Will Gadd – Athlete, Speaker, Guide     Athlete     Speaker     Guide    
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Helmet Fire

Date: 21st February 2011

A friend of mine calls any situation where the space between your ears stops working a “helmet fire.” I love that expression; it’s so descriptive of the times when we just stop thinking about the exterior world or “reality” and burn up in a mental paroxysm of self-fueled mental combustion. Every sport has it’s “helmet fire” situations; pro athletes choke, skiers crash getting off the chairlift, novice climbers turn into jello and cling to the rock like terrified children, good leaders suddenly can’t do a 5.8 move on a jug. Helmet fires, each and every one.

So how do you put out a helmet fire? The short path is to stick your head in a creek, but this is unfortunately hard to do in most situations. Here are a few suggestions:
-Look in the mirror after a helmet fire. Nobody wants to admit that they had a mental seizure, it takes real guts to admit that and then try to figure out what happened. Without self-analysis nothing will change. Change is uncomfortable; admitting a malfunction to yourself may mess with your perception of how good you are at something, and the mind is incredible at protecting the ego. Watch any kid throw a temper tantrum when they can’t figure something out. Damn mirrors.
-Break down the components of the malfunction. What was really at stake? Death? Injury? Pride? Self-belief? Personal perception? Often there’s not as much at stake as the person believes, or less on the outside and more on the inside. “I can’t do X because…” Bullshit. If you’re soloing really high then maybe you can use that excuse, but most of the time there’s just not much there in terms of heavy consequences. And if there is then you shouldn’t be there with a helmet fire, back it down.
-Search for the same helmet fire situation, and enter it willingly with full awareness (if it’s not likely to be fatal). I used to be afraid of large holes while kayaking; my friend Jim G. decided he loved them. I’m still not a fan of getting pounded, but I try to stuff myself into as many nasty holes as I can like Jimmy does.. It has helped. Same with every sport I do; thin ice used to give me instant helmet fires, so I climbed a lot of it on TR. Now it just annoys me as it’s slow but reasonably secure.
-Create operating room in your head. Hang on gear, pull into an eddy, glide into still air, do something to stop the mental load increasing, if only for a moment. This is a sort of “reset” button.
-Focus on the fact that right then, right there, you’re “OK.” Most of the time you are; I’ve watched fully grown men cower on scree slopes. I stop, sit down with them, and eventually they get bored of cowering and stand up to move. Often they have to sit down again, but each time they stand they get stronger mentally, and the helmet fire goes down. Small steps forward from a position of, “OK now.”
-Enjoy your head. As I get older and see my friends age I can see the best athletes among us getting more comfortable with who they are and how their heads works, and often their performance gets better even as their bodies age. The head is always the most important thing in any meaningful environment, always. Might as well train it and enjoy it.

“There are no limits. There are plateaus, and you must not stay there; you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.”

-Bruce Lee

Posted in: Blog


  1. Jed   February 21, 2011 11:23 pm

    Wow, are you talking about climbing, or everything else? I know its a cliche way to comment on a blog, but man this post hits so close to home. And it ain't my climbing that's plateauing or my lead head that's busting into helmet inferno! Thanks Will. (We've never met, I'm just a fan)

  2. Alan Gordon   February 23, 2011 1:05 am

    I enjoyed reading this post. I can relate to this on nearly a day to day basis with my job as an avalanche forecaster and the climbing and other various dangerous things that I do in my off time.
    It hasn't happened very often, but I have been free climbing ice before and I once thought for an instant where it was very exposed and i was feeling weak, "this is going to hurt".. I immediately caught myself thinking that and basically told myself that it wasn't an option. My fear then subsided and I kept climbing. Granted in those times it feels really good to get to the top, mentally you can "put out the helmet fire" how you put it and push onward without the giant mental block you'd have otherwise if you weren't able to "put it out".

  3. Me   February 24, 2011 3:29 pm

    Bruce Lee is a brute!!

  4. Anonymous   February 24, 2011 8:03 pm

    "If it kills you, it kills you." is advice for whom, precisely?

  5. Will Gadd   February 24, 2011 9:33 pm

    Anon 12:03-
    That quote/advice is from Bruce Lee for anyone who needs it. My own precise advice to you would be to worry less about the problems in life and get after it more. Just a guess.

  6. Jake   February 25, 2011 2:14 am

    Seems Helmcken Falls offers much more than Wild Ice. Good thought.

  7. Brian Pidduck   March 4, 2011 4:29 am

    Hi Will,

    Interesting post. Thanks for being so willing to offer your perspective and insight on climbing, skiing and training. It can be challenging to articulate meaningful information on these topics, but your comments always ring true for me.

    On the topic of training one's head, you might be interested in the Podium Sports Journal (podiumsportjournal.com). It is a treasure trove of information, articles, videos and advice for coaches and athletes. I have found it to be very useful for coaching rock climbing, skiing, running and even outdoor leadership at my school (Thacher School, Ojai, CA). Not to mention that there is great stuff there for the individual mountain athlete.

    Thanks, Brian

  8. blonstar   March 21, 2011 8:45 pm

    The term "helmet fire" originated with the USAF and means, in the military context, task saturation (especially in the context of complex flying instruments). The fire hat, which is kind of a helmet, was invented in NYC in the 1820s by a guy named, seriously, Henry Gratacap. Pomethian unguent protects the wearer from fire, as given to Jason by Medea. Of course, that didn't turn out well. Jason died when the rotting stern of the Argo fell on his head. Which is a grim reminder of why one should always wear a helmet.

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