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A brief history of, "Why size does matter?"

A brief history of, "Why size does matter?"

Posted by Allister Fenton on 1st Dec 2020

We’ve come a long way from the time of ‘the leader must not fall’ as he solos up the cliff with a hemp rope tied around his waist. We’ve seen protection and climbing gear develop through the time of pitons and aid climbing, to the clean climbing era with nuts and chocks. As free climbing became more popular and abilities increased, the need for a tool to protect parallel cracks became more and more important. Hexes kind of worked but weren’t the greatest and didn’t fit bigger cracks. Various ideas were prototyped and experimented with through the years but with little success.

In 1978 Wild Country and the Friend were born, a device with four independent spring loaded cams that held in parallel cracks and had a bit of leeway per size, so you could fit one cam into three similar sized cracks throughout the day. Designed by Ray Jardine, they were a closely guarded secret through their development in the 70’s and when a friend asked if he had brought his ‘friends’ with for a day of climbing the name was obvious. Often called cams, spring loaded camming devices (their technical name) or Friends have been there for climbers through thick and thin, protecting long run outs and catching falls for generations of climbers. As climbing limits were pushed, the demand for cams grew and climbers wanted to use them on bigger and smaller cracks. Friends were released in bigger and bigger sizes (today you can buy a Friend #6 to protect cracks roughly 13-18cm wide) and when Wild Country introduced the smallest Zero Friend you could go down to 5.5mm cracks.

Black Diamond subsequently introduced cams with two axles, getting better range per cam and allowing the cams to be used passively. The #1 Camalot is probably the most loved cam in the world and often the first cam climbers double up on.

Robert Breyer about to abseil off Castleton Tower, Castle Valley, Utah.

Micky climbing at Wall Street Area, Moab with a full rack.

With cams loaded in their packs, climbers flocked to the desert sandstone known for its splitter cracks, from thin cracks that could barely take a fingertip to cracks wide enough for you to wedge a leg or shoulder into. Now a common desert rack includes multiple cams of each size to protect a route that is one crack size from the ground to the top. The desert is well known for its off-width climbing, cracks that are too small to wedge your body inside but too large to fist jam so they require a convoluted array of techniques like stacking fists together, thigh bars, chicken wings and head jams. With these off-width size cracks becoming more popular, custom cams were built and Valley Giants are probably the most well-known. They originate in Yosemite, home to some off-width cracks of its own and where Ray Jardine tested his prototype Friends.

Ashley Cracroft, climbing next to her no. 12 Valley Giant during an attempt on a new route in Southern Utah.

In April, Black Diamond who make the beloved Camalot and its brothers and sisters (Z4C4 ultralights and the discontinued C3s and X4s) made a size 21 cam for Alex Honnold as their yearly April fools. The joke was on them however, as interest in the new bigger cams was high and they were in demand. BD gave in to the demand and have introduced the new #7 and #8 Camalots for cracks up to 30cm wide. For those who climb wide cracks, the new cams are a lifesaver as the well-known Black Diamond Camalot is trusted and loved across the world.

Alex Honnold with the Black Diamond size 21 cam.

Size difference between the Camalot C4 size 21(April fools) and the size 8 (real)

Until someone invents a better means of protection, cams are king. As climbing gear improves, we can protect bigger and smaller cracks with lighter and stronger cams, opening up the way for more climbing in a day and the ability to climb previously unprotectable routes. Stop by our gear shop or online to see our range (including the Camalot C4 size 8) and chat to our gear experts for your next crazy climbing adventure.