Tony Christianson, a freelance inventor and machinist, worked independently in his home workshop trying out various ways to improve camming protection. Having a PhD in mechanical engineering helped. After months of work Tony conceived the double axle design and in 1985 filed a patent for his invention. The pending patent was quickly licensed by Yvon Chouinard for his company Chouinard Equipment, Ltd. which 4 years later became Black Diamond. The license granted Chouinard exclusive worldwide rights to manufacture and sell the Christianson invention which was subsequenty first marketed as Camalot by Chouinard in 1987. When Chouinard Equipment became Black Diamond in 1989 the Christianson license transferred to Black Diamond. Black Diamond’s engineers continued working on how best to implement and manufacture Christianson’s invention which went on to revolutionize the climbing scene, allowing for a wider range of placements for each cam.
Upon the shoulders of that breakthrough, a close-knit team of Black Diamond engineers continued to introduce improvements and iterations to the Camalot. First came the C4, and a few years later, the C3. The family of cams was once again supplemented by the introduction of the X4 and X4 Offsets. But still, nearly 30 years after Christianson’s breakthrough, no significant changes to the Camalot’s overall weight had been introduced.****In February of 2014, Black Diamond athletes Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold became the first to complete the long-sought Fitz Traverse, ticking the peaks along the ridgeline of Cerro Fitz Roy and its surrounding mountains. They carried a light kit, sharing just one sleeping bag and one ice tool between them. But for the technically demanding terrain of the traverse, with difficulties reaching 7a (5.11d) C1, they could hardly skimp on pro. They carried a double rack of cams to #2 and a single #3.
The climbing community, and to some extent the outdoor community at large, enthusiastically celebrated Caldwell and Honnold’s success. History had been made. But behind the curtains, the breakthrough proved to be fuel for a fire that had been slowly igniting inside Black Diamond HQ. The team was once again furiously tinkering.What if Caldwell and Honnold could have lightened up their rack?they wondered.
FOR MONTHS, SKETCHES FLUTTERED back and forth between designers. Once again, the team at Black Diamond was seeking to revolutionize the Camalot. “We basically dove into this thing looking for ways to pull weight out without losing any of the functionality,” says Design Engineer Pete Gompert.
The major design challenge was presented by the steel cable at the center of each cam. With steel’s high tensile strength comes added weight, and each Camalot was made notably heavier by this stem. In order to make a significant weight reduction to each cam, the team of engineers would need to figure out a way to replace this component with something much, much lighter.
Ideas were tossed back and forth, and a few even made it one stuttering step past the drawing board, but nothing stuck. Then, Gompert struck gold. While inspecting a piece of Dyneema used in Black Diamond’s lightweight backpacks, he realized that if he could engineer a way to splice the Dyneema together in a continuous loop, it would be strong enough to supplant the steel of the Camalot.
FOR HELP, GOMPERT TURNED to the one group that might know ropes as well as the climbing industry: sailors. Pouring through nautical manuals and documents, he began to piece together a theory for a continuous slice in a loop of Dyneema.
Along with his team, Gompert tested an idea based roughly around the concept behind the design of a Chinese finger trap. Using this technique, and after countless rounds of testing, the engineers were finally able to achieved their goal: a continuous loop of Dyneema. Finally, the heavy steel at the center of the Camalot could be replaced.
With this breakthrough, the team charged ahead full steam, sniffing out every possibility for further weight savings. Each cam’s lobes were meticulously machined, with larger windows that allowed for greater weight savings while maintaining the classic cam angle that first made the C4 famous. Next came the Camalot’s trigger wires and sling. The designers left no stone unturned.
Finally, 24 months after Gompert and crew first struck out to build a lighter cam, they had done it. When compared with a rack of traditional C4s, the rack of all-new Camalot Ultralights was 25% lighter.
Climbing has seen many trends over the years. From ultra-hard aid climbing to the sport climbing craze to the heyday of big wall free climbing, climber’s now find themselves in an era ripe for the next big thing. Musing on this, Caldwell sat fingering the trigger of an Ultralight. He wondered aloud about the differences the cams would have made had he and Honnold had a double rack of Ultralights during their Fitz Traverse.
“When people started going really light, it enabled them to link these huge mountains chains and climb big faces in a day,” he explained of the time leading up to the Ultralight’s introduction. And now, whether the