Gear You Ought to Know: A Review of Metolius Ultralight Master Cams

Gear You Ought to Know is a series that showcases underrated, under-appreciated, or just plain innovative gear in a discussion-based format. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Moja Gear. If there’s a piece of gear you’d like to see featured, tell us.


Will you bring the Master Cams?

I’ve grown accustomed to that question during this fall season. My partners climb on Black Diamond Camalots, and chances are, you’ve got them on your rack too. When I started climbing, I picked up the seemingly ubiquitous Camalots. Everyone climbs with them, so aren’t they obviously the best choice?

Well, everyone also climbed on hemp ropes with hip belays before we had dynamic climbing rope and belay devices. Just as the standards advanced then, they have advanced once more. The Ultralight Master Cams are the cam of the future. Once you’ve climbed with them, you won’t want to go back.

Metolius Ultralight Master Cams

Technical Specifications

Weight

This is where the Ultralight Master Cams truly shine. A full set of Master Cams from sizes 1-8 weighs in at 669g. The same size range of Camalots (.3-3) tips the scale at 868g, making a full rack of Master Cams nearly 25% lighter. When compared to a full rack of Ultralight Camalots (including a .3 Camalot, which is not available as an Ultralight), the Master Cams still emerge victorious, with a slight advantage of 24g.

 

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Even more impressive, the Master Cams manage to claim this weight victory with one more cam in the full set (8 total) than the Ultralight Camalots (7 total). See a full technical comparison between the Metolius and Black Diamond Ultralight cams here.

To truly understand the weight savings of Master Cams, grab a large nut, ideally a #11 Wallnut or #13 Stopper. Now throw it away, because the #4 Ultralight Master Cam covers the same size at almost the exact same weight.

UL Master Cam vs BD Stopper
Top to bottom: Red Ultralight Master Cam (75g), #13 Black Diamond Stopper (71g)

Price

In the world of climbing gear, a 25% weight reduction is usually cause for a 25% price increase. For example, the Camalot Ultralights start at $90 and go to $130 for a #4. Well, the lovely folks at Metolius were so busy shaving weight, they forgot to raise the price. The Ultralight Master Cams retail for the same $60 as the original Master Cams, cheaper than DMM, Black Diamond, Wild Country, and Totem Cams.

 

Camming range

Here is where many claim the Master Cams fall short.

It is true, their single axle design does not offer the same expansion range as double axle cams. A cursory glance at the ranges listed by Black Diamond and Metolius is shamefully deceiving. Metolius gives you the “usable range” representing the range in which cams can be safely used, rather than the deceptive industry standard of reporting the absolute minimum and maximum expansion range which covers ‘so overcammed that you will never get it back’ to completely tipped out.

When this discrepancy is accounted for, the difference in range is close to 10%. For small cams, it comes out to a millimeter or two. For larger cams in which the difference is greater, so is the ‘sweet spot’ in which cams can be safely placed. This makes it easy to select the proper size despite the small loss in range.

Ultralight Master Cams
While similar in function to the X4s, the Ultralight Master Cams take up less room on the harness and are dramatically lighter.

In the field

To put it simply, these cams feel good to place. When I climbed with a mix of the Ultralight Master Cams and Camalots, I consistently found myself reaching for the Ultralight Master Cams first, and Camalots second. Clipping these cams inspires confidence, and this is no accident; Metolius has designed these cams to be a perfect placement every time they leave your harness.

The unique Range Finder system uses colored dots to instantly show you whether the piece is properly cammed. When first switching to the Ultralight Master Cams, this system makes finding the proper size a breeze, and when you hand your rack to a partner who is unfamiliar with the cams, he or she will surely be thankful for the feature.

Grooves milled into cam lobes have often been considered more a product of marketing than functionality. Metolius has abandoned the use of these grooves and instead has created a “shark fin” pattern, specifically designed to help the cams hold in soft rock. The cams quite literally feel like they bite into the rock.

Ultralight Master Cams
The Range Finder dots and shark fin grooves are prominent features of the Master Cams.

The solidity of Ultralight Master Cam placements may be tough to quantify, but it is no mere accident. The camming angle, the angle at which the lobes of the cam contact the rock, is slightly smaller than most other cams on the market, especially the Camalots which have a relatively large camming angle.

This sacrifices a small amount of range, though after comparing the numbers, we know that the range lost is mere millimeters on small placements. In exchange for this small sacrifice, the cams give you increased holding power, and thus are more likely to stay in the rock than competing cams with higher camming angles.

The subtle design features of these cams are seemingly endless. The extremely narrow head width allows the cams to fit in tight placements and makes them better to place in certain types of flares. The wide cam lobes create more surface contact with the rock. Machined holes in the trigger bars shed weight and help you grasp the cams securely. A subtle curve on the thumb bar creates a feeling of stability. The cable stems thicken with the larger sizes, so even the largest cams are a breeze to place (climbers with .75 X4s are probably familiar with the floppy feeling of cams that lack this essential feature). The cam stops are milled into the lobes, making the cams more resilient and difficult to damage even in the event that they do pull out. The only piece of plastic on the entire cam protects metal trigger wires.

Ultralight Master Cams
The cam head on the Ultralight Master Cams is slightly wider than the Black Diamond X4s (left) and significantly narrower than the Black Diamond C4s (right).

Finally, the slight loss in camming range holds another unforeseen benefit. These cams have one more size in a full set than Camalots. When you take these cams up, instead of the equivalent sizes of Camalots, you will have one more piece to place on the pitch. When the pitch calls for doubles in certain sizes, you can carry, on average, three more cams and still have the equivalent weight of a single rack of Camalots (and this number does not include the extra cam already in the set of Ultralight Master Cams!).

From the pros

Sierra climbing legend Peter Croft had this to say about the Ultralight Master Cams in this interview:

The reason I really like Metolius cams in the first place is how light they are. Some people argue that Camalots have a greater range … and it’s true, but they’re also a lot heavier. Metolius cams have always been lighter, but the new Ultralights are just a whole level beyond that.

Canadian crack expert Will Stanhope swears by the Ultralight Master Cams.

I thought the original Master Cams were the best cams on the market, and the new ultralights are stellar.

Though the most important endorsement is not necessarily a public one. Conrad Anker, leader of The North Face climbing team and world-renowned alpinist, relies on these cams while making first ascents in the toughest conditions on earth. He is not sponsored by Metolius; he uses the Ultralight Master Cams because he considers them the best tool for the job.

Jonathan Siegrist
Jonathan Siegrist plugs a green Master Cam into a crack at Smith Rock.

Summary

The new Metolius Ultralight Master Cams are revolutionary in every way. They are lighter than an average rack of quickdraws (900g for 10 draws vs. 669g for a rack of Master Cams). The cams offer an unprecedented level of solidity in placements. Finally, they are not being sold as an expensive version of the original Master Cams and are instead replacing the original line at the original price.

So try the Metolius Master Cams, but be warned: your friends will always want to climb on your rack instead of theirs.


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