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Want Your Cams to Last Forever? Here’s How

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Spring-loaded camming devices (aka “SLCDs” aka “cams”), those works of high-tech art, have myriad moving parts, and almost all incorporate some blend of metal, plastic, and nylon (for slings and trigger wires). Inspect your cams regularly, especially after a significant fall. If you want them to last a good, long time, you’re going to need to stay up to date with inspection, care, and maintenance. Here’s how:

Cam Parts: What to Look For and When to Retire a Device

Here, some top tips, broken down by each part of the SLCD:

A Metolius No. 3 Offset Mastercam, showing the cam lobes and axle/axle hole at top, the trigger wires below, the main body cable, and the sling.

Main Body Cable

The main cable can bend over an edge in a fall, though it can be worked back into shape manually. However, each time you do this it weakens the cable a little—don’t make a habit of it. If a cable’s so bent that you can’t straighten it by hand, retire the cam. Also, if any individual cable strands are broken, frayed, or kinked, retire the cam.

Trigger Wires

These nonstructural components don’t pose a safety issue when busted, but a broken trigger wire will make it hard if not impossible to retrieve a stuck cam. Don’t let it reach that point. Most brands sell trigger-wire repair kits, or you can send them back to the manufacturer for repair as soon as the wires look hinky.

Cam Lobes

Lobes can deform or even partially shear in a fall, or the teeth can wear down. Says Jim Karn, of Metolius Climbing, “If the teeth are wearing out (worn unevenly or flattened by a fall) or the lobe’s lost its shape, it’s time for that thing to go.” Dings and small gouges in the face of the lobe are usually no big deal, and you can often smooth them over with a file.

The head of a Metolius No. 3 Mastercam, showing the cam stop (on the second lobe from the right), the springs below, and the axle running through all four cam lobes.

Axle Hole

Big whippers can ovalize the lobes’ axle holes, imparting extra play between lobe and axle. If you suspect this issue, compare the cam to a new one of the same size. With a new cam, there should be a little play but not too much laterally, whereas one with ovalized holes will feel downright sloppy, making it a good candidate for retirement

Axle

You can bend a small cam’s axle in a hard fall; if this happens, retire the cam.

Springs

A broken spring will be obvious—the lobe won’t stay open. In this case, return the cam to the manufacturer for inspection and repair.

Cam Stop

The only way to break a cam stop is to fall and expand the head past the stops, inverting the lobes (aka umbrella’ing the cam).While this doesn’t pose a safety issue, it will make the cam harder to use in the future and thus a good candidate for retirement.

Sling

Inspect the sling as you would any nylon climbing gear, looking for aging, bleaching, fraying, etc., to the body and stitching. Some people suggest that you resling your cams every five years. You can send the cam back to the manufacturer for repair. Also, if you suspect sling contamination, resling your cams.

Cam Cleaning and Maintenance

It’s important to keep cams clean, not only for function but also for safety—namely, holding power. “In that moment before the cam actually engages and you get all that outward force, the only thing that’s holding the cam in is the friction between the lobes and the rock,” says Karn. “And the only thing that’s giving you any outward force is the spring tension. If you have dirty, sticky cams, you’re giving them a way higher chance to skate out at that critical instant.” To keep your cams firing well:

— Soak them in warm or hot tap water. Metolius suggests heating water in a pan until it’s near the boiling point for their cams, while being careful to keep the sling away from the heat source.

— Swish the cams around in the water, and work the trigger while you do so.

— Add liquid dishwashing detergent directly to the cam heads, and scrub them with a stiff-bristled toothbrush, especially the springs and lobes.

— Rinse and air-dry them. Cams may require multiple cleanings and dryings. If you have access to a compressor, blast them with compressed air while they’re still wet to remove particulate matter.

— Add a non-oil-based lubricant to the head’s moving parts: either a graphite- or Teflon-based dry lubricant like Lock-Ease, or a wax-based lubricant like Cam Lube. Keep the lube off the sling to reducethe risk of contamination.

— If a cam is still locked up, squirt a penetrating lube (such as WD-40 or Triflow) deep into the head, but be extra careful to keep it off the sling. Use paper towels to blot up excess lubricant.

© 2013. Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Crag Survival Handbook by Matt Samet, Mountaineers Books, Seattle.