Black Diamond C4 Camalot Review
Reviewed by Jon Griffith
Those who will have read my C3 review will know that I have an obsession with cams that borders on the ‘not quite right’. Cams are awesome. Ok my bias will lean towards cams because the granite spires of Chamonix eat them up like there is no tomorrow but even so the precision engineering involved in these beauties is nothing short of incredible- and that holds for all cams across the board. Of course nowadays there are many different companies producing variations of the original Wild Country Friend design and its remarkable how radical some cam designs have become- from the asymmetrical Metolius Supercam to the ‘two-in-one’Omega Pacific Link Cams.
Like most brits my first cam was a Wild Country (forged) friend- cheapest cam I could find at the time and the most untrustworthy piece of gear on my rack. Not due to its design I might add but simply because a bomber nut felt like, well a bomber nut and I just didnt trust cams enough at the time to use them that much. However as time passed by I started actually thinking about how these active pieces of pro actually worked and the more I thought about it the more confident I was when using it. Of course it had its limitations in that I couldnt place it in horizontal cracks and a few other niggles I had about the design but overall it was great because it took seconds to place and to extract. Of course the main issue I had with cams at the time was their prohibitive cost, and whilst the thought of having a full rack of cams at my disposal filled me with excitement, my bank account was less taken by the idea. Thankfully nowadays there are so many companies making cams that you can get yourself some real bargains out there- cams have come down to about half the price they were when I started climbing so its affordable for any climber now. As usual though in the climbing world you get what you pay for and generally speaking the more expencive cams will feel better and work better than the cheapest ones.
I’d like to be able to say that I’ve tried every cam on the market and therefore this review will be the most useful cam review you will ever read. However that’s very far from the truth and whilst I have used many different types as well as brands in the past I am by no means a cam know-it-all. What I do know is how cams should perform and feel, and tested in the often brutal conditions that the French Alps can hurl at any climber thre is no better place to sperate the wheat from the chaff of the cam world.
The C4 camalots were first introduced in (Kathi?!) and since then have taken the active pro market by storm. Sold more than any other cam and sworn as the benchmark design by many of the top climbers in the world it was going to be hard to find something negative to say about the cam in this review. However I felt confident that I could find something I didnt like about it and so armed with both a 0.75 and No. 1 size I spent both summer and winter seasons shoving them in every granite crack I could find.
So what makes the C4s so special? Well to me what makes them so special is exactly the opposite- they arent. They dont have any fancy whistles and bells attached, they dont perform a two-in-one cam action and they dont require a require some kind of physics degree to work out how to place them (some designs are getting a little ridiculous)- they just work plain and simple. Now I say plain and simple but of course the actual mechanics behind that statement couldn't be further from it. I've used alot of different cam designs in the past and they've always had something about them which I didnt get on with. Obviously this is personal choice at the end of the day but to me I wanted something that is easy to use with gloved hands, light, and most immportantly of all is robust (my two pet hates with cams are broken trigger wires on a climb and locked up cam lobes).
The C4s use a pretty simple cam lobe design that is one of those tried and tested ones- ie if it aint broke dont fix it. In 2005 they revamped the C4s and produced a new set that were 30% lighter across the range and had a larger camming area per cam (mmore about that later). The units themselves are a single stem design with a wide and grippy trigger bar.
The real mathematical and complicated design part of a cam is in the lobes. As with everything in life there is a trade off. The greater the cam angle the greater the camming range but the lesser the holding power of the cam. The best way I can think of to desceribe this is if you interweave your fingers together and mimic your hands as the cam lobes. Obviously the more compact you make the shape the better it is going to hold, whilst if you pull your palms further away from each other and flatten out your hands a little you will see that the camming range is obviously going to be greater but the holding strength is going to be less.
Regardless of size, brand, number of stems or axles, all camming devices have one thing in common, they are all based on a special curve called a logarithmic spiral. A logarithmic spiral is special because it changes its size with a particular geometric relationship. This relationship defines the angle at which the cams come in contact with the surrounding rock. The smaller this angle, the more the cam clutches the surrounding rock, but at a cost of decreased range and increased forces on both the rock and the camming device components. The larger this angle the better the range but the more the unit must rely on friction in order to hold. Logarithmic spirals are important because they ensure that the cam angle is constant throughout the entire range of the camming device, otherwise the holding power would depend on how much it was retracted. Although cam angle varies between brands of camming devices, most climbing equipment companies maintain one cam angle throughout their entire line.
In the sixties these spirals started to be incorporated into passive climbing anchors. In the mid-seventies four individual cams were assembled onto one rigid stem creating the first Spring Loaded Camming Device (SLCD). About a decade later Tony Christianson devised a way to
maximize range without compromising holding power and the Camalot was born.- Paul Tusting, Quality Assurance Engineer BD
If everyone used the same cam angle then all cams would have the same camming ranges. Its really just a case of where do you draw the line between holding power vs camming range that differs between the manufacturers. Of course you can then start to get very involved with the lobe shape themselves. You will have no doubt notice that the lobes are not a perfect quarter circle curve but that they differ ever so slightly in their curve compared to other manufacturers- this is particularly noticeable on the larger cams. Of course in an ideal world you want to maximise both the holding power and the camming range and it is now down to the cam lobe curvature and design to best serve those purposes.
One of the main selling points of the C4 since their introduction has been this larger camming range that you often hear people going on about. So how did they do it? Well the Camalot C4s are very distinctive in that they have a dual axle system. Not to be confused with a dual-stem or U-stem, the axle is where the cam lobes themselves are attached to. Normally there is just a single axle attaching all the lobes to the same pivotal point, but the C4s have a larger range by attaching opposing lobes on different axles. By doing this they can use a larger lobe and retract it through a greater range of motion- sounds more complicated than it actually is but in a nutshell by spacing the opposing lobes apart they effectively make them overlap alot more than on a single axle meaning that they can get away with using larger lobes that will cover a greater ‘safe’ range.
What’s so interesting about this design is that for years cam manufacturers had been obsessing over the cam angle and whether there was a ‘magic’ cam angle. This system rather knocks this whole obsession out of the window by allowing them to increase the range by making use of another variable- the dual axle system. For those interested in the cam angle though this is what BD had to say: The cam angle we use is in the middle of what we have measured on our competitors cams (as low as 12.5 degrees and as high as 21 degrees). Camalots are at 14.5 degrees. There is no single magic number for cam angle; the proof the long-term use. Camalots have been on the market for over 20 years and are holding falls in all kinds of rock all over the world. I think the cam angle argument is officially dead.
For those interested in a comparison between the C4s and the WC Techincal Friends see below:
Comparison between the C4 and the WC Technical Friends
Well the rest really is quite often a case of personal preference- ie how it ‘feels’. For me the C4s really work great. As mentioned before the thumb loop is such a bonus as far as I am concerned. Without it, placing gear with gloves on can be a real pain and very fiddly affair. The trigger action is very smooth and I have yet to service my cams after a whole years use and abuse. Somthing that I also noticed was that I have yet to have any of the lobes lock up on me which has been a constant source of irritation in the winter- I am not sure if this is because the cams themselves are further apart and not touching as other cam designs do (integrated cam stops) or whether its just down to plain luck. In fact the only thing that I could find that I didnt particularly like was that the sling wasnt an extendable one- something that I appreciate alot when climbing. Apart from that I couldnt really find anything that I didnt like about the C4- it works smoothly and has yet to let me down on my climbs. All round a great performer and highly recommended.