The Best Small Cams

I don't write much about gear. Overall there is a huge amount of good or great outdoor gear for whatever you want to do, be it fly fishing or ice climbing or rock cragging. Even the low-end stuff of today is probably better than the high-end stuff from 15 years ago. But one type of gear that DEFINITELY makes a difference is cams.

About 80% of climbers (and about 100% of climbers whose opinions should be trusted) prefer BD Camalots for cams thin-hand size and up. (#.75-#4) But in the smaller sizes, where placements get trickery, more finnicky, harder to inspect, easier to blow, and generally weaker, there isn't very much consensus. I learned to climb on a mix of cams, and still prefer a mix, but my favorite model is the Totem Basic Cam.

The Totem Basic is essentially a CCH Alien without all those pesky flaws (made in a garage by drunk Wyoming rednecks, tendency to explode under bodyweight...). The Spanish gurus at Totem took everything good about the Alien design (flexible, durable, works on 2-lobes for bodyweight, somehow alway seems bomber) and made them better by swapping in:

  1. An actual UIAA/CE certified manufacturing process where they don't forget to weld or braze the pieces together, and there is testing.
  2. The trigger wires are different and better than the old CCH version
  3. The Trigger is shaped and colored to match the cam, as are the lobes
  4. And the new BLUE ALIEN (AKA Blue Basic Cam) is much narrower than the old CCH, which was actually wider (even though it only worked in thinner cracks) than the old next size up, the green.
    Old CCH alien (right) was really wide, yet only fit into thin cracks. That was fixed with putting spring inside the lobes, and making the end-caps slimmer.
Another Spanish company, FIXE, also is making similar models. They actually bought the rights to legally call their cams Aliens. But despite making good bolts and hardware, their FIXE Aliens are atrocious, with lots of pretty obvious problems.
This (FIXE model)is NOT the alien you're looking for...

I've bought a full set of the Totem Basics online from Rock&Snow, a shop in New York which shipped free across the USA and charged no sales tax. They often have 20% off sales. Backcountry.com stocks totem basics and has these sales often as well.

Totem Basic and BD C3. BD is narrower, Totem is more flexible. They contrast nicely.

I think the perfect small-cam rack is a set of BD C3 cams from purple to Yellow (they are stiff, really narrow, and a good contrast to the Totems), a set of Totem Basics from Blue to Red, a a couple of the offset Totem Basics (blue/green, green/yellow).

Totem Basics (green is shown) are slightly narrower, and more flexible/durable than the BD X4 cams.

This (Fixe model) is NOT the Alien you're looking for. These breakage happened one day1 with mine and many others.



    Supercave Wall Free Route

    Over the course of 3 days this summer, my friend Max Tepfer and I freed the original 1969 route on the Supercave Wall near Washington Pass, just east of Liberty Bell. I had previously sent what would become P4 of this route at ~.12b, and thought it would all be easy below that. However, at a leftward traverse which had been done at A4 via upward-driven knifeblade pitons, we were stymied and unable to send. With cooler temps and some clouds in the sky, we freed this section at 5.12- and it involves a horizontal slab dyno to a fishbowl hueco. Not your normal granite slabbery.

    This route was put up by some true PNW hardmen who climbed it with about 1.5 billion pitons (some of which we removed) and 1 bolt. We added 3 protection bolts (these sections had been done at A3 or A4 on pitons) with the permission of Jim Langdon of the FA.

    The route is definitely a modern classic and features flawless stone and some amazing pitches. Here are a few photos and a topo:


    Rock & Ice Classics

    In the past few months I've gotten out and climbed on a few trips to classic areas that were new to me: Yosemite and the Canadian Rockies.

    Chris Tirrell working the line
    Before those trips I managed the FA of a really fun thin face/bouldering pitch at Trout Creek on the day thatthe wall closed for the seasonal eagle nest intermission. I love crosswords, and crossword-puzzle-builders love the word "Aerie" - which is an eagle nest. The route was named "aerie interlude" in deference to my crossword obsession and the much more famous "Airy Interlude" in the Needles of California. It goes at .12d or so (V5 to a V6/V7) and protects with very thin but bomber cams and wires. Again, no bolts have been used or needed on any route at Trout Creek. Trout opens back up for climbing in a few days (May 15) and I definitely suggest this climb, even just as a great end of the day TR after climbing Gateway or one of the 5.10 routes over to the left.

