X4: The Missing Link In the Camalot FamilyTuesday, May 13, 2014
On a ledge high above the valley floor, Mason Earle sits on a small patch of dirt below Little Cottonwood Canyon’s hardest project. It’s freezing cold. He hiked all morning to get here, across the river that runs along the bottom of the canyon, through the thorny brush and scrub oak and up the talus-filled gully capped with fifth-class scrambling that guards this 40-foot unclimbed crack. Long, difficult approaches are the hallmark of the Little Cottonwood’s south side, and one of the reasons that Alpenbock Crack has remained unclimbed.
Mason is no stranger to hard trad climbing. In the last few years he’s racked up a long tick list of hard first ascents in Utah like Real Talk (5.13+) in Mill Creek and a linkup of Sheer Lunacy (5.12b), Moonlight Buttress (5.12d) and Monkeyfinger (5.12b)—27 pitches, all free in 18 hours with fellow crusher Nik Berry. After spending a few seasons hanging around Salt Lake City, Mason turned his attention to Alpenbock Crack. He figured out the sequential moves late last fall, and it looked as if he would send it that season until an early storm rolled in and dumped a couple feet of snow. Climbing on the shady south side shut down until spring.
In a canyon steeped in history and filled with standard-setting climbs from every generation, Alpenbock Crack represents the future. When Erik Kelly discovered the route, he knew instantly that he had found something special. “There are not many overhanging, laser-cut finger cracks in LCC, and I thought it was a real gem and eventually it would be freed.” Though only 40 feet long, the route overhangs 25 degrees for its entire length. The business starts right off the ground, with 5.14 climbing protected by a single piece of gear. “It’s just that one cam that’s keeping you off the deck,” Mason explains. Only near the top does the razor-thin crack open up and let you get your fingers in to the third knuckle.
In the winter of 1973, Ray Jardine was in the workshop of his good friend Bill Forrest, creating a prototype of a new piece of climbing gear. The problem of protecting parallel cracks was not a new one, and people had been trying for decades to come up with a solution. Ray’s invention, a set of spring-loaded camming devices he called Friends, was the first design to really work well, and it changed the face of climbing. In the '80s, designers brought cam technology to smaller and smaller cracks, engineering the first three-cam units that could fit where four-cam units could not. Then, in the '90s Black Diamond introduced the first Camalot. Featuring a unique double-axle design, Camalots drastically increased the expansion range of camming devices, allowing climbers protect more crack sizes with less gear. Since then, new designs have sought to safely protect smaller cracks, flaring cracks, horizontal cracks and the myriad of other problems that climbers face on the sharp end.
Forty years after Ray built his first prototype cam, Design Engineer Jeremy Steck stands in a different machine shop, working on a different prototype. Though much better equipped than Bill Forrest’s shop, this corner of Black Diamond’s manufacturing facility has a dirty, industrial feel that makes Jeremy, and tinkerers like him, feel right at home. This isn’t a place for finalized, polished products. It’s a place where late-night ideas take form for the first time by whatever means are available. Right now, Jeremy places the final rivet in his prototype with a hammer and bench vice.
“It’s not design, it’s not innovation, unless you start with trying to solve a problem,” Director of R&D Bill Belcourt says, and when it comes to cams there’s a problem he’s been trying to solve for two decades. “How do you bring the expansion range of the double-axle design to smaller and smaller cams?”
It’s a rhetorical question; he already knows the answer. “Instead of moving the axles closer together, which becomes impossible at some point, you super-impose them on top of each other.” The idea of this “stacked-axle” solution was around back in the ‘90s, but only recently has manufacturing technology progressed to the point where he can actually build stacked-axle cams in a cost-effective way.
With a solution in hand, Jeremy focused on making the rest of the cam live up to Bill’s expectations. “We needed to make sure we got the flexibility right. Not too soft, which would make the cams hard to retrieve. Not too stiff, which would make the cam not perform well in a bottoming crack. We wanted as much durability out of the units as possible, because nothing is abused like a small camming device.”
Nothing, that is, except a prototype of a small camming device in the hands of the Black Diamond QA team.
It’s a pleasantly warm spring day in Little Cottonwood Canyon when Andy Merriman clips his last piece of gear on the classic 5.9 Half A Finger. The piece, a prototype cam, looks like it was put together by hand the night before—because it was. This is the same cam Jeremy was hammering together in the bench vice. He used super glue to secure the trigger wires, and now he looks on as Andy climbs higher and higher before pitching off for a 20-footer.
Andy works in R&D for Black Diamond, and this is the first time someone has ever fallen on a prototype of what will become the X4. He examines the cam, then climbs higher and jumps off again, and again and again. Andy likes falling. He’s the perfect tester. At the end of the day, real-world results in hand, Jeremy heads back to the office. There, he makes changes that include a complete redesign of the cam lobes to allow them to better fit in bottoming cracks. This cycle of testing and tweaking continues until every millimeter is dialed.
Think up some terrible cam placement. Maybe it’s horizontal, in a bottoming crack, with a pull off to the side from where the rope runs through the previous piece of gear. Then go ask Kolin Powick if he had thought of testing that. It’s a safe bet he has.
That’s because Kolin, Category Director for Climbing, and his crew run every piece of Black Diamond gear—from headlamps to belay biners—through a rigorous testing process. “The amount of testing we do on trekking poles would blow most peoples’ minds,” he says. Cams receive even more attention: a seemingly endless list of different tests that is four or five times as many as are required for CE certification.
It begins as soon as the first prototypes are built. Some might find it hard to take a hand-built piece of gear, the product of weeks or even months of work, and put it in a machine specifically designed to break it, but that’s where the real learning takes place. Anyone with a shop in their garage and a rudimentary understanding of physics can build a cam that will pass CE tests. But what happens when a cam is placed in a horizontal crack, twisted, with the lobes flared? Or in a bottoming crack, weighted with an off-axis pull? Each test reveals strengths and exposes weaknesses, and the prototypes evolve until Kolin, Bill, Jeremy and all the other engineers are satisfied.
“When you’re making this gear, you always want to secretly deliver more than the customer expects out of the equipment. You don’t ever want to over-sell them on expectations and then have them be dangerously disappointed. You want to sell them something that they’re expecting to do one thing, and it actually does 25% more than that, so if they do get into a situation that’s beyond what they signed up for, there’s a fairly good chance that the gear is going to see them through anyway.”
“Every time you come out with a new evolution of gear, it allows people to push things a bit farther.” Jeremy says, summing up the entire history of climbing gear innovation. Back in Little Cottonwood, Mason considers what it will take to send Alpenbock Crack. “The only way that I’m going to be able to execute the hard moves above there,” he says, “is if I’ve got the peace of mind to focus on rock climbing and not landing on my ass on a bunch of rocks.” From George Lowe smearing his way up the Dorsal Fin in hiking boots to Steve Hong sending the Coffin Roof and Fallen Arches, Little Cottonwood Canyon has seen a long tradition of doing what others thought could not be done, and this history gives Mason confidence. “It’s cool to try to add a bit of your own history to a place like this.”
It’s still cold when he ties in, takes off his puffy and pulls off the ground. He makes a few moves above the slab, past a nest of micro-Stoppers and slider nuts there for decoration only—mental duct tape, but not something you’d actually want to fall on. Mason places the smallest X4 at the very limit of his reach, then he casts off into the crux sequence.