Helmets really?


Portage Glacier with calved ice fall outlined/Paxson Woelber

Where and when the idea that safety gear in and of itself makes people safe entered the American mainstream is unclear, but it has now reached the point of a dangerous absurdity.


Forget the mountains of Alaska dotted as they are with the locations of those who wore an avalanche beacon into the death trap that killed them thinking the technology would save them if the worst happened.

Turn your attention instead to Portage Glacier about 50 miles east of Anchorage where it is only by luck or the grace of God that no one has died in recent weeks.

Skater Paxson Woelber made news across the state and beyond when he last week captured video of the ice on the lake rolling after a huge piece of the glacier calved.  The photo above this story is his best rendition of the size of the piece of ice that fell.

Using the people in the photo as a measure of scale, you can estimate the ice to be 50 to 60 feet tall and probably about twice as wide. Another photo appears below.


Portage Glacier/Paxson Woelber

Note in the larger photo the people within yards of the ice that fell.  Compared to some of the photos you will find if you spend some time searching Instagram, they are rather far away from the ice that broke free.

On Instagram, you can see people posing in fractured ice at the glacier’s face, standing under overhanging seracs, wandering among obviously freshly fallen and refrozen glacier ice with their infant children and pets, and more.

“My girlfriend and I were scrolling through photos from Portage on Instagram yesterday,” Woelber emailed when asked if he had any photos of people close to the glacier face in the days before the ice fell. “People were actually climbing around ‘inside’ the calving face, between the big plates on the face. One person posted a photo of herself holding her infant on a big pile of fresh rubble underneath the calving face, with the caption ‘me and my baby at Portage.'”

If you spend some time on Instagram as Woelber did, you will also find a significant number of people responding to the many photos by saying, “Oh, I want to do that.”

Only no one should want to get within a quarter to a half mile of that glacier’s face unless he or she has a death wish. The ice poses dangers no amount of safety gear can mitigate.

There is simply no safe way to get close.

Helmets, helmets, helmets

And yet, in the wake of Woelber’s video, came the inevitable warning to take safety gear.

Chugach National Forest spokeswoman Alisha King told the Anchorage Daily News that her agency recommends against venturing onto Portage Lake at all, but if people must go they should carry safety gear and feel trained in how to rescue themselves.

In perfect knee-jerk fashion, the newspaper followed up on this suggestion by compiling a list of safety items one should take, starting with the now obligatory “helmet” and continuing from there.

None of the safety gear would do a thing to prevent people from being crushed to death by thousand of pounds of falling ice. The suggestion of safety gear is actually a dangerous distraction. It could lead the wholly ignorant to go out and buy the gear thinking it will protect them.

It won’t.

If a big chunk of ice calves off the glacier and hits you, you will die. It will not matter what gear you bring with you. You will be smashed like a bug hitting the windshield of an automobile at 65 mph.

Yes, some of the gear suggested by the newspaper – a throw rope and “ice tools, such as an ice pick (sic), for self-rescue” – could be useful for safety in case of thin ice on Portage Lake or any lake.

Throw ropes and ice picks (not ice tools; those are used for climbing) are a good idea for everyone skating in a group on a lake with thin ice, and ice picks should be a norm for anyone traveling on ice anywhere whether in a group or not.

I wear mine around my neck whether snowmachining or skating, even fat biking on ice. Ice picks can be punched into firm ice and used to leverage your body out of the water if you fall through.

You can find a video demonstrating their use for self rescue here: The website Instructables has instructions on how to make your own picks, or what it calls “ice claws” for only a few dollars, or you can go to many Anchorage sporting goods stores or snowmachine dealers and buy a set.

Along with wearing the picks around your neck, you might also want to wear a fire-starting kit in a waterproof pouch. It would suck to pull yourself out of a potentially icy grave only to die of hypothermia if your are far from nowhere with no access to warm, dry clothes or with no one around to provide the same.

Safety gear always makes sense, but only if you know how to use it. And only if it doesn’t lull you into the sense that you are now safe because you are carrying it.

It could kill you

Anyone who concludes there is some safety gear that is going to save him or her from the ice of a calving glacier ice is suffering from a dangerous delusion.

And any news organization that even obliquely suggests there is a safe way to approach the face of Portage Glacier is being dangerously naive. There is no safe way to approach that glacial face. Anyone getting close is playing the natural world’s version of Russian roulette.

So, “you can ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky?”

Safety, sad to say, isn’t about luck. Safety is, by and large, about judgment. Unfortunately, as a society, we increasingly undervalue judgment and overvalue gear.

