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One cam to rule them all

Wed November 2012 - Gear

For some reason I feel as if the Totem Cam has been around for a quite a while, popping up now and again at trade shows and in conversations, a funky cam with an odd and over complex clip in loop.  “It’s great in flares” and “you can load just one cam” people said, but to me I put it into the ‘reinvented wheel’ category of hardware - some tweak of something that didn’t need tweaking, after all Friends, Camalots and Aliens had given climbers all they needed.  For me the Totem cam sounded like another of thoes strange units you find gathering dust in the corner of some euro climbing shop, unwanted and unneeded, hidden away along with odd belay devices that never took off, soft alloy pegs and anything made by Stubia.

How wrong I was.

A box arrived in the post from Spain last year and on opening I found to my surprise that it contained five Totem cams, ranging from finger to thin hand size - 13.8mm (smallest size contacted) to 52.2mm (largest size open).  My first impression was that these were not mickey mouse, but that they fitted into the same category of cams as Aliens, namely a specialist design engineered and built by people who understood cams.  Since then I’ve used them on El Cap, the Eiger and Stanage, both in bread and butter cracks, as well as placements so marginal nothing should stick (but they did).  And now my impression has gone 180 degrees.  Totem cams are the most technically able cams yet made.

Most standard BD, Metolius or Wild Country cams will work in 95% of free climbing placements, but then there are places (flares and shallow cracks) where they are marginal at best.  Throw in super marginal climbing (aid, limestone, winter) and their useful ness drops off further.  The introduction of the Alien by CCC over a decade ago revolutionized both big wall and free protection, as this narrow cams just stuck anywhere, making the old school cams redundant overnight for technical cam work.

Amazingly enough, over a decade later no one has beaten the CCC Alien in regards to it’s ability to stay put, the problem which I think is down to everyone using a harder alloy and lacking the same level of flexibility (Metolius came close with the Master Cam).  Although people told me that softer alloy on the Alien (6061-T6) made no difference, and that these cams would wear out faster because of it, in the field (well on the wall) it certainly seemed to be crucial - giving the cam that initial ‘bite’ it needed, and a flexability that meant the the force was transferred onto the lobes to maximum advantage.

I guess I’d given up thinking the Alien would ever be beaten, which was a shame as supply always outstripped supply.

It’s no surprise then that the Totem are now manufacturing their version of the Alien (Basic Cam) and the Totem Cam itself, which amazingly outperforms the Alien in many placements, while using a harder 7075-T6 alloy.

The reason these cams can still perform, even with a harder alloy, is their fully flexible stem system that focuses on applying force directly to the cam units independently, as well as eliminating leverage (a problem with ‘semi’ rigid units).  This means that the force is transferred either equally direct to the lobes, as well as giving the user the ability to single out just one side or both (using the sling).

The Totem cam has been in development since 2001, and looking at the images below it’s easy to see how the design developed.






Where the units work best is in that 5% range where a normal cam is marginal, and the other 5% where it won’t work at all.  Peg scars, flares (tech data here) and pods, with the units having super narrow heads (haven’t measured every cam on the market but I think they have the narrowest heads of any unit), vital when it comes to plugging them into finger pockets or working in mega shallow cracks.

Added to this they are light, and advertise a wider cam range than any other single axle unit (same as a camalot) - but personally I didn’t notice that too much.  What I do know is that once I had them on my rack (mixed with Camalots and Aliens) they became to ‘go to’ cam most of the time, especially when it cam to anything flaring or super shallow.  Another thing I like about them is that they seem very robust, a problem that is a problem with the old CCC Aliens, which soon got hammered.

Drawbacks of the cams is that although very lightweight they are bulky, and hang with their widest area facing you, meaning they can take up a lot of room.  They also don’t go super small, or super big, so other units are needed (small Aliens and larger camalots).  These cams are also more expensive then mass produced cams, but we’re talking a super specialist design, and engineering, so think of it less as a Ford Fiesta cam, and more Pagani Zonda, and every time you get one to stick in an impossible placement you’ll know it was worth the extra cost.

So who needs these units?  Well first of it’s a no brainer that they are highly recommended for big wall climbing, and there is nothing on the market that comes close to having their ability to hang on to the rock.  Beyond that any climber who climbs on rock that can be hard to protect (limited placement options) will find these a boon, because if these don’t work, nothing else will.  If you already have a large cam rack then perhaps having 2 sizes of Totem (yellow and Green) to expand your cams would work really well.

Visit the Totem website here, and the only UK stockist that I know of is Needle sports.


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Andy Kirkpatrick

The US magazine Climbing once described Andy as a climber with a “strange penchant for the long, the cold and the difficult”, with a reputation “for seeking out routes where the danger is real, and the return is questionable, pushing himself on some of the hardest walls and faces in the Alps and beyond, sometimes with partners and sometimes alone.” More succinctly, Metro magazine claims that he “makes Ray Mears look like Paris Hilton”

Comments 7
  • cliff

    these cams are the sheet !,i replaced all my cams this year and bought these and c4’s thinking these would do for those narrow/flared problem type placements,i only really use the c4’s in the bigger sizes now,these are def my go-to cams.
    3 cam head width with 4 cam stability/uber flexible/lighter than c4’s and its hard to explain but loads of bite,they just give you that warm fuzzy feeling when placed and thats worth the extra for me.
    also got them in grit pockets where normally only a tricam would go.
    just this weekend i clipped one half of the unit on a route,not recommended i know on trad but when its all youve got you are glad of it.
    i couldnt recommend these enough.

    11/22/12
  • oli

    I totally agree Andy, these cams are fantastic.  I thought they would be mainly for specialised placements, but really they became my go to cams, with their ability to go in flares and shallow pockets a bonus.  What I found the really useful was their flexibility, which just gave so much more confidence in horizontal and diagonal placements.  Also placements like the one you show Paul using it for above are super bomber where I would be pretty worried using a c4.  I suspect the design is the limiting factor on the sizes available, personally I thought the three smallest sizes (blue, yellow and purple) were the most useful.  I’ve never had any problems getting them stuck either, which I think some people were worried about.

    11/25/12
  • blonby

    test test

    12/02/12
  • Theo

    Hi, would those cams be a good choice for someone new to trad? I don’t have a rack yet, but I wouldn’t mind paying a bit more for the extra versatility.

    I guess I’ll still need bigger cams like the c4’s , right ?

    12/05/12
  • Acrophobe

    Agree wholeheartedly with your analysis.  I carry both C4s and Totems and find myself always reaching for the Totems.

    09/27/13
  • Anthony

    In the end of your post you mention that if you already have a rack it might be nice to compliment it with a green and yellow totem. Can you explain why those two colors? Thanks

    10/08/13
  • Blake

    I have to agree - I have a few of these now and after using pretty much every other cam on the market on mine and other people’s racks, I have to say that these are in a different league.

    They really bite in, even on limestone… the absence of that stupid anodized layer that DMM seem to love putting on everything really makes a difference.

    Really gives you that extra psychological inch that you need on a trad lead.

    10/23/13
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