2011 Gear Guide: Cams

Four new camming devices go lobe to lobe
How brilliant was Ray Jardine’s design for the first commercially successful spring-loaded camming device? It was so spot-on that the 13.75° constant camming angle that Jardine stipulated is still in use by several cam makers more than three decades later. But that’s not to say cam design has stagnated: The invention of TCUs and other micro-cams, double-axle units, and offset cams has helped climbers push into ever sketchier free-climbing and big-wall terrain. Here, we take a close look at the four newest camming devices available in the U.S., including a sneak preview of a radically redesigned Friend—yup, the original SLCD inspired by Jardine’s designs, now in its third incarnation.

These are the second double-axle cams on the market, after Black Diamond’s groundbreaking Camalots. The six Dragon Cams each cover essentially the same range as the comparable Camalot C4s; they’ve also followed Black Diamond’s color scheme, from purple through gray. But there are a few significant differences. Most impressive is the Dragon’s clever design for an extendable sling; the doubled 8mm Dyneema sling is threaded through twin eyeholes at the base of the stem, making it super-smooth to double the sling length to nearly 10 inches. In testing, we found this eliminated the need for quickdraws on most cam placements. On the other hand, it also was a bit more fiddly for seconds to “reload” the extended sling than to simply re-rack a quickdraw. On balance, testers appreciated the flexibility of the sling design. The other striking thing about Dragon Cams is their extremely short stem (about 2 inches shorter than comparable Camalots); this helps keep the weight down and reduces bulk on the rack and in your pack. Testers liked having the option of using either the thumb or the meat of the palm while pulling triggers and pushing the cam into position, especially with gloves on. (They also loved the Dragons’ smooth trigger action.) The short stem might make it harder to reach distant placements and to clean deeply placed cams, but the trigger is in the same position as on other cams, and testers didn’t experience any lost units. One distinct downside of the stem design, however, is the absence of any place to clip in short for aid climbing. If you buy the full set of Dragon Cams, you’ll pay about $50 more than the same set of C4s. Is it worth it? These cams are best suited to complex trad climbs and alpine routes, where the extendable sling and slight weight savings (a set of six weighs about 2 oz. less than the comparable quiver of C4s) will be of maximum use. But almost anywhere you place cams, you’ll be happy to use these.

First in Flares

These cams were introduced last year, but we hadn’t used them extensively at the time of our last Gear Guide and wanted to report on our findings. Plus, since the middle of last year, Colorado Custom Hardware’s Alien Hybrids have been very difficult to obtain, making the Metolius Offset the only one you can find outside of Ebay. By pairing two different sizes of Master Cam lobes in a four-cam head—and keeping that head narrower than the vast majority of other four-cam units—Metolius has created a tool that fits superbly in pin scars, pods, and flaring cracks. This makes offsets a must for aid climbers who want to go hammerless. The six Offset Master Cams span a range from about 0.3 inch to 1.3 inches—i.e., pin-scar territory. But don’t think of these solely as tools to dig out of the gear closet for big walls. We found them perfectly adaptable to free climbing and suitable to a wide range of rock types, though we especially liked them on the rounded cracks and shallow seams of Boulder Canyon granite. For anything but perfectly parallel cracks (e.g., Indian Creek), we reached for them just as we would any other cam—by turning the cam to one side or the other, we could always optimize its placement. And when a crack flared radically, we were far happier with the result than we would have been with a traditional unit. As with Metolius’ regular line of Master Cams, the cam lobes are connected to the trigger with Kevlar cord instead of wires; these prevent kinking to maintain smooth lobe movement, and we detected no damage after fairly extensive use. One small Offset Master Cam bent sharply under the head after two falls in the same placement, requiring a vise and pliers to restore it to proper shape. But otherwise, testers felt these cams were burly tools that could be indispensable on some climbs, and will be useful on many.

Aid Monsters

These new cams from Spain’s Basque Country cover five sizes, ranging from fingertips to small hands. The radical feature of their design is the way a load activates the cams: Instead of the stem and axle bearing the load, as in most cams, each Totem lobe is attached to an individual spring-action cable extending to the clip-in sling. This allows more secure two-cam placements for aid climbing, and the unique cabling and lobe design give the Totems more holding power in downward flaring cracks and pods. They also have more range than other single-axle cams. Testers felt they provided more placement options than many cams and could be a real boon for clean-aid climbing. The cabling is also super-flexible in all directions, further enhancing placement options and stability; testers found they tended to walk less than other cams. Totems are not widely available at retailers, but you can order them at the company website with free shipping to the U.S.—and there’s a 10 percent discount for five or more, bringing them in line with many other cams’ pricing.


Sneak Peek

This year, the British manufacturer Wild Country has unveiled the second major change to Friends since they were introduced way back in 1977. (The fi rst was the switch from rigid to fl exible cable stems.) Although the company said the new Helium Friends should be on sale in the U.S. by mid-March, production samples were not available in time for our testing. We’ll do a full review as soon as we can test the fi nal product. The nine Helium Friends have the same numbering and approximate size range as the Friends we’ve known for years—for most climbers, a 2.5 or 3 will protect the perfect hand crack, a 2 will be tight hands, and a 1.5 will be desperate rattly fi ngers. But nearly everything else about the Helium Friend looks different. Most striking are the hot-forged cam lobes, with complex shapes and fl ower-petal cut-outs to save weight, as well as the extra-long stem—a full 2.5 to 3 inches longer than stems on the Technical Friends they are replacing. (In the biggest cams, the stem is 8 inches long.) A longer stem should let you reach higher and deeper placements. While keeping the constant 13.75° camming angle and single-axle design they’ve used for 34 years, the new Friends are said to have signifi cantly greater range and overlap with adjacent size cams. Gone are the 1.25 and 1.75 Friends used by crack climbers to dial in the perfect fi t in desert splitters. We’ll be curious to test a couple of things about Helium Friends. In addition to these cams’ general ease of use and durability, will people with small hands or those used to palming the end of a cam like the longer stem? And is there a signifi cant advantage in placing or retrieving cams with the jumbo stem? One thing’s for sure: After selling nearly 1 million Friends over the years (according to Wild Country’s website), this company is not resting on its laurels.



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