musings of a trad noob


Original Post
A. Michael · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2016 · Points: 40

I have never really been a trad climber. I did a few easy trad leads back when I was learning to climb. I was shown exactly what to place where, and I never fell on lead. I have built many proper gear anchors of my own for TRing, and fallen on them lots. But suffice to say I am relatively inexperienced, especially considering that all of the above was 10 years ago. Since then, I've only ever sport climbed or TR on bolt anchors.

So back when I did a bit of trad leading and anchor building, I never placed a cam. It was always nuts and hexes. We're only talking 10-15 years ago, so people definitely had them, but I never made the investment.

Now I am in love with climbing again, and want to get into trad more. I've been reading a ton of info on the internet. These forums, and everywhere else. I read as much as I can about gear, and about accidents and falls. It could be selective hearing/reading, but it seems like whenever I read about a fall on gear that pops, it is always a cam. So why are people so enamored of them? I get that they are more versatile and quicker to place, but that convenience doesn't mean anything if they won't stay put when you actually need them.

Having said all of that, I do plan to buy a set of cams and learn to place them. I'm just wondering if maybe my eventual rack will lean toward passive pro as the default, with cams being the exception.

Matt.H Haron · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2011 · Points: 185

I really like cams, however I have had cams pop and seen cams pop. Seen nuts zipper, but never pop. I still like cams because you can pretty much grab and stab if you are pumping out. If you buy cams, buy what any climber tells you to buy: BD is good, DMM is good(havent used their new stuff) Metolius is good, and personally I love the old aliens. (Im sure there are other great cams out there, those are just my personal faves) Also as far as passive go, the DMM offset nuts are my favorite. Especially where I climb in CO. They tend to slot in a little better and have more contact with the rock it seems.

Gear failure is going to be the fault of the climber in almost all cases. The two cams I had pop on me were my fault. But you also have to take into account the quality of the rock as well.

Ryan Hamilton · · Orem · Joined Aug 2011 · Points: 20

Cams are much more versatile than passive pro. Yes, you can get nuts to fit in a ton of places, but it's much easier and faster to find a placement for a cam and you won't have to run it out as much. I think most people feel their best safest placements are really well placed nuts(they are) and you definitely want some in the mix, but a well placed cam is almost as safe.

The reason you hear about cams popping is because they do, but most of the time they don't. You're safer moving quicker and placing cams than trying to stitch together a route solely on passive pro.

Just learn how to place cams well. Do your best to not under cam them, I think that's the place that causes the most problems with them failing. Put them in close to over-cammed in as good of a constriction as you can and 99/100 times they are going to hold a fall.

Ken Noyce · · Layton, UT · Joined Aug 2010 · Points: 2,067
A. Michael wrote:I have never really been a trad climber. I did a few easy trad leads back when I was learning to climb. I was shown exactly what to place where, and I never fell on lead. I have built many proper gear anchors of my own for TRing, and fallen on them lots. But suffice to say I am relatively inexperienced, especially considering that all of the above was 10 years ago. Since then, I've only ever sport climbed or TR on bolt anchors. So back when I did a bit of trad leading and anchor building, I never placed a cam. It was always nuts and hexes. We're only talking 10-15 years ago, so people definitely had them, but I never made the investment. Now I am in love with climbing again, and want to get into trad more. I've been reading a ton of info on the internet. These forums, and everywhere else. I read as much as I can about gear, and about accidents and falls. It could be selective hearing/reading, but it seems like whenever I read about a fall on gear that pops, it is always a cam. So why are people so enamored of them? I get that they are more versatile and quicker to place, but that convenience doesn't mean anything if they won't stay put when you actually need them. Having said all of that, I do plan to buy a set of cams and learn to place them. I'm just wondering if maybe my eventual rack will lean toward passive pro as the default, with cams being the exception.
I've fallen on many cams and never had one pop. A correctly placed cam in good rock won't pop, when a cam pops it's either user error or bad rock or a combo of the two. Learn to place gear well and you won't need to worry about it.
A. Michael · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2016 · Points: 40

I guess I will learn as I go along. My home climbing area is RRG, so I'll see what works there as I build my rack. Right now I still feel like I will lean passive, but that may not end up being the case. I'll be climbing with people who's racks will probably lean toward cams.

Sorry if this has been hashed, re-hashed, and re-re-hashed. I do appreciate the wisdom and advice!

Brady3 · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2014 · Points: 15

I started all passive and think it is a great way to start. That being said, I have a full set of cams now and so rarely take my hexes up a climb though I leave them in my pack so they are with me if I do decide to bring them for some reason (maybe if I know I'll need to build a top-rope anchor). But I do still bring my tricams and try to look for nut placements as much as I can. But I do still end up placing more cams than nuts, obviously this is going to be dependent on where you climb.
So there are still people that lean towards passive, but cams are much faster to place than hexes.

