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Yes, There Is Climbing Protection Made Out of Plastic

A brief tour into a little-known bit of climbing history

Thirteen years ago, Andrew Bisharat—then an editor at Rock and Ice—penned a story in which he reviewed “Putty Nutz” from C.A.M.P. These were new passive protection pieces made out of a space-age putty that you could conform, on the fly, to fit any placement. As he wrote, “Apparently, the head of the nut is made from something called d3o, which is soft(ish) to touch, but under impact, the molecules of d3o instantly bond together and become rigid.” Bisharat even mentioned testing them out at the rock with his wife, Jenn, and inspecting the placements, which looked bomber, as he seconded her lead. The whole thing had an air of credibility, and promised an amazing new direction in traditional protection.

The only problem? The article posted on April 1—it was an April Fool’s prank. There was no such thing as Putty Nutz.

However, there was an actual wired nut—the Foxhead from Forrest Mountaineering—that used plastic for the chock itself. The Foxhead released in 1970 in size 3, with its distinct blue plastic head; Forrest later made an aluminum version, with two different cable lengths, that came in sizes 1, 2, and 3. When my neighbor, an old-school climber, moved out of his home nine years ago, he bequeathed some of his 1970s-vintage climbing gear to me: lots of ovals, Ds, Hexcentrics, webbing way past its expiration date, and the blue plastic Foxhead. I still have the nut on a shelf near my desk, next to a few trinkets and curios from my travels. I have yet to take it out climbing.

A Prodigious Inventor

Bill Forrest
Bill Forrest with his Mjollnir Hammer, the first-ever climbing hammer to have interchangeable picks. Photo: Courtesy American Alpine Journal

The Foxhead was the brainchild of the late Bill Forrest, a Colorado climber and gear inventor/manufacturer who founded his company, Forrest Mountaineering, in 1968. Forrest was an unassuming, understated pioneer in big-wall climbing: In 1972, he and Kris Walker made the first ascent of the fearsome Painted Wall in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado, via a 26-pitch route over nine days. And in 1979, Forrest was part of the team to first climb Uli Biaho Tower in Pakistan, establishing a 34-pitch VII (the first VII established by Americans) over a 10-day alpine-style push. Forrest Mountaineering was in business through 1988; Forrest later (1994–2004) worked as a product designer for Mountain Safety Research before retiring to Salida, Colorado, where he lived until his death, of a heart attack while snowshoeing with his wife, Rosa, at age 73 in 2012.

During his many years in gear design, Forrest introduced 125 products to market, including the Foxhead. Key among his many climbing inventions/products were the haulbag, Copperheads (originally designed as free-climbing nuts, but co-opted by aid climbers to bash into seams, hence the nickname “bashies”), a Screamer-type load-limiting quickdraw, and the modern sit harness. For haulbags, in 1974 Forrest Mountaineering began to sell the Tiny Tim (a day pack), and then the Grade IV, Grade V, and Grade VI haulbags; his Copperheads came out in 1969; the FallArrest load-limiting, shock-absorbing quickdraw came out in 1983; and his harness, one of the first products Forrest Mountaineering ever sold, came out in 1968, having evolved from a “Butt Bucket” prototype Forrest had sewn up in the mid-1960s that merged a 3”-wide webbing belt that closed in front with a metal buckle on 2” webbing, as well as a ripstop belay seat.

The Forrest Mountaineering Foxhead

In 2007, I interviewed Forrest for a What I’ve Learned piece for Climbing Magazine. I was curious about the plastic Foxhead, and wondered if he’d ever whipper-tested them. Responded Forrest, “Yes, I have fallen on Foxheads. I climbed D-1 on the Diamond with Ray Jardine. It rained during the entire trip. I slipped on wet rock while leading the first pitch, and took about a 6-foot fall; Ray caught me.”

I also learned more about how the pieces were manufactured. Forrest had the plastic “heads” injection-molded at Plasticrafts in Denver; then, at the Forrest Mountaineering shop, Forrest and crew assembled the heads onto their Copperhead nuts—so the Foxhead is essentially a Copperhead encased in plastic. The Foxheads were named after a brand of beer that was popular in Boulder, Colorado, at the time.

Concluded Forrest, “The plastic ‘Heads’ didn’t sell too well, but later I made three sizes in aluminum, and those sold quite well. Some climbers said, ‘I won’t hang my life on plastic,”’ but their ropes, helmets, shoe soles, etc. were all made of plastic”—and, of course, remain so to this day!