Around 3 p.m. on April 2, Sam Wagner, 30, was looking at the jug 40 feet up Renegades of Funk (5.10b), a thin
crack in a shady corridor at the Way Rambo area of Indian Creek, Utah. Wagner, an experienced climber from Golden, Colorado, had climbed the initial right-facing flake, placing six pieces—one every body length. At what he thought might be the crux, he’d slotted a green Alien (.5- to .86-inch)
at head height before swinging out of a stem, jamming up the flake for a couple of moves and setting his feet on some calcite smears. At this point
his knot was about a foot above the green Alien.
Wagner crouched to dyno, but his feet slipped off the smears, and he fell. “I saw the first cam pop and thought, Surely I’m gonna stop,” Wagner said.
But then the piece below, a .3 C4, blew out of the crack, and the one below that, a black (.3- to .5-inch) Alien, pulled, too. Wagner landed flat on his back directly on top of his pack, which was set between “an assortment of small, sharp boulders.”
A paramedic climbing nearby heard the fall and hurried over to assess Wagner.
“She told me that usually there’s a look in people’s eyes that says, I’m hurt. And that I didn’t have that look,” Wagner said.
Miraculously, Wagner walked away from a 40-foot groundfall with only bruises, a bitten tongue and a new wariness for cams placed in sandstone.
Cams fail for a variety of reasons, including:
1) Poor placement—Unit is under-cammed, or the crack is too flared.
2) Rock quality—Soft rock pulverizes or is rotten and breaks.
3) Lack of friction—Water, ice, moss, lichen, dirt, animal droppings, extremely smooth rock or choss can “lubricate” the walls of the crack.
4) Cam movement—Cams “walk” into bad placements with the movement of the rope, or are pulled sideways or outwards into bad placements.
Wagner believed his placements were properly cammed and the rope line was straight. He speculated that the gear might have moved because he didn’t use runners. Cam movement is plausible, but onlookers commented that they saw the rock break as each of his pieces pulled, indicating that soft rock played a part in the accident.
Cams can pull out at Indian Creek. You can see the grooves from such failures on climbs like Incredible Hand Crack. Blowouts are more likely to
occur in lighter-colored cracks—like Renegades of Funk— than those with the harder brown or black patina.
This accident might have been prevented if Wagner had used runners to reduce cam movement, but the real culprit was probably soft rock. When climbing on soft stone, try to place cams more frequently than usual, and set two pieces of gear at the crux if you can. The first piece can act as a shock absorber. It’s also a good idea to use shock-absorbing slings on key pieces. In experiments conducted by Corey LaForge at Black Diamond, these slings were found to reduce impact forces by 26 percent.
According to Jim Karn at Metolius, thicker cams have more holding power in soft rock than thinner cams. “The wide lobes spread the load out over a larger area, which reduces the chance of breaking the rock,” says Karn. “The larger contact patch also gives more grip, just like wide tires on a race car.” Metolius Fat Cams, notes Karn, hold 20 to 25 percent better in soft rock than the Metolius Power Cam with thinner cams. Karn also says that in soft rock you should place cams as tightly as possible to “give them a better chance of hooking up again if the rock breaks, and they begin to slip.”
“People complain about this making them hard to clean, but what’s the point of placing the gear if it doesn’t hold?”
In this case, Wagner was placing cams behind a flake. Sandstone flakes are less reliable than splitter cracks, as the lip of the flake can crumble under the pressure of a loaded cam. Place your cams where the flake is thickest, and as deeply as possible while still allowing for them to be cleaned.
Be aware that cams do fail. Make good placements, mitigate cam movement by using runners, and, on soft rock, try not to fall.
This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 236 (August 2016).