    Jens Holsten and I took a trip to the Canadian Rockies to climb some long classic waterfall ice routes, and we were graciously hosted by our friend Steven Swenson who fit us into his schedule of guests and itinerant dirtbags who overwhelm his condo in Canmore Alberta.
    Jens gets us going on Carlsberg Column near Field, BC

    We were both amazed by the scale, beauty, and access of the peaks in the Rockies. The ice was fat and blue. Screws actually would hold a fall. This was not Washington slush ice. The first day in the area Jens and I climbed Carlsberg Column in the Field, B.C. area, and then we stopped by Lake Louise and strolled past the amazingly ornate lodge, walked past kids skating and playing hockey, and found ourselves under Lake Louise Falls, which we climbed as well.
    The view from one end of Lake Louise
    The other end of Lake Louise
    The second day we drove up to the Icefields Parkway and began to climb the Weeping Wall, but realized that there was a reason we had the place to ourselves - the ice was turning white and getting sun baked. After reserving a spot at the Rampart Creek Hostel, we backtracked to the trailhead for Murchison Falls, and climbed a route just left of Murchison, a stunning and scenic WI5 called "My Daddy's a Psycho". By "we climbed" I really mean "Jens climbed" -- I basically lead the easier (WI3 and WI4) pitches, while Jens took the WI5 pitches.

    Jens on a WI5 pitch of a Murchison Falls variation
    Murchison falls is 1-2 miles above the road in a beautiful setting
    After a sleepless night in the noisy and sauna-like atmosphere of the hostel bunk room, we got up early and climbed the amazing Polar Circus route, a long and ever-steepening series of frozen waterfalls that is among the most famous ice climbs in the world. After driving back to Canmore and resting for a day, Jens and I were joined by Ian Yurdin of Bend, and our guide/rally car driver Steve Swenson for a trip into the fabled Ghost Valley on the eastern front range in Alberta. Steve's Subaru Outback made it pretty far, despite falling snow, large drifts, semi-frozen river crossings, and 3 terrified passengers. I realized that I had forgotten my crampons, but Steve realized that he had climbed our intended route 3 times already this year, and was happy to let Ian join Jens and I on the climb. We completed a very cold and snowy ascent of The Sorcerer, complete with frozen eyelashes and eyelids on the final steep headwall pitch.

    I heard they designed that rock based on the North Face logo...
    Later this spring, I final made a trip to Yosemite where I had the amazing opportunity to climb the Zodiac Wall on El Capitan with Dan Nordstrom who owns Outdoor Research, and with Maria Hines, who owns 3 of the premiere restaurants in Seattle, not to mention being a champion of the Iron Chef TV show. I was mostly along for the ride as a dabbler in all types of climbing, but I learned a lot about hauling, portaledge camping, dawn-walling, harness-sleeping, and aid sketchery. The most memorable event was catching Dan's near-factor-2 fall midway up the route, as his GriGri and 1 jumar were knocked off his harness and free-fell over 1,000' to the deck. The Zodiac Wall is steep, and water falling off the final pitch lands dozens of feet out from the base of El Cap on its steep right side. After a couple days of resting/cragging/bouldering I teamed up with new friend Ricardo Varga, a Mexican sport climber from Portrero Chico, who was just learning to trad climb. We rallied up the classic Astroman, despite getting jammed up behind (5!) teams on a wednesday, including a Euro party engaging in classic Euro shenanigans such as laybacking all the cracks, yarding up a haul bag, and falling out of the Harding Slot and spending hours dangling in space under the gaping maw. I got to lead the whole route apart from an approach pitch, and felt good about on-sighting the famous climb and my first real Yosemite experience. 5.9 is physical, hard, and calorie-intensive in Yosemite!

    Ricardo follows the Enduro Corner on Astroman
    Ricardo on the Changing Corners pitch
    Slotting myself into the belly of the beast, and executing the 180-degree turn. Index flares have taught me well!
    Laybacking under the Harding Slot


    Southern Spain - Jaen & Cordoba

    James Lucas photo - last climb of the trip

    Typical Spain: olive orchards, goats, multiple 5.14 climbers, and some americans
    trying not to flail too hard.

