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One of the most iconic images from Yosemite during the 1970s is of Ray Jardine, dressed in white painter’s pants and an orange tee, with a row of Friends — his invention — placed behind him on Separate Reality. He’s perched on the lip of the 15-foot roof crack hundreds of feet above the ground and behind his bushy beard and sunglasses his face is calm and relaxed.
Aerospace engineer turned inventor Jardine was a fanatical climber during the late ‘60s through the ‘70s and stayed fit by doing 1,000 pull ups a day. In the early ‘70s, frustrated by the difficulty of protecting parallel-sided cracks, he started working on a solution. Inspired by the cam design in the jumar, he constructed four opposing cams based on a trigger-activated logarithmic spiral and fastened them to an axle and stem.
Jardine constructed the first Friends, “the ultimate climbing anchor,” with Kris Walker in gear manufacturer Bill Forrest’s machine shop. The key to his design was using a constant cam angle, of 13.75 degrees, which “is ubiquitous in nature, from seashells and pinecones to swirling barometric pressure gradients and the great spiral nebulas,” Jardine wrote.
The invention would improve crack-climbing protection forever.
During his five-year design and testing period in the mid-‘70s, Jardine established many of the hardest crack routes in the Valley. In 1973, the year after he constructed the first Friends, he cut the Nose record in half. Later, he established the unrelenting flared hands Crimson Cringe and the off-fingers-traverse Hangdog Flyer, routes nearly impossible to protect with hexes. Both climbs are athletic 5.12 testpieces.
To keep his cam iterations secret, Jardine hid the units under his sweater when heading out to the crags. Chris Walker, sworn to secrecy, almost broke word of the invention but caught himself with “Have you got the, er… Friends,” Alex Messenger wrote in Mountain 57. The name stuck.
In 1977, and now in his eighth generation of Friend prototypes and ready to release his idea, Jardine reached out to entrepreneur Mark Vallance in the U.K. who signed an offer for worldwide production rights to Friends.
Vallance opened for business and Wild Country was born.
Soon images of Jardine using his game-changing invention began gracing magazines, including a shot of him on The Phoenix, a 5.13a crack that fits Friends so perfectly it’s as if he crafted them for it.
Three years after Friends came to market, Jardine visited Forrest at his home and delivered three sets of his cams. “I sincerely appreciated that gift,” Forrest said, “and I used the heck out of them.”
Holding an original Friend in your hand, with its rigid, gray aluminum stem and thick (single) Grade A steel axle bolt extending through the unit, you feel the history. But it also feels solid. Despite being decades old, I’d trust this unit to catch a fall anywhere from Indian Creek’s Supercrack to Yosemite’s Astroman.
Today’s Friends are 45 years in the making. Gone is the rigid aluminum stem, since replaced with flexible woven steel wrapped in plastic. Friends now have dual hollow axles, thumb loop, skimmed cam lobes, an extendable Dyneema sling, and ergonomic triggers. The unit feels balanced, light in your hand.
What has remained the same, dating back to Jardine’s original design, is the constant cam angle of 13.75 degrees, which provides the perfect balance of range and holding power– it’s what makes a Friend a Friend.
To read more, pick up Mark Vallance’s book “Wild Country: The man who made Friends” (2016).