Two-Minute History of the Cam

Information from this post is largely derived from Wild Country’s The Cam Book which can be found here.    


 

History of the cam

The history of the modern spring-loaded camming device (SLCD) dates back to the early 1970s, when the abilities of passive protection were reaching their limits. Climbers knew that a solution—a device exerting opposing pressure on the rock—would be the next evolution, but envisioning and creating such a product proved to be a daunting task. In the summer of ’72, however, two ambitious young climbers, Ray Jardine and Mark Vallance, began to develop a friendship that would later turn into a business which revolutionized the world of climbing.

Jardine’s background lied in the field of astronautical engineering, and upon pushing the 5.12 grades in Yosemite he recognized the need for for new forms of rock climbing protection. His first cam prototype was developed in 1971, and featured a dual sliding wedge construction. These devices, however, tended to fall out as the internal friction between the wedges reduced their holding power. After months of prototyping, testing, and scrapping, the idea for a double set of opposing, spring-loaded cams came to fruition.

 

Related: Climbing Gear of the Past

 

Designing the first cam

Early models had no trigger, and required both hands to remove from the rock. Technically speaking, the design of the cams was modeled after the logarithmic spiral, a naturally forming curve that appears in our surrounding environment (seashells, storm patterns, galaxy formations, etc.). This spiral aided in determining the ideal angle with which the cam lobes would come in contact with the rock. After originally using 15°, this angle was then modified to 13.75° and has remained unchanged to date.

Designs progressed in features and functionality, with Mark Vallance first laying eyes on the innovation in 1975. The delay was due to Jardine’s fervent secrecy regarding his innovation. Upon seeing the cams, Vallance explains the following:

Some of them were beautifully made with polished aluminum, carefully filed edges, sophisticated trigger assembly, and even ‘J slots’ for holding the trigger in the closed position for neatness and fast action. Others were gnarled and bent from use and testing, or just slung together to try out some new idea, but retained in the armoury because they worked

Soon after introducing Vallance to the cams, the duo began to seek out production possibilities in America and abroad. Finding an affordable manufacturer was met with little initial luck, but late-1977 came as a turning point. Jardine and Vallance finally found an affordable means of producing the cams (or Friends, as they were called) in Derbyshire, England, and Vallance founded Wild Country the following year. The initial Friends sold by WIld Country enabled climbers to push the 5.13 grades and beyond, and are mathematically almost identical to the cams we find on the market today.

Related: How to Build a Trad Rack.

 

Why ‘Friends’?

The term “Friends,” was established when Ray Jardine went climbing with his acquaintance Chris Walker and a few others. Walker didn’t know how to refer to the devices without exposing the invention in front of the accompanying climbers, so he asked, “Have you got the bag of Friends, Ray?” The name stuck, and Wild Country continues to refer to their SLCDs under this title.

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