    It's a small climbing world. Last spring I was top-roping in Leavenworth with Fred Beckey, when I noticed a very strong climber circuiting nearby boulders. We began chatting, and through his thick Spanish accent, it became apparent that he was an accomplished Spanish alpinist who also had no problem onsighting V8 boulder problems. His name was Pedro Diaz, and he ended up staying in Leavenworth with me, and climbing for a couple days with my wife and I before heading back home. Pedro had just gotten back from the Revelation mountains in Alaska, and had many many trips to the USA to climb. We decided to meet up and climb again. Last we didn't cross paths, but this winter when I decided to go to Spain, I was immediately invited by Pedro to check out his home area of Cordoba and Jaen. This area (south-central Spain) has some amazing huge caves, a rural feel, relaxed cities, low costs, and friendly climbers. After being in Chulilla, I took the $50 AVE high-speed train from Valencia to Cordoba, and Pedro met me at the station, with American James Lucas, and Brit Hazel Findlay. The 4 of us were off to one of Pedro's favorite walls.

    We climbed for a few days on massively overhanging limestone walls, working routes despite very cold weather. We had a small fire at the crag a couple of days, and experienced several snow squalls, but stayed dry. The final day, we arrived to find meter-long icicles hanging from many of the tufas. I asked Pedro what the Spanish word for icicle was, and he claimed that there wasn't one (at least in common usage in Andalusia) - it was basically something that never happened around there.

    Looks steep up there, better use the
    kneebar sleeve. 
    It was great having Pedro show us his favorite lines, and it was fun to watch the rapid and dynamic climbing style of the local crushers. James, Hazel, and I threw ourselves at various projects and onsight attempts, with my personal highlight being my first flash of a 8a route / .13b route, called Conde Dracula. Dracula takes the full span of a huge cave, overhanging at least 40' in the first section. It's easy to belay and see the climber by simply turning around and staring out from the start of the climb. Since it's so steep, you can easily watch someone leading by looking backward from the base. It features 10 or 12 bolts worth of climbing out the first tier of the roof, then a rest between tufas, and an overhanging headwall of another 6-8 bolts of 5.12 climbing with a bit of chimney/tufa action at the top. Most climbers probably don't do the chimney technique, but I had to get a bit of Index/granite style body smushing in somewhere! I sent the climb despite fully frozen hands, and sat through the full pain cycle of screaming barfies in the tufa rest, watching snow fall across the valley. Thanks James for the long and boring belay! A few climbs to the left of Conde Dracula is an open project ("Somos Chromosomos") that's been attempted by Adam Ondra, and may end up being the world's hardest route if it ever gets sent. The other climbing highlight was a .13c/d masterpiece called "Lagunas Mentales" which I many-hanged my way up on the first day, and last day there. It's 35m of tufa pinching and pocket grabbing, using technical sequences up a steep plaque of striped rock - definitely one of the pitches I'll never forget.

    Hazel on Lagunas Mentales
    On a rest day, James and I got lost and went on a self-guided tour of Jaen. The highlight being when James (who barely spoke any Spanish) went into a tiny fabric store, pulled up his shirt, and pulled down the fly on his trousers to expose a missing button on the pants to the occupants of the tiny shop. No words had been exchanged at that point, and the only other people in the tiny store were some silver haired Spanish women to whom James was (almost) exposing himself. They eventually figured out that he needed to buy a button to replace the missing one, but in the interim, they asked us if were baffled that somehow being smelly, unshaven, ostentatiously dressed, then pulling down your pants as a means of greeting a grandmother is something that made them think "aha! missionaries!" The trip ended with Pedro dropping me off at the AVE/Renfe (high-speed rail) station in Cordoba, and I caught the morning train to Madrid, and the cross-town metro to the airport. I highly suggest using the fast trains in Spain, the prices are great ($50-$70 to go across the country) and things are way faster and easier than flying. American Airlines and their partner airlines fly round-trip to many Spanish destinations for 40,000 miles - AKA 1 credit card signup bonus.

    James lowers off Conde Dracula

    Very little of the climbing is bouldery, but Pedro stuck the dyno this thing this (V10? / 5.hard)

    James on the tufa rest

    Pedro's amazing house in downtown Cordoba, next to ancient castles, mosques, and bridges.

    Plant grape vine in gutter. Wait 3 generations. Harvest grapes and wine from the roof.

    I am very gluten tolerant.


