for which the strict regulations of the helmets do not fully protect us: blows to the head in falls.

Zones of protection of the Top and Side protection protocol. Diagram courtesy of Petzl.

Activities such as ski touring, glacier crossing or canyoning are particularly prone to blows to the head due to slips where environments such as snow, ice or wet and mossy stones result in many participants hitting the ground. These falls, less avoidable when tired or with heavy backpacks, are not always cushioned by the hands and the head tends to hit the ground frequently.

The nature of canyons make slips and falls likely. Photo David Serrano.

In sport climbing, where helmets are less commonly used, the existence of large overhangs or the (false) perception of a safe environment with no unstable elements above makes many people think that a blow to the head is practically impossible. In addition, the example of many elite climbers who continue not to wear helmets, perhaps for the same reasons, does not help to encourage the use of helmets.

Alex Huber in Mauerläufer. Photo: Heinz Zak, Facebook Huberbuam

However, a fortuitous entanglement with the ropes and legs, too much slack in the rope or a sideways pendulum during a fall are often reasons for hitting the wall with your head in sport climbing with only painful results at best.

These impacts do not always occur in the zenithal area of the helmet. We have already seen that the regulations also require protection of the peripheral areas of the helmet, but does the helmet completely protect us? The reality is surprising: the regulations require protection between the zenithal point and its surroundings at an angle of 60º, but this leaves the edges of the helmet unprotected, a very necessary area given its proximity to the face.

Impact tests of Top and Side Protection. Photo Petzl.

Petzl's Top and Side Protection is a protocol that Petzl implements in several of its helmet models and that allows the requirements of the EN-12492 to be met on the entire surface of the helmet. This is something very important in any situation but particularly in those activities we mentioned in which we can experience falls in any position such as ski touring, canyoning, glacier walking... and of course in climbing and mountaineering.

To learn about Petzl's Top and Side Protection Protocol and discover the advantages it offers, Petzl has created a video that is part of a series of tutorials on climbing safety from which we are sure to learn a lot.

Petzl helmets complying with the Petzl Top and Side Protection protocol with the Boreo range (Boreo, Borea y Boreo caving), the kid’s helmet Picchu, el Meteor y el Sirocco.

We hope you have discovered the importance of full head protection with this article and video.

helmets top and side protection petzl


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