17 November 2018

What cams to buy?

Category: Q&A

Hey Andy, my name is Kyle, I'm 24 and live in Canada. I've been an avid follower of your work and books (looking forward to higher education!) I've been a boulderer and sport climber for about a year and a half, however trad and aid climbing is what I've been getting into to open up more climbing. I live in Ontario, Canada and deal with a lot of limestone, granite, and a little bit of sandstone. I've mainly been learning on my own (using almost exclusively passive gear, which has made for some pretty interesting and fun days). I don't have a "trad mentor" so to speak to ask questions which is why I am hoping to pick your brain!

I'm looking at purchasing a few cams and from reading your blog posts and many forums, totems definitely seem like the go to choice, however their cost (over $135 a piece without shipping, I worry about breaking one and having to fork out that much money again) I wish i had a fortune to spend on these! and the fact that they seem like it would be harder to do field repairs on them are reasons why I also wanted to look at other options as well. (are field repairs possible on them as it seems like the wires runs through the loops where the sling attaches?)

Ive been looking at dragons, Ultralight master cams, and friends. (I've been slightly leaning to Friends for larger sizes and waiting for the DMM dragonfly for smaller sizes due to them having thumb loops which I've read is better for aid? But the master cams have a bit of a smaller camming angle which i think might make them better on smoother rock?) Im basically looking for your personal experience/advice you can give with any of these cams and their manufacturers (are most companies pretty good to deal with with terms of replacing trigger wires and stuff like that?)

I just wanted to thank you in advance for any and all info and experiences you would be willing to share, and I want to thank you for your incredible contributions to this community.

Best wishes from Canada!

-Kyle

Hi Kyle

There is such a huge choice when it comes to cams it can be pretty bewildering these days! A good start when sorting through what to buy is to consider the following points:

1. Strength: How good are you cams at holding you in a fall? Well, they’re all good, and all standard cams pass minimum CE testing for rock protection, and in an ideal placement they should be 100% safe.

2. Robustness and Longevity: So they’re safe to fall on, but how long will they last if you’re always falling on them, always bending, twisting and radging then (‘radging’ is a Hull term that basically means ‘fucking’ something up). Remember that CE testing is the testing of brand new cams in a testing lab, not a cam that’s chocked with desert sand, rust, salt and has been bounced tested a thousand times and fallen on a hundred. Again, the CE testing should assure you that the cam will not actually fail no matter how abused, but the mechanism used to hold the cam in the correct position might fail, causing the cam to fail. At the moment I probably own about fifty cams, and of those I would say 10% is suboptimal, with a flawed mechanism (bent and damaged triggers, stiff lobes etc), and 5% are dangerous (bent axles and head terminations), some require some major TLC while others just need to go in the bin. Mostly the damaged cams are the smallest and weakest (blue and black Aliens), but even big cams can have issues (I have a Camalot 4 who’s cams have an alarming amount of play, although I suspect I found this below El Cap). Of all the cams I own and have owned, by far the most robust have been Black Diamond Camalots, better than Totems, WC and Metolius, with the standard Camalot probably lasting you twenty years of solid use, while the Ultralights might do a quarter of that if you’re a heavy user. You tent to find that the more sophisticated the camming unit, the more surgical, the less robust it is. For example the Totem and Alien cams are by far the best for marginal placements, but due to their design and softer alloy (which gives them the vital ‘stick’), they do not last as long as say as Master Cam or X4, which in turn do not last as long as a C4. As a climber do you want to rack up with surgical tools or builders tools, a sniper’s rifle or an AK47? If you’re climbing A5 it’s the former, but if you’re climbing miles of cracks in the desert it’s the former.

3. Maintenance: Companies like Yates or Runout customs will sew slings on old cams, but in my experience by the time your slings need replacing, so should your cams, as both metal and nylon do wear out. Trigger wire maintenance is something all climbers should do themselves, both in terms of field repairs (paper clips or trimmer wire), or at home (basic swaging kit), so I’d not focus on manufacturer repairs.

4. Camming angles: People talk a lot about this, but I’d just ignore it. Yes, a Totem might go where a Master Cam won’t, but only in one in a thousand placements.

5. Double Axle or Single? For me, this is very important. For me, it’s vital that the design stops the cam’s from inverting when placed, common with older Wild Country Friends, which could easily become fixed this way. Having a cam head that is sort of fixed and cannot be inverted also means your trigger wires are more protected and cannot be stressed and broken when packed. A double axle achieves this, as well as other methods (such as the Totem design), while cams such as the Master Cam does not, and I would put this down to the reason I’ve been unable to clean some master cams, but have never left a Camalot fixed, ever.

6. Do you want to have cams that will 100% end up fixed? If not then avoid Link cams, which although valuable for some things, seem to be a total loss for many climbers, the number one fixed piece you’ll find at most US crags.

7. Weight: Now this is also a biggy and something you should really think about if you’re climbing in the wilderness, alpine climbing or mountaineering. I’d make a spreadsheet and input all the weights of coming units and play around with how much a set will weight, say Wild Country versus Dragons versus Ultralights etc. You should also factor in price as well. If you’re just after a solid set of cams, and weight is not vital (remember that climbers have been lumping around ‘heavy’ cams for decades), then the price vs weight can give you more cams for your buck. But if you are heading away from the road, carrying a full rack for a day or two, then saving a few hundred grams is probably worth that extra investment. Remember though that lighter kit does not last as long as heavier kit.

8. Functionality and design: I like a thumb loop in my cams, so I don’t use Dragon cams, but if someone asked me who made the better cam I’d say DMM. At the same time, the Dragons have an adjustable sling, which is better than the Camalot, while the Wild Country cams do… but they’re not as light as Ultralights. At the same time no one would ever use an old school rigid Friend these days, and yet some of the hardest classic trad routes and big walls where put up using these, and very often the real difference between a size one rigid and a yellow Alien is nothing at all in 95% of placements, often huge advertised leaps in cams just marketing without substance.

9. Price: No one is making a fortune through camming devices or exploiting climbers, in fact, the real price of a cam - if you look at the hardware in MTB and skiing - should twice what it is. But if you’re working on a budget then it’s a big factor. Here you have that classic MacBook problem, in you see a MacBook for $900 that you can just afford, but end up buying one for $1800 that you cannot, while really all you need is $200 Walmart laptop!  In cams this means you doll out a fortune - as a novice - for a set of Totems when really you’d be better served by a set of second hand 80’s Flexi Friends of eBay.

10. So what to buy? Very often, the gear you buy at the beginning of your climbing life is not the gear you have ten years down the line. When you’re young money is tight and you buy what you can afford, but later you have more money, new kit comes out, and so you sell your stuff and upgrade. For this reason, if you’re starting out I’d perhaps just shop around, both new and second hand, and find the best set of cams for the cheapest price. For me, I’d look at buying a set of second-hand Camalots (via forums and eBay) from 0.3 to 3, use them for a few years, then sell them on an upgrade (by then you’ll know what you want). On the other hand what would be the ideal set of cams if money was no object? Here’s mine:

  • Fixe Alien Black
  • Fixe Alien Blue
  • Totem Black
  • Totem Blue
  • Totem Yellow
  • Totem Purple
  • C4 ultralight 1
  • C4 ultralight 2
  • C4 ultralight 3

If I wanted to expand this set to doubles, I’d add in Fixe Alien Green, Yellow and Red, and C4 Ultralights from 0.5 to 3, as the Aliens sit between the Totems in sizing and are a little narrower.

So there you go, not sure if it helps, but maybe it gives you a little more to weight the question?

Best

Andy

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Andy Kirkpatrick

Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.

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