It’s so much easier to tell people to just “buy this crap and you’ll be safe” than to advise people on sensible behavior.

Maybe we can blame part of this gear fixation, and especially the helmet fixation, on cyclists who started wearing helmets in the 1970s instead of demanding safer cycling infrastructure, or maybe more so on companies that saw a big money-making opportunity.

A lot of the country’s present helmet mania seems to track back to that period.

Helmets were good money for business, and a wonderful crutch for politicians who don’t want to deal with systemic safety problems affecting a minority of voters, especially if spending money to make that minority safe offends the majority.

Who needs safe bike trails? Shut up. Put on your helmet. You’ll be fine.

Put politics and capitalism together, stir in some good intentions, and you’ve got the perfect mix to make helmets the go-to solution for safety on many fronts: Biking, skiing, skateboarding, paddling and more.

And, of course, the fact that helmets might indeed save a life only helps fuel the helmet push. If it saves but one life….

It’s surprising no one has introduced legislation to require that the elderly, many of whom die from head injuries suffered in falls, be required to wear helmets from the time they get out of bed in the morning until they go back to sleep. But that could be coming soon.

A 2011 study found the fall mortality-rate for those over age 65 averaged almost 41 per 100,000 from 2003 to 2007. For comparison sake, the bicycle death rate is 2.3 per million (0.23 per 100,000). Even in Florida, the deadliest state in the nation, the cycling death rate is below 1 per 100,000. 

There’s a far better argument for elder helmets than cycle helmets, which is not to say there isn’t more that could be done to make cycling safe. U.S. cycling death rates are significantly higher than those in Europe where authorities have focused less on helmets and more on creating infrastructure that protects cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles.

“In contrast with the United States, many northern European cities have extensive auto-free zones in much of their centers; most neighborhood streets traffic-calmed with speed limits of 30 kilometers per hour (20 miles per hour) or less; sidewalks on both sides of almost every street; pedestrian refuge islands for crossing wide streets; clearly marked crosswalks, often raised and with special lighting; and pedestrian signals at intersections and mid-block crosswalks with ample crossing times,” a 2017 study in the American Journal of Health of Public reported.

“Facilitating safe and convenient cycling, many northern European cities have extensive systems of separate bikeways, both on-road and off-road, often including priority traffic signals and advance stop lines for cyclists at intersections. US cities only began building separate bike facilities in the 1990s, and, even currently, they lag far behind northern European cities in the extent, quality, and integration of their bikeways.”

But who needs actual, sensible safety solutions when we can just tell people to buy safety gear, and they’ll be safe?

And helmets are a wonderful, wonderful thing in theory. If they made the brain within the head within the helmet function better, they would be the answer to many problems.

The sad reality, however, is they do nothing to improve human judgment, and at least one behavioral study has suggested they might serve to undermine judgment, which would only serve to compound the problem at Portage Glacier.

People headed for the glacier don’t need to be told about safety gear; they need to be bluntly told to stay the hell away from the face of that ice. Exactly how far?

I don’t know. Some have suggested a quarter-mile. Something tells me that might be too close.

Surely the U.S. Forest Service, which at one time prohibited kayakers on the lake in the summer because the agency considered the waterbody an  “unsafe” place to paddle, can figure out a safe distance and at the very least warn skaters, studded-tire cyclists and walkers of how far to stay back before someone gets killed.

Such advice would be way more useful than any safety gear.







28 replies »

  1. Most comments are about the glacier, but I’d like to address the cycle helmet segment. Most people think that cycle helmets are incredibly effective, not surprising given the huge number of “helmet saved my life” stories in the media. Trouble is, the data shows something rather different, with no detectable improvement in the death rate of cyclists with increased helmet wearing, and some research shows an increase in risk.

    As the author points out, donning safety gear leads to a change in behaviour to take more risks because you are wearing the safety gear. If the protective effect of that gear is much less than you think, the change in behaviour of taking more risks, is a greater effect than any safety improvement caused by the helmet.

    Cycle helmets are rated to provide adequate protection to about 10mph, but many people think they work at many times that speed, and since the energy in an impact increases with the square of the speed, they are effectively useless in many collisions. There is also the problem that they increase the risk of the most dangerous injury, rotational, by increasing the size of the head and its radius.

    Countries which have brought in helmet laws, Australia and New Zealand, have seen no benefit, and any reduction in deaths is more than explained by the reduction in the number of cyclists. Countries which have invested in proper cycle facilities, Denmark and Holland, have seen massive improvements in the safety of cyclists. It is much safer to ride in those countries, where no-one wears a helmet, than in the countries with helmet laws.