    Chulilla Spain

    Ciudad de Artes y Ciencas, Valencia Spain

    I've spent the past week sport climbing on the stunning 50-70m walls along the Rio Turia, just west of Valencia, Spain. I am here with Washington friends Benjit Hull and Chris Allen, and it has been great climbing with these guys. I had a bit of a baggage kerfuffle to begin the trip, and arrived with only my carry-on pack. Luckily, I had my harness as well as one supertight slipper and a loose warmup shoe, and they weren't even for the same foot, so I could climb!

    Chulilla is an ideal spot to tick mega enduro pitches in the .11+ to .13+ range, with endurance being the name of the game on gently overhung waves of tufa-draped stone. The only thing it doesn't have is a big cave, or excellent low-grade climbing. From the tiny town (one bakery, one bar, one town square, etc etc) it's a 5-40minute walk to all the walls. I managed to onsight a couple 5.12c pitches early on, and topped off my week in Chulilla with a flash of the 40m .13a "Remanso de las Mulas", my first flash of that grade. My final day, I sent the area classic "Tequila Sunrise" (.13a/.13b) second try. (Video at the bottom of thsi post)

    Here are a few psyche-you-up videos (not mine) that capture the area, and some of my photos. Valencia is also an amazing town, only 30 miles away, and with excellent rest day touristing opportunities, particularly the old castles, downtown region, huge central food/seafood market, and the City of Arts and Sciences.

    Overall I HIGHLY recomend Chulilla for a visit, since you don't need a car once you arrive, the climbing is killer, there are hundreds of routes within a walk from the quaint town, and it seems to be dry and pleasant here all the time, even when it was storming hard and raining/snowing a couple hours north in Catalonia.

    My array of ticketing/lost bag material - que lastima!

    Chris Allen and I streaming the superbowl on a tiny computer after hacking into the interwebs (we weren't supposed to stream it from Europe.)

    Tequila Sunrise 5.13- (It's actually overhanging the whole way)
    Cobra Tufa atop the 40m masterpiece "Ramallar" 7c/.12d
    The Chulilla Gorge

    Piotr Bunsch climbing Primer Asalto (8c) in Chulilla, Spain from Valencia Climb on Vimeo.

    veteranos from mugiwara on Vimeo.


    Get Up Off The Mat, 'Cause Trying IS the Crux!

    The Story You Tell Yourself Becomes Your Reality.
    -Chad Kellogg

    (so tell a story that matters)

    Despite dealing with a couple nagging injuries to my shoulder and elbow, I have managed my hardest rock cimbs this year, sending trad, sport, and new alpine pitches from .12+ to .13+ and succeeingd on some unforgettable enduro-days in the Cascades and Red Rock with my two favorite climbing partners, Jens Holsten and Scott Bennett. I'm not any stronger than before, I'm just embracing getting knocked down by my goals. And I'm telling myself that success can take the form of another day trying hard and not sending.

    Perhaps this bump in ability is due to improved fitness, having stuck around home since February. But I think this progress owes more to learning lessons of resilience from my partners and climbers who inspire me. My achievements are very modest in the grand scheme of climbing, but they are personally meaningful to me, precisely because they WERE difficult, intimidating, and humbling, but also obsession-inducing. If they had been easy, they would have been worthless. Adversity wasn't an obstacle, it was the purpose. Finding satisfaction didn't come about as much from achieving the final redpoint as it did from committing to the process, trusting in my partners, and applying 100% of my abilities day after day, whether at home or up on the wall. I'm not a gifted natural athlete, I never climbed until college, and I get scared leading at the crags. I fall off 5.11 and freeze up on 5.10 slabs. But I keep trying. I'm stubborn. And sometimes that's enough.

    After probably many days of effort I sent a couple of the Lower Town Wall's 5.13 testpieces, including the third ascent of the Full Amandla, a 5.13d and perhaps Index's hardest pitch. This Andy DeKlerk masterpiece originally ended at anchors on the hanging arete that splits the Lower Town Wall, but Ben Gilkison extended it to its logical finish past the arete, and over the roof to a ledge. I owe a ton of fresh-baked bread and belay sessions to the friends who gave me catches on my numerous TR/whining sessions, and to the other climbers and friends who inspire me to try hard and brush myself off for another attempt. Thanks for reminding me that I CAN keep trying. Speaking of which...

