Non-climbers could live a lifetime without ever needing a cam device. For a climber, though, it is an essential piece of equipment used to protect against the consequences of a fall. Cams are a type of device placed in rock cracks as temporary, removable, non-defacing (and thus “clean”) protection while climbing. Spring-loaded and controlled with a “trigger,” cams are designed to expand and grip the rock securely, thus protecting against a climber’s potential fall.
The evolution of the modern day climbing cam is difficult to follow. Climbing had never included such complex and technical inventions and had been originally an outdoor activity generally free of elaborate devices. It was not the materials and methods of manufacturing that had to catch up, or some arcane engineering problems: the very idea of climbing itself had much ground to cover. It had to arrive at its concern for degradation of the natural environment for a lighter, quicker, more intuitive approach to ascension. Equipment was traditionally primitive, and so basic that retractable mechanisms like cams would probably have been rejected as too Rube Goldberg-esque. Serious development—and acceptance—had to wait.
The Russian climber, Vitaly Abalakow, is often credited with the first such device, yet controversy always clouds discussions about who originated the cam concept. In principle, the cam concept is so simple that perhaps it had multiple origins.
Abalokov did claim to have invented the first cams, but in reality his “inventions” were the result of a meeting with Jeff Lowe on a climbing exchange in the Pamirs in 1974. Jeff introduced the Russian to his brother Greg’s early prototypes of what later became the Lowe Tricam, and explained in detail how they functioned: it was Abalokov’s first exposure to the camming idea. Worth noting is the fact that Abalokov subsequently made his own version from titanium flywheels.
In 1975, Greg Lowe patented his first design: a spring-loaded, single prong camming nut (Cam Nut) that proved to be both difficult to place, and unstable. These units had a 30-degree camming angle and their use never became widespread.
In 1978, Ray Jardine came along with his revolutionary Friends (inspired by Lowe’s earlier design) which were to forever change the concept of clean climbing.
Following in 1985 was Tony Christianson, with his innovative concept of using two parallel axles instead of one as with Jardine’s Friends, and thereby appreciably increasing the cam’s range of expansion. Licensed to Chouinard Equipment, the Camalot was born.
In 1989, David Waggoner’s inventive idea of inserting the springs within each of the cams resulted in his patent for the narrowest four-cam unit in the world. This Alien, along with his earlier Cable Pro design (the stainless steel control sheath trigger mechanism) further contributed to the evolution of the climbing cam.
Cams can now be considered one of the greatest leaps forward in the development of clean, fast, and safe climbing on both free and aid routes.