I have met people that believe anything other than a cam is archaic and unsafe (none of them actually trad lead), so there may be some that go into trad with that mindset and end up with poor cam placements (hopefully they quickly learn otherwise). Climbing is just very popular in general and there are obviously plenty that are getting in over their heads with it, and cams are the cool shiny pieces so this may attribute to inflated numbers also.
But clearly there are plenty of very competent climbers that still have cams pull. I'd suspect that some of them did not expect the cam to hold a big fall, but ended up falling anyway. And as far as I have seen (reports only, I have yet to witness a cam popping myself) it seems a lot of them are the smaller cams. Almost always this is blamed on the smaller margin of error in the smaller cams and so they are just more difficult to analyse.

As far as cams to consider, I like the Totems and also have a set of Helium Friends because they were on sale. Hopefully you can find someone that will let you try out some cams so you can find what you like.
But cams are safe, there are just a lot of variables in trad climbing.

The above is all simply my opinion and I don't claim any of it to be fact.

will ar · · San Antonio, TX · Joined Jan 2010 · Points: 250

People often post about gear failing, but rarely about it holding. That's not because it rarely holds, but rather because it's normal and not post-worthy so keep that in mind.

Anecdotally I would say most of the climbing population these days is more likely to place a cam than a nut so maybe that influences it as well. Passive gear is quite obvious when it's bomber and many would say that cams are harder to judge. I've had a couple of cams pop while aid climbing and it's always been a really funky flaring placement. From my experience if the placement looks good cams hold.

Nothing wrong with passive gear and being able to quickly size up a solid passive pro placement, it's a great skill to have. I feel like a lot of people rely heavily on passive when they start leading and are well within their comfort zone, but as they start pushing their limits more place a lot more cams. When you're at your limit it's easier to stuff a cam in a straightforward placement than select the right size nut. Also, if a route doesn't eat nuts you're less likely to feel comfortable running it out to the next good passive placement on hard terrain.

Scott Morris · · Bountiful, Utah · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 475

I would argue that the main reason you hear about cams popping more than nuts is that nowadays 75% or more of the gear being placed by trad climbers is some type of cam.They just plain see more action.

Cams are invaluable and in my own experience there's good reason all my hexes and tricams just sit in the gear bin 95% of the time. Nothing wrong at all with becoming proficient with passive gear though! Happy climbing!

DavidTighe · · Cleveland, Ohio · Joined May 2014 · Points: 0

RRG is my home crag as well, and I've been learning trad there in the last year or so. I've found that there are far fewer excellent nut placements than cam placements on the moderates I've done there. My main point of comparison is Seneca Rocks where nut placements are quite a bit more common in my experience.

YMMV may vary but I predict you'll have a hard time on RRG moderates without a solid rack of cams unless you like big runouts.

Jonathan Awerbuch · · Boulder, Colorado · Joined Nov 2013 · Points: 38

I've only popped two pieces ever, and they were both nuts. It was obviously my fault in both cases.

Cams are more complicated. People think they are magic, and they want to blame the cam rather than themselves.

JK- · · SLC · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 58
Scott Morris wrote:I would argue that the main reason you hear about cams popping more than nuts is that nowadays 75% or more of the gear being placed by trad climbers is some type of cam.They just plain see more action.
+1

I've popped exactly one of each (cam vs nut). Neither were a big deal, both were very much physiological/maybe-it-will-slow-me-down pro, and I knew they were iffy when I placed them.

Gross overgeneralization here: A good placement in good rock will hold, cam or nut. A bad placement (including a good one that walked... use slings) might not hold.
Matt Himmelstein · · Orange, California · Joined Jun 2014 · Points: 115

Anything you place has the potential to pop. I have only ever popped 1 piece, yes it was a cam, but it was pure psyche pro when I placed it and I knew it would pop if I fell on it.

On the other hand, I have had passive pro pull out as I climbed above it due to the pull on the rope. It does not happen frequently, but this has never happened with a cam. I may place a nut to protect a crux move that has the potential to pull as I move above it. After the move, I place a better piece.

Except in these cases, I usually place passive pro in bomber locations and yank on it pretty hard to test it and set it. I test cam placements, but by their very nature cams can be placed in a much wider range of placements where passive pro is harder to place.

nathanael · · Riverside, CA · Joined May 2011 · Points: 307
A. Michael wrote: It could be selective hearing/reading, but it seems like whenever I read about a fall on gear that pops, it is always a cam.
It's because when a nut pops, (they do) there's nothing to talk about. It's just a chunk of aluminum, if it didn't hold then it's because you didn't place it well. It can't really be the nut's fault. Therefore noone makes a thread on MP about it.

Cams are basically the same, but people like to make threads blaming the cam itself for being at fault. In reality it's the same situation, if it didn't hold it's because you didn't place it well (99% of the time). But it's fun to post a picture of a mangled cam and claim that you placed it perfectly and it's the cam's fault and start 20 page threads. So people do that.
Mark Thesing · · Central Indiana · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 60

I'm a little jaded because I learned to lead back in the early 80s when cams were a luxury. Back then I was pretty good a looking at a crack and being able to tell what would fit. I wasn't always right but if I thought a number 7 stopper would work and it didn't then more than likely a number 6 or 8 did. Back then I did some respectable leads with 3 cams and the rest stoppers and hexes. I then to a 30 year break in climbing. When I got back to it things had really change. Cams were much better and much cheaper. I now own about a dozen cam. I do like the convenience of cams but still feel safer on a well placed stopper or hex than a cam.

