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The Fascinating + Convolted History of the Almighty Cam

The cam is a wonderful invention. It almost singlehandedly ushered in the modern free-climbing era, making it much safer to try the parallel-sided splitter cracks that had heretofore been all but unprotectable using nuts and Hexes. This opened up a huge swath of new terrain—5.11s, 5.12, 5.13s, and eventually 5.14s on sandstone and granite; also, by being much quicker and easier to place than passive protection, spring-loaded camming devices let climbers push themselves on this new, difficult terrain requiring fast, strenuous placements.

In this except from the Climbing Dictionary, the complex, multi-tiered history of the device comes to light, based on an email interview with the device’s primary inventor, Ray Jardine; interviews with Kris Walker and Bill Forrest of Forrest Mountaineering; and essays and magazine articles on the subject.

The Cam, Defined

Cam n, v: Shorthand for spring-loaded camming device (SLCD), a cam is any trigger-activated protection unit employing springloaded cam lobes in opposition. Another synonym is friend, taken from Friend, sold by Wild Country since 1978. SLCDs provoked a revolution, opening heretofore difficult-to-protect parallel-sided cracks.

In the first year that Wild Country produced Friends, more than 5,000 found their way into American climbers’ hands.

Origin Story

The first commercially sold SLCDs to hit the US market were Friends, which Jardine Enterprises, run by the aerospace engineer and climber Ray Jardine, started selling in 1977; the following year, the newly formed UK company Wild Country (having licensed the idea) brought them to mass market. Friends were a trigger-activated iteration of the loxodrome: a constant-angle spiral that, no matter where you touch on the spiral, has the same tangent angle toward the radius off which it is spinning.

The constant-angle-cam concept likely stemmed from jumars (1958), ascenders that cam/clamp down on the rope. Early examples included Greg Lowe’s 1967 single-pronged, cable-retracted Crack Jumar, the Lowe Cam Nut in 1972/73, and Vitali Abalakov’s Abalakov Cam. Jardine had, in the early 1970s, learned firsthand of Crack Jumars at a spaghetti dinner in Gunnison, Colorado. Jeff Lowe, posting on supertopo.com, writes, “I was there in ‘71 or ‘72 at my brother Mike’s house . . . Greg was over from Utah to work with Mike on the camming concept, which he’d been developing since 1967 . . . Greg and Mike showed Ray various versions of the Crack Jumar and passive and spring-loaded cams.” At the time, Greg and Mike Lowe asked Jardine to sign a non-disclosure/non-compete agreement.

In his essay “The History of Friends . . . ,” Jardine wrote that in summer 1973, Mike Lowe sold him three Cam Nuts. (Jardine also wrote that, seeking protection that would “hold with greater—power the harder the pull,” he’d begun “the inventive process in 1971 with a dual sliding wedge design” that hadn’t panned out.)

Kris Walker, a former minority shareholder and full-time employee at Colorado’s Forrest Mountaineering, recalls that Jardine tested Lowe’s units in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, but all three units walked out, leaving him to finish a lead unprotected. So, remembers Walker, “[Ray] came back to Forrest Mountaineering, and he said, ‘Can you guys build a cam device that works better than Lowe’s, because Lowe’s fell out of the crack?’”

Walker says that for the very first cam, “We were using Grade 8 bolts, 7075 T-6 aluminum for the cams, and 6061 T6 for the stem.” This proto-unit worked well in their I-beam “crack” pull-tester, but Walker recalls Jardine wanting to confirm the cam angle, a 15-degree loxodrome that Walker had diagrammed. Jardine then worked with a professor and two grad students, as well as a mainframe computer, at CU-Boulder’s school of engineering, and came back with a curve identical to Walker’s. In “The History of Friends . . . , ” Jardine wrote, “the Creator enlightened me with the concept of a double set of opposing and independently spring-loaded cams,” the classic design seen to this day.

The Nose in a Day and the Naming of “Friends”

One of Jardine’s goals was the first Nose in a day (NIAD), thus quick (one second or less), one-handed placement was a key criterion. The Walker/Jardine team built about two dozen prototypes that first year, in sizes two and three. Walker recalls it as a collective effort: “When I say, ‘we,’ it’s the glorified ‘we.’ Ray was the elf that went down into the shop, and once we had the designs done, would go out there and just grind and cut . . . .” The next year, 1974, they developed sizes one and four, and Walker, Jardine, and Lou Dawson made a bid at NIAD using the camming devices; they came within a hair’s breadth (twenty-eight hours) after being slowed by a rainstorm. In 1975, the NIAD was completed by Jim Bridwell, John Long, and Billy Westbay.

The name for the revolutionary piece of gear came courtesy of Walker. As he, Jardine, and a friend of Jardine’s stopped at a restaurant outside Lyons, Colorado, on the way to cam-test at nearby Split Rock, Jardine kept refusing to discuss the units by name. So Walker finally made “some reference to ‘What are we going to do with our “friends?”’ or ‘How are we going to test our “friends” today?’

Climbing Dictionary

© 2011. Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Climbing Dictionary by Matt Samet, Mountaineers Books, Seattle.