    But our politicians still subscribe to the utterly disproven idea that the answer to cyclists’ safety is helmets, because they are too cowardly to make the investment into cycle facilities.

    For more info take a look at

    • “As the author points out, donning safety gear leads to a change in behaviour to take more risks because you are wearing the safety gear.” Just my opinion but it takes a special kind of stupid to take more risks because you are wearing a helmet.
      I just don’t buy that argument.

      • Frankly Craig, I can’t imagine any reasonable adult taking increased risks because they have a helmet. Certainly some kids could be excused because they do stupid stuff all the time-even then their folks should have some say in their behavior.
        But if the shoe fits, wear it. What do you call it?

      • Bill: I had a bike accident last winter that doctors later told me might have killed me. One doctor, a neighbor, later lectured me on how I was damn lucky to be alive because the health problem that befell me killed one of his in-laws.

        I was wearing a helmet when the bike crashed. I usually do.

        And because I was wearing a helmet, I was riding too fast for conditions. It was on a fat bike. There was significant soft snow around to land in if I crashed, and since I was wearing a helmet, what the hell could go wrong?

        Well, what could wrong is this: My front tire went off the trail at high speed on a downhill, and I endo-ed at 20 mph or so. Both the bike and I went airborne. Somehow in the air I got my right leg in the frame’s triangle and slapped down with my foot pinned under the bike and my femur across the top bar.

        In this situation, the soft snow didn’t exactly help. The bike landed on its side and acted like a big snowshoe. My head and torso, however, entered the snow like a diver and as a result, my femur hit that top bar with an ungodly amount of force.

        I thought for a moment that I’d broken it and started to wonder how the hell I was going to get home and whether I might just die of hypothermia there on the little-traveled trail. Fortunately, I have big strong bones. It didn’t break.

        I got up, walked it off and rode home. End of story. No big deal.

        In the days that followed, however, I started having some strange breathing problems. It was a little scary at one point. I gassed out on a climb on the bike, got off to push and just couldn’t get my wind back. I started to worry I was developing asthma, but ignored it because, well, what’s a guy to do?

        See if it get better or gets worse, and then go to a doc and get an inhaler. Or maybe a diagnosis of walking pneumonia given that I was otherwise feeling OK.

        Well, it got worse to the point that I bagged out on hitting the Iditarod Trail Invitational on the snowgo to cover the Iditarod Trail Invitational – something I love to do – because something in the back of my head was telling me not to do that when my body just didn’t seem physically right.

        I’m thankful for the little man, as the late Gov. Wally Hickel used to call his back of the head voice, for the warning. The ITI left Knik on Sunday. About 4 a.m. on Monday I woke up with excruciating chest pains. I quickly ruled out a heart attack, which relaxed me a bit, took some drugs and went back to bed.

        The drugs took enough of the edge off the pain that I didn’t see any sense driving to the emergency room at 5 a.m., but I did go to a doctor promptly in the a.m. She ordered an X-ray, got it back, popped it on the screen and announced she wasn’t sure of what she was looking at although it was pretty obvious what she was looking at: a lung full of fluid.

        Not two lungs as with pneumonia, mind you, but one. That was what had her flummoxed. So she sent me to the pulmonologist. He wasn’t sure what to think either. I’m not a candidate for deep vein thrombosis. I’m pretty damn fit though a little over my ideal race weight.

        He ordered me into the tube for an MRI. The results came back while he was in Poland dealing with a family issue. He called me from there to tell me “you need to get on these blood thinners, and get on these blood thinners NOW!”

        The reason? Pulmonary embolism.

        I had a lung full of blood and blood clots. We eventually tracked it back to that bike crash and the high probability of deep vein clotting following that crash. Come to find out, this sort of thing has killed other cyclists. Who would have thunk it?

        But here’s the important point of the story:

        If I hadn’t been wearing that helmet, there is no way in hell I would have been so aggressively descending that hill. I would have been coming down wary of the danger of a crash due to the soft snow on either side. If there had been a crash, it would surely have occurred at a slow enough speed that nothing would have gone airborne, and thus none of this would have happened.

        In all likelihood been one of those run-off endos where you can sort of run off the bike as it is going over in the snow, and there is no injury whatsoever.

        So, I guess I am the opposite of all those people claiming their bike helmet saved them. I could claim I my bike helmet almost killed me. And the point of that observation is to make this one:

        Anyone who thinks safety gear doesn’t affect judgment just isn’t thinking or paying attention to the literature. Psychological studies have been done to document how safety gear does affect judgment:

      • Like you say all the time Bill, that is just your opinion. Facts disagree with your opinion, but don’t let the facts change your opinion.

