Testing the new Crop of Tiny Cams
There's something sinister about minuscule active gear. Those perfectly machined little screws and bolts...
Little Wonders: Testing the new Crop of Tiny Cams
There’s something sinister about minuscule active gear. Those perfectly machined little screws and bolts, the tiny cams, the teeny-weeny wires and springs – I find these things horrifying. _Nuts, on the other hand, I love. Those swaged hunks of metal seem sturdy and hardworking. I slam them in a bottleneck, clip and, when they really sink, I feel like smoking a cigarette. I’m that satisfied. Given my preference for simplicity over techno wizardry, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to review the latest iteration of tiny cams. Were they freaky gadgets, fragile and sly, or solid tools, practical and stout? To find the answer to this important question I enlisted the aid of Andrew The Wig Tower, and we headed to the fine-grained granite cracks above Basalt, Colorado, to put these little boogers through the paces.
WILD COUNTRY ZEROS
Wild Country recently lengthened the stem on the Zeros, which have been around since 2002, to help stick deep placements, but in the process added even more flexibility to the already floppy units. The #1 and #2 Zeros were by far the freakiest cams I tested. They look like something you’d dangle from your key chain. I used a #2 at the crux of my project and, because of the bendy stem, my partner couldn’t wriggle the placement free without hanging. Given that the two smallest cams are only rated to 660 and 990 pounds, respectively, they are best suited for aid climbing, but I’d bring them along on any ultra-thin crack to use between meatier placements.
For aid climbing, the smallest Zeros are indispensable. The Zeros’ range exceeds that of both Black Diamond and Metolius by 2.3 millimeters. The #00 TCU goes down to 8.5mm and the #000 C3 goes to 7.8mm, while the #1 Zero squeezes to 5.5mm. They fit Lost Arrow-size placements and are slightly more stable than Loweballs in corrugated cracks where the four individual cams can rotate and seat against irregularities. They also won’t weld when you fall on them, a problem with the sliding-nut design of Loweballs.
The Zeros become more rigid by #3, which corresponds with the smallest C3 and TCU, and the free-climbing applicability goes up. The syringe-trigger design works better than the Metolius U-stem trigger for people with large hands.
I’m not partial to the Zero’s doubled sling. It clusters easily with other gear on your rack and when you lengthen the sling on the fly it has a tendency to sit unevenly at the base of the cam, possibly causing side-loading.
Bottom line: The #1 and #2 Zeros are the tiniest cams in the world. If you aid-climb or free-climb thin cracks or pin scars, these are mandatory cams. The bigger cams, #3 and up, are extremely functional and comparable to the other brands.
BLACK DIAMOND C3
The Black Diamond C3s are a clear step ahead of the rest. By combining the best features of the Zeros and TCUs, the C3 is a stout and ultra-ergonomic unit.
The C3 is narrower than any other camming unit on the market, which means it fits in shallower grooves. You can clip into the stem for aiding, and the sewn sling is semi-rigid and stays open for easy access.
The upper part of the U-stem is encased in a rubbery plastic that flexes over edges but remains rigid laterally. The rigidity (like that of the TCU), combined with the longer stem (equal to the Zero) is key for placing the smallest units. As cracks narrow, this stiffness helps you precisely slot the cam. The plastic coating also protects the trigger wires and keeps them from tangling.
Subjectively, the C3s feel good in the hand. The ribbed trigger and thumb rest are grippy and even the #000 fit my big mitts. The C3s were, the easiest to actually use. This makes them especially suited to free-climbing, where dinking around can make the difference between reaching the anchors, falling or yelling, “Take!”
METOLIUS ULTRALIGHT TCUs
Metolius TCUs were among the first small cams on the market, first appearing in 1983, and they revolutionized both aid and free climbing. In places like Yosemite and Indian Creek where the cracks are often parallel-sided, these (T)hree (C)am (U)nits redefined thin-crack climbing by facilitating quick, bomber placements without frigging. Aid climbers immediately twisted the TCUs to their aberrant niche by plugging them into pin scars and thin flares that, previously, would not have borne anything but a stick of hammered iron.
Metolius recently retooled its TCUs, making them a whopping 25 to 30 percent lighter than before—the lightest units in the world. The #00 TCU is three grams lighter than the comparably sized #3 Zero, and 14 grams lighter than the #000 C3. As the size increases, so does the weight discrepancy. The #1 TCU, for example, is 16 grams lighter than its counterpart, the #5 Zero, and 12 grams lighter than the #1 C3.
I’ve always been partial to the TCU. With its stubby, U-stem design, it is stiff enough to ram into pods and durable enough to handle repeated falls over edges. The U-stem design protects the cable wires and helps keep them from tangling with other pro on your rack. I also like the fact that you can clip directly to the stem’s loop, gaining a precious few inches when aid climbing.
On the downside, the dual-axel design makes the units wider at the head, and therefore less likely to nestle into shallow placements than the Black Diamond C3s (the TCUs and Wild Country Zeros are a comparable width). The TCUs are shorter than both the other units tested, which makes them less adaptable to flares, where you need some length to reach deep for a solid placement. I have big hands with knobby, old knuckles and I struggle with the triggers in the smallest sizes.
TCUs have withstood the most important test, however – that of time. They are stable, durable, strong and now, ultralight. If weight is your primary concern (alpine, big wall, etc.) these units are for you. Twenty-five percent adds up when you’re racking triple sets for a serious wall. The TCU is also significantly lighter on the wallet—$10 cheaper than the Zero and $20 cheaper than the C3.