Just breathe. Relax. Focus.
You look down and see 20 feet of rope gently curving down to your last piece and your terrified partner standing not much further below. A small crack hovers a few feet above you, and the thought of a ground fall looms in the back of your mind. You inch within reach of the fissure and pull out your smallest cam. You try in vain to fit it into the rock, and see that the crack widens ten feet above you, with insecure moves blocking your way.
You need ball nuts.
Much like tricams, ball nuts have an undeserved reputation as specialty pieces. A quick glance at trad racks around a crag will show you that ball nuts are not a common piece. In fact, many climbers aren’t even aware of their existence. This is a tragedy; ball nuts have the utility of microcams with the solidity of nuts.
What are ball nuts?
Ball nuts rely on a very simple principle to protect the most miniscule cracks. The pieces are comprised of two halves: one half is a wedge with a central groove, which allows the second half to slide up and down, engaging and disengaging the rock.
Using this design, ball nuts are capable of protecting cracks down to the approximate width of a house key using significantly less material, and therefore less weight, than the smallest microcams.
Benefits of ball nuts
To understand the amazing features of these pieces, compare ball nuts to Black Diamond’s smallest microcam, the X4. The X4 protects cracks from 8.4 mm – 13.8 mm. The smallest ball nut protects cracks from 3mm to 6mm, a full size smaller. The X4 size 0.1 is rated to 5kN, and it is an aid only piece, while every ball nut is rated to 8kN*. The X4 size 0.1 weighs in at 51g, and the closest ball nut size weighs in at 57g and has a 15% larger expansion range. Finally, the X4 costs $80, while the ball nut costs $40.
The ball nut provides a wider expansion range for smaller cracks with a higher strength, lower price tag, and nearly equivalent weight. Why do I even own microcams?
Critiques of ball nuts
Compared to microcams, ball nuts are more difficult to clean. Though, much like tricams, cleaning these pieces only requires practice. Many attempt to clean ball nuts in the same way as cams. Instead, they should be removed in the opposite fashion.
Instead of stabilizing thumb rest and pulling on the trigger, climbers should stabilize the trigger with the forefingers and push on the thumb rest, forcing the wedge to slide out from underneath the ball. For this reason, do not place ball nuts with the back up against rock; there must always be room for the wedge to slide further back.
It is important to note that if a large fall is taken on a ball nut, it is not uncommon for the piece to become stuck in the rock. Some aggressive finagling with a nut tool will often release the piece, but sometimes there is no choice but to donate a piece of fixed gear to the cliff.
Many may use this as a rationale for avoiding ball nuts, but would you be able to climb on a microcam after whipping on it? Usually, the answer for both types of gear is the same: no.
Many climbers love ball nuts, and they have a strong ratings on brating of 4.4 out of 5 stars on Backcountry.com. One reviewer called the pieces
Quite possibly one of the coolest things I’ve ever used.
Another gave a perfect description,
Easy to place and remove. It’s like a camming nut!
Professional climber, Rob Pizem shared his experience with ball nuts:
These age-old protection pieces are often overlooked by many climbers because they are not cams. Let’s face it, there are not many places where a cam doesn’t fit, but when you happen upon that garbage and awkward placement look no further than the safe and ease of placing a Ball Nut Stopper. These little guys that are lightweight and dependable are placed like nuts and have saved my butt on quite a few sketchy desert routes.
I used them on the steepest tower in the desert for a first free ascent of Sharkfin and I used them in the Fisher Towers while on the first free ascent of West Side Story. Even on my latest roof crack project I was able to slip in a solid and fast placement in an extremely thin and exciting part of the route.
Making the switch
So why haven’t we all replaced our microcams with ball nuts?
Embracing a new piece of gear is no easy task. We climbers stick to what we know, and we know cams are marvels of engineering that revolutionized free climbing. When I was building my rack, I bought Black Diamond X4s down to size .1.
Now, I know that ball nuts are a cheaper and more effective form of protection for these small sizes. Coincidentally, ball nuts begin where the C4 sizes end. The C3s, as well as the smallest two sizes of the X4s, pale in comparison to the utility, strength, and moderate pricing of the ball nuts.
It’s time to sell my smallest cams … but old habits die hard. I’ll keep my X4s and let them sit in the pack while I lead with my ball nuts. I’ve embraced ball nuts, you should too.
*Ball Nuts are available from CAMP USA, and from Trango as BallNutz. All CAMP Ball Nuts are rated to 8kN, while the smallest size of Trango BallNutz is rated to 7kN.
Buying options and lowest prices
CAMP USA Ball Nuts
Gear You Ought to Know is a series that showcases underrated, underappreciated, or just plain innovative gear in a discussion-based format. If there’s a piece of gear you’d like to see featured, contact us.
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