        You know what takes a special kind of stupid? Wearing a helmet that you know doesn’t protect you from the hazard you are wearing the helmet for, now that’s a special kind of stupid!

      • Steve-O, I’ve never considered you reasonable. That said, you can choose to make this about something else entirely-say wearing a helmet that is not designed for what you are using it for.
        I don’t buy your facts, plain and simple. Not that some (stupid folks) think like you, just that I don’t consider them to be reasonable adults.

      • Thanks Bill, coming from you I will take that as a compliment!

        I’m not sure why you think talking about wearing the appropriate safety gear on an article about how wearing a helmet to protect you from house sized falling ice on a thinly frozen lake is making “this about something else entirely”, but then you also don’t think I’m reasonable. C’est la vie.

      • Craig, this is what I have a problem with: “And because I was wearing a helmet, I was riding too fast for conditions.” That’s like saying reasonable adults drive beyond conditions because they have new air bags. People do these things for various reasons but I just don’t buy the increased safety gear gives them reason to do it. That’s just a cop-out IMO. If, in fact, people are doing this then what else are they doing? I guess it’s no wonder that insurance rates are off the scale.
        I recall an earlier post of yours that said something like “drivers cut it closer to bicyclists if they are wearing helmets.” I think this is just as absurd as taking increased risks with helmets. I know that there are those who have tremendous eyesight and can hit a curveball so perhaps these gifted individuals can process the bicyclist and make the decision of whether/not said person is wearing a helmet in time to close/not the gap. Not a chance in a carload those of us who can’t hit a curve of doing such a thing whether consciously or otherwise.
        What would be the thought process of determining that because one is wearing a helmet that he/she would decide to ride too fast for conditions? That is a determination that is done by an official after the accident (not before or during IMO). With no officer involved, it’s done by the individual after the accident and (IMO) the blaming of the helmet is lost on me. I’m sure that Steve-O can relate, however.
        Your link specifically dealt with folks taking increased risks when wearing a tracking helmet (not one that involved any safety measure), which is not the same thing as taking increased risks due to a helmet that is designed to mitigate damage.

      • Bill: it’s tempting to argue common sense, but sense is not common.

        i’d contend i made a logical conclusion. helmet on head. soft snow to cushion body. what could possibly go wrong in a crash?

        it was bad judgment.

        i actually think you nailed the problem with the observation that “I guess it’s no wonder that insurance rates are off the scale.”

        they are off the scale because modern cars are incredibly safe and people want to stay “connected” every minute. i spend lot of time on a bike. there are a mind-boggling numbers of people texting while driving.

        why do they do this even though it is illegal? obviously, they weigh the costs of getting caught as low, the risks of going off the road as lower, and the risks of anything bad happening if they go off the road in their cocoon as near zero.

        it’s not just airbag related, but airbags probably play a part.

        lastly, as to this – “drivers cut it closer to bicyclists if they are wearing helmets” – i’d suggest you go read the study. with studies as with movies, it’s always better to critique after you’ve read/seen them.

      • Reasonable, or not, adults take increased risks all the time because of real or perceived “safety”. On a daily basis millions drive their automobiles far faster than is safe, all because their is a board on the side of a road with a number on it. The first automobile speed limit in this nation was 12 mph, it was passed in Connecticut in 1901 and had as much or more to do with the safety of horses as it did the person driving the automobile. In fact the new automobile speed limit required the automobile to travel slower than 12 mph when passing a horse or stop completely lest the horse become spooked. Nowadays we have speed limits up to 70 mph in some states, as far as I know we top out at 65 mph in this state. Imagine driving on an ice slick road with snow falling in the dark and driving at 65 mph with another automobile just inches away from you…it’s done all the time here and most consider it safe to do so because the big metal box they are riding in and a board on the side of the road with a number on it. Putting a helmet on your head provides the same “feeling” of safety.

      • Craig, I believe you have it as a judgement call. My “stupid” comment was overly simple and I’ll take that back. It appears that certain people’s brains process certain information in a way as to allow for the later excuse “the helmet made me do it.”
        Carl Sagan wrote a book (Broca’s Brain) that mentions some interesting stuff about brains. One of the most interesting was for people with grand mal seizures who had their two hemispheres split down the middle and were studied by researchers. Those people, when given a word (say someplace) with one part in one eye’s path and the other in the other. When asked to tell the word they couldn’t say it but could wright it.
        A lot of other interesting brain stuff but the important bit is that the human brain is complex and not everyone processes information the same way.

  2. Back in the early mid-70s, in the making of my motion picture Sourdough, we risked some “calculated stupidity.” I wanted to film a sequence where the main character–my dad played the part of the old trapper-prospector–falls into a crevasse and must extricate himself. I would have never risked it in normal winter temps, but the bottom had dropped out of the thermometer, which presented the “safest” opportunity. On the coldest day I have ever witnessed in my now 52 years in South Central (about 40 below) we skied up to the Portage Glacier face. The glacier seemed, and probably pretty much was, inert.

    Then freakishly, with filming about to begin, a warm blast of air suddenly came over the pass from the Sound. It was followed by another, and another. At first, I thought it a godsend, as it would make camera work, running actual film in those pre-videotape days, much easier. And I guessed it would take a long time for the glacier to wake up. NOT SO! Before we could begin filming Ol’ Portage began to creak and groan.

    We lost no time showing that monster a fast set of heels. For the sake of my project I had chanced disaster filming grizzlies too close and running Six Mile in a log raft, but I was not quite dumb enough to dare Portage Glacier doing its everyday thing.

    By the time we got back to the parking lot, the thermometer read an amazing 40 above. That was the most incredible temperature swing I have ever witnessed.

    Good article, Craig. Glaciers are nothing to mess with.

  3. Speaking of absurdity: “It’s surprising no one has introduced legislation to require that the elderly, many of whom die from head injuries suffered in falls, be required to wear helmets from the time they get out of bed in the morning until they go back to sleep. But that could be coming soon.”
    While there has been, over time, absurd legislation introduced this one is in another league IMO.

  4. Mendenhall Glacier had a similar calving, catching two persons that had walked right up to its face, some years ago. At that time the face was near Nugget Creek (it’s receded more now) and the falls from the creek was causing ice falls regularly (with that nice blue of recent ice visible). The story, from the survivor, was that they had been up to the face and had turned around and were leaving when the man looked back to see the ice coming down-he took off running and survived with broken pelvis and other injuries. The woman was completely under that ice and her body was not recovered for some time.
    While a helmet may have helped one (I don’t recall if there were head injuries) but they (helmets) just aren’t on the shelf to protect against ice falls IMO. Perhaps someone will design one that sells to those needing to climb around in the “ice caves” around our glaciers. Here is most recent example from Mendenhall Glacier:

  5. Some of us face far more danger in our workplace than we do on the weekend and OSHA has developed a hierarchy of control method to reduce injury and death.  It is a very basic set of steps to protect the worker.  Interestingly personal protective equipment is the very last step due to its performance in actually providing protection.

    The Hierarchy breaks down as follows, with the most effective measures at the top of the pyramid and the least effective at the bottom.
    1. Elimination/substitution. At the very top is the best way to deal with a safety hazard, which is to eliminate it altogether by preventing exposure to the hazard before it even occurs. In substitution, you seek to permanently reduce the risk by substitute a less hazardous material or reduction of system energy. These are process design solutions that require a permanent change to how a job is performed.
    2. Engineering controls. Change the structure of the work area to reduce exposure using safety devices or barriers. An example would be to place a high fence around a dangerous location to prevent access.
    3. Administrative & work practice controls. Implement procedures that require workers to do things to reduce their exposure to a risk. A lockout/tagout program is an example of an administrative control. Set expectations that workers will engage in safe work practices. Another example is the use of warning signs, sirens and alarms.
    4. Personal protective equipment (PPE). Make sure employees wear the proper protective clothing, gloves and eyeglasses for the job. Examples are safety goggles, respirators, fall protection and hearing protection.

    Love ’em or hate ’em OSHA is literally in the business of keeping people safe.

  6. Good job, Craig. Thanks for the video of the rescue from a “fall” through the ice. That is one vivid reminder of cold-water shock, which is what often kills when someone falls into an Alaska river or lake.

    • i’ve long thought everyone should do the Polar Plunge or some such to learn about cold shock. the first time i experienced itwas in Glacier Bay when i thought i was going to jump into the 40 degree water, dive under the sailboat, and unwrap a line wrapped in the prop.

      i eventually did, but for the first seconds after hitting the water, i could barely breathe, and for a couple minutes after that, i was incapable of holding my breathe long enough to get the job done. i eventually did but by then was pretty much worthless.

      thankfully, at the time, my ex-wife cared enough about me to get me back in the boat. a few years later i’m sure she would have probably left me in the bay and sailed off.

      • Craig-great story about your going into pretty cold water without dying. Glacier Bay water is extremely cold even in Summer but 40 degrees is a real shock (especially if one has little clothes on). I’ve heard that the shock can cause one to inhale water as a reflex and that is the main cause of a quick death. Since dead men don’t tell tales, the jury is still out on that IMO.

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