My suggestion would be to get good with passive pro while you are climbing easier stuff. You wont regret it.

Seth Jones · · New Lenox, IL · Joined Feb 2015 · Points: 25
Mark Thesing wrote:I do like the convenience of cams but still feel safer on a well placed stopper or hex than a cam.
+1
Mark Thesing · · Central Indiana · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 60
Nathanael wrote: It's because when a nut pops, (they do) there's nothing to talk about. It's just a chunk of aluminum, if it didn't hold then it's because you didn't place it well.
Or you exceeded its limits.

I once had a bomber #4 stopper (I know, oxymoron) that I took a 40 footer on. It didn't hold. The stopper about 5 feet below that did. When I inspected the #4 stopper it was clear the stopper was pulled through the constriction and sheared a bit of aluminum off of it.
don'tchuffonme · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2014 · Points: 25
A. Michael wrote: It could be selective hearing/reading, but it seems like whenever I read about a fall on gear that pops, it is always a cam. So why are people so enamored of them?
You can't place nuts in parallel-walled cracks. That's why. Cams don't pop in proper placements with all lobes sharing equal contact at the proper place on the lobes (and in the same place on each lobe) and in solid rock. There are VERY few exceptions to this- and most of it is in Basalt or some other rock type that isn't super common, and has a low friction coefficient with cam lobes. I would wager that most of the cams you hear of blowing are in soft rock in the desert somewhere, or weren't placed properly/weren't placed in such a way to minimize walking into a larger part of the crack.

People tend to think that cam placement is "dumb" and not as intricate as passive gear placement. I couldn't disagree more. You need to be just as diligent and mindful when you're placing active gear, if not more. They aren't just "plug and chug" like many would have you believe.

You can buy all the passive pro you want, just make sure you're not climbing parallel splitters or else you'll be running it out quite often.

Matt.H wrote: Seen nuts zipper, but never pop.
Oh, well as long as they didn't pop, everything's ok. Tell me, what's the difference in the end result of a "zipper" vs a "pop"? The pro is coming out of its placement in either case.

Mark Thesing wrote: Or you exceeded its limits. I once had a bomber #4 stopper (I know, oxymoron) that I took a 40 footer on. It didn't hold. The stopper about 5 feet below that did. When I inspected the #4 stopper it was clear the stopper was pulled through the constriction and sheared a bit of aluminum off of it.
That isn't exceeding limits. If your nut pulled through its placement and remained intact, then it was a bad placement. If you had exceeded the limits of the gear, the wires would have broken.
Seth Jones · · New Lenox, IL · Joined Feb 2015 · Points: 25
don'tchuffonme wrote: Tell me, what's the difference in the end result of a "zipper" vs a "pop"? The pro is coming out of its placement in either case.
Big difference. If your top piece is solid in the direction of the fall, it'll still catch you even if everything under it zippers. If your top piece pops, you not only shock load the pieces under it but you are also falling alot further, increasing the chance of decking. Zippering is really only dangerous IF the top piece pops as the lower pieces zipper which is highly unlikely.
don'tchuffonme · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2014 · Points: 25
Seth Jones wrote: Big difference. If your top piece is solid in the direction of the fall, it'll still catch you even if everything under it zippers. If your top piece pops, you not only shock load the pieces under it but you are also falling alot further, increasing the chance of decking. Zippering is really only dangerous IF the top piece pops as the lower pieces zipper which is highly unlikely.
Fair point.
eli poss · · Durango, Co · Joined May 2014 · Points: 456

I've only ever had two pieces pop on me. one was a #2 Ballnut and the other was a small nut and they both pulverized the rock in which they were placed (it was pretty crappy rock). I'd recommend climbing all passive for a bit before getting some cams. I didn't and I have noticed that I have a much better eye for cam placements than passive because I didn't force myself to learn to look for nut placements. If you decide to get cams look into the Totem cams, they are the best

If you don't make stupid placements, mitigate drag properly, and don't climb on choss then your gear isn't going to pull.

Mark Thesing · · Central Indiana · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 60
Mark Thesing wrote: Or you exceeded its limits. I once had a bomber #4 stopper (I know, oxymoron) that I took a 40 footer on. It didn't hold. The stopper about 5 feet below that did. When I inspected the #4 stopper it was clear the stopper was pulled through the constriction and sheared a bit of aluminum off of it.
don'tchuffonme wrote:That isn't exceeding limits. If your nut pulled through its placement and remained intact, then it was a bad placement. If you had exceeded the limits of the gear, the wires would have broken.
We may have to agree to disagree on this. When you're dealing with a stopper that is only a 1/4 inch thick and your fall shears about a 1/3 of that away then I wouldn't call that intact or a bad placement. The fall generated more force than the aluminum was able to support. I honestly wouldn't expect a well placed #4 stopper to hold much more than a 15 foot fall.
Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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