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All My Rowdy Friends

Submitted by dingus on 2005-04-14

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“Dingus, when are you going to buy some new pro?” Brutus of Wyde asked one fine spring day as we were gearing up for a route. He was looking at some of my old Friends and shaking his head in his cheerful way.

Pic of Friend 1
The author racks up the new hotness. After more than 20 years, Friends are still a staple on his rack.

I objected, indignant, “There’s nothing wrong with my Friends… is there?” I looked anxiously at my pile of cams. I’d gone to the recent trouble of having them re-slung by Yates and felt they were good to go for another few years. He quickly reassured me they were sound, though I detected some doubt in his tone as he examined the old nuts on the ends of the axles.

Now I also own cams from DMM, Black Diamond, Metolius and CCH. And of course, many of my climbing mates deploy models of various design, as well. But I’m not one of the breed that feels the need to constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest. If something works for me tried and true, I tend to use that tool until it is worn out. I pride myself on that sort of poor man’s economy, and those Friends were the backbone of my rack.

The story of the Friend is well told here: Nuts’ Story: Clockwork Friends. But to summarize, the Lowe clan of Utah began experimenting with camming devices back in the day, in the 60’s if memory serves. Using the Abalakov cam spiral formula as a start, they came up with various prototypes of SLCD’s, “spring-loaded camming devices.” Compared to our modern gear, they looked funny. But these things are the grand pappies of most of the active camming devices in use today.

At some point in the early-70’s, Greg Lowe showed a prototype of one of these devices to Ray Jardine, an aerospace engineer who was a pioneer of hard crack climbing in Yosemite Valley. The deeds and accomplishments of Jardine are way beyond the scope of this article. But for our purposes, he liked what he saw, applied some of the Lowe concepts to existing ideas and went on to invent the first commercial SLCD, Friends.

Ray sold the production rights for this revolutionary climbing device to Wild Country and mass production began in 1978.

Friends literally revolutionized clean climbing. Those who started climbing after about 1980 or so probably can’t fully appreciate the immediate and stunning impact Friends had on free climbing. Jardine secretly used them to establish some of the hardest crack climbs in Yosemite in the mid to late 70’s and his competitors were consigned to using nut craft in their attempts to repeat those lines.

I began acquiring first-generation Friends as soon as I became aware of them. Some of the units Brutus frowned upon were among those original purchases, in excess of 20 years old and still in regular use! Friends went on to become the de facto standard in the climbing world. Many climbing areas to this day still define rack requirements based upon Friend sizing numbers.

What properties should a climber desire in a good SLCD anyway? I can only speak for myself: light weight and strong, versatile and durable, serviceable and easy to use. Friends were ALL these things, in spades. The fact I was still using these things after two decades of weekend war is a testament to the design, in and of itself.

But they had their deficiencies too, the rigid stem first and foremost. That rigid stem presented problems in horizontal placements as well as with fall vectors; the stem could snap, bend or break. And too, in the smallest of sizes, the rigid stem cams were easy to get stuck. The things ‘walked’ into cracks and could be difficult or nearly impossible to get back out. (I am from the school that believes no cam is truly ‘impossible’ to remove from a crack, given time, tools and sufficient force).

The free market being what it is, the many different commercial cam designs that have sprung up since were intended to address these Friend deficiencies while skirting patents.

But Friends are still with us today, even though Wild Country also produces a variety of other camming units, such as Technical Friends. I guess there are enough old dogs left to justify their production. And not ironically, there are plenty of younger climbers who also find benefit from this ancient cam of yesteryear.

My Friend rack kept pace with design improvements over the years. Attrition and need had me buying newer units, replacing lost or broken old ones and doubling up on key sizes. Stronger stems... better axle design... improved trigger durability... each new generation of Friend addressed some shortcoming of the previous. So the rack Brutus squinted over contained the full gamut, from the oldest ‘nutted axle’ vintage to some of the newest forged units.

The latest versions of Friends, called Forged Friends, are beauties.

Pic of Friend 2
An early-generation Friend below and the newest Forged Friend above. Can you pick out all the similarities?

They have incorporated excellent ideas from many modern cams, both from the Wild Country stable and beyond. And yet they retain the essential characteristics that built the legend. They are virtually unique in the climbing world.

Forged Friends still use the traditional sizing numbers and are available in half sizes from #1 through #4. The stems are forged, as the name implies, lending them a strength the original milled design lacked. The old rigid stem was perhaps the cam’s greatest weakness and the forging process creates a unit much less likely to break over an edge (it does not eliminate that prospect, though).

The cam lobes are now color anodized by size, easing the selection process when stress is highest. As with other cam designs, selecting by color will soon supplant selecting by number except for all but us oldest of old dogs. We still call a 2.5 Friend a 2.5 Friend regardless of color.

Wild Country has also engineered cam stops to prevent the dreaded inverted umbrella. This was another weakness of old cam designs; when placed near the extreme outer limit of their expansion range, the cams could invert and give way. Most modern cams now include a cam stop design and Forged Friends incorporate them into the surface of each lobe. Sweet, and totally solves this old design deficiency. When I look at it I wonder why old Ray didn’t think of it from the git go. Ah well, can’t think of everything I guess!

The color-coded trigger is durable and the design well tested. I haven’t had the need to replace a Friend trigger in over a decade, literally. The originals used thin, easily frayed and broken wires but WC solved this problem long ago.

The units also come with color-coded sewn spectra slings, matching the cam and trigger colors -- very stylish. And as a bonus, this latest unit I have came with a Wild Country Oxygen biner, “free!” (A $7.95 value according to the label). It's a great idea to package a biner with a Friend and these are good ones.

So how do they work? LOL, like Friends of course! They feel good in the hand, the cam resistance is perfect and they are a joy to place. They still offer among the best, if not THE best strength/weight/size ratio on the market. And they are DURABLE. I have every expectation to be using this very same cam for a very long time to come.

A rack of Friends, like pretty much any other cam design if you think about it, needs augmentation to be sure. Small crack pro, wide crack pro (if that’s your bag), and flexible stem designs are an additional requirement on most climbers’ racks. And yet, I am confident as ever that Forged Friends remain relevant and a worthy choice for backbone or “2nd set” duties as ever. They are among the least expensive for all their stellar qualities.

And while my protection needs constantly evolve and the daily requirements are dictated by rock and route, Forged Friends will continue to play a critical role in my climbing. See, rigid stems have their place. For wall climbing, fixing ropes, straight up parallel-sided cracks and a host of other applications, they are just the ticket. They are great backcountry cams, too, and work well in the alpine world of ice, mud, rock, hammer and pull, grovel and stand.

No, I don’t really want to place them where the stem can get bent over an edge; despite the strength improvements it is not good policy to do that. And yet, the old school “Gunks Tie-Off” still keeps them in play for even shallow horizontals. In fact, more than a few Gunks climbers assert that with the tie-off, Forged Friends are actually superior to their flexible cam brethren.

Wild Country Friends were the first commercial SLCD on the market. Their introduction revolutionized clean climbing protection. The design was so well thought out and so applicable to climbing needs, that with modest improvements overall, the same design is available and in use today. I can without hesitation make a strong BUY recommendation for Forged Friends. May they last another 20 years!



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