    A couple days after climbing Moonlight Buttress with my friend Max Tepfer, we shared Utah's famed Cathedral sport crag with Bill Ramsay and his partner. Both of them seemed to be on the far side of 50 years old, and both were coming close to sending the .14a masterpiece "Golden". Bill has climbed many 5.14 routes, and has also written extensively on the philosophy of climbing, applying effort into a task, and how those lessons translate to everyday life. After returning home, I listened to an excellent interview with Ramsay on Chris Kalous' Enormocast. Please, please check it out. Ramsay said something that has struck with me, because it is undeniably true, and because it I had never heard mentioned before. (Begin listening at about 33:00 in)

    "When somebody guts it out, and they keep getting up off the mat after repeated failures... that tells me a lot about them as a climber. Finding out that Adam Ondra can onsight .14d, that means nothing to me, that's likely finding out someone's acquired the ability to levitate." 
    But Ramsay's most insightful comment comes in response to the idea that trying a goal repeatedly somehow cheapens the end result.

    "You hear a lot of people say things like if I tried that many times, I could get up that route too. But THAT'S the rub, right? You can't try that many times, you're not capable of trying that many times."

    The very act of repeated 100% effort in the face of repeated failure is itself the crux, both to climbing and to so much of life. It's not the route, it's the act of willing yourself to try the route one more time. And its a crux that many folks can't or wont overcome. It's the crux of handling the loss of a loved one, fighting back against cancer, overcoming failed summits, and scrapping together the time and money for one more plane ticket, one more shot at route you dream about. But it's also the aspect of climbing that's 100% a choice for each of us. Make yourself capable of trying that many times.

    Ramsay's comment in the interview is casual and off-the-cuff, but to me it's profound. I have repeated it to myself throughout the fall and winter, while climbing, while training, while freezing my elbow against a block of ice to self-induce the screaming barfies, while choosing those hippie-seed infused kale smoothies instead of christmas cookies, and while turning down those post-climb beers in favor of some (chalk)olate milk and whey-protein and recovery slurry. I will seldom be the best technical climber at the crag, but I want to be the hardest-working and most disciplined climber at the crag. I want to be the most enthusiastic and positive climber in basecamp when it's snowing for the 4th day in a row. And I want to be the guy who NOBODY doubts will be giving his all-out effort regardless of the pitch, or grade, or how many times I've already fallen to the mat and not wanted to get back up.


    Don't Miss The Best Pitches Around

    I've been working on writing a book to the best alpine and alpine-ish rock climbs in the Cascades, and I have been pondering what the very best pitches are. Either of these pitches is well worth doing on its own, as a day's solitary goal.

    Matt Van Biene Photo - FFA of P3 "L&H"

    Matt Van Biene Photo - FFA of P3 "L&H"
    Here are 2 of them. If you are in the area, PLEASE go do them.

    I can see both of these pitches being neglected and ignored, because they are both optional (more difficult) variations to the existing routes. The first one is an optional pitch #3 to "Ellen Pea" and the second pitch is an optional pitch #6+7 on "The Tiger".

    Both are well protected and have a couple bolts or good pins but generally require a bunch of small/medium widgets, intricate sequences, powerful crux moves, and PERFECT STONE.
    The only semi-decent shot of "Eye of the Tiger" - a direct hard 5.12 variation to "The Tiger" which substitutes for normal pitch 6, 7, 8 in a 45m lead.

    P3 of the red line above

    The blue line above, leaving the cave

    One good idea to keep in mind if you do the "Eye of the Tiger",  a 45m pitch with a lot of steep and powerful climbing on the first half: There is a cramped no-hands stance after all the 5.12 climbing, about 25m up the pitch. Unless you have a really burly following climber, the leader can throw in a couple pieces to clip to with a sling (there's a large fixed wire now) and untie, lowering down the lead end of the rope to the belay in the cave. Haul up the bag, big cams, shoes, tagline, etc etc, and clip them off to a piece here for the follower to pick up once they have done the steeper and harder climbing. Then re-tie-in and lead the rest of the pitch (5.10+) up to the nice belay ledge w/bolts. Nobody has to negotiate anything cruxy with extra weight on their harness, and you don't even need to lead with a tagline.

    MVI 1816 from Blake Herrington on Vimeo.