Camming Devices: Friends, Camalots, Cams

Large Cams for large cracks

Just like the portable drill for plaisir climbing, the development of camming devices was THE breakthrough for clean climbing which made it a sport not only for superhumans. At first Wild Country developed its so called “Friend” which was the first camming device as we know it today. Soon other manufacturers followed and nowadays there is quite a massive range of camming tools and sizes on offer. Black Diamond calls these active camming devices Camalots, other manufacturers call them “Flex-,Power-“ or whatever-cams.

The basic mechanism is always similar: In case of a fall the forces are transferred to the movable segments und thus to the crack-walls which can withstand a fall. Of course, this requires stable crack-walls and not fragile flakes.  

The advantages of these devices are obvious: it is possible to protect parallel or even slightly widening cracks. Furthermore the tools can be placed quickly and – just as important – also be removed very quickly. Nuts or pitons in comparison can take you quite a while and a good amount of sweat to remove them. Invented in 1978, camming devices hit America like a bomb. In the Alps it took them a bit longer to establish themselves. One reason is surely the proud price: For the price of one single cam it might be possible to buy a complete set of nuts or more cord than you could ever fit on your harness. Care must be taken when using the smallest cams. The smallest Black Diamond Camalot C3 000 (holds forces up to 4 kN), for example,  can be destroyed by an 80kg lead climber taking a fall of only 2-3 m. So to be honest, you do not use these very small cams to hold a fall. But of course it is impossible to talk away the psychological effect of even these tiny pieces (“At least it will decelerate the fall…”). 

That’s how it’s done: place in fall direction, all segments on the rock, about halfway open.

How to use?

Camming devices can be placed in cracks or holes with about parallel sidewalls. It is important to stick to the following rules:

  • Place in fall direction. Otherwise it is possible for the device to slip out in case of a fall. 
  • All segments must touch the rock. If this is not the case the tools can get ripped out easily. 
  • Do not place cams completely open. In case of a fall it might slip out.
  • Do not place cams in places which widen strongly to their rear. With the rope-drag tools tend to “walk” deeper in the crack/hole.
  • A completely contracted camming device in a crack is no problem in terms of safety. But you will probably never ever get it back out again! 

By means of safety it is also desirable to place the tool deep at the very bottom of the crack: it cannot “walk” deeper and stays in place. Combined with very tight or completely contracted segments, it is basically a guaranty for an “eternal friend”. Most of the time there is no way – neither technically nor violently – to ever remove that piece. 

In an emergency, newer double-axle models from Black Diamond or DMM, for example, can also be used fully opened as nuts. As a result of their construction they are able to withstand such forces. But they were NOT build especially for this purpose and can easily slip out of a crack. Older or differently constructed models can be destroyed when used as a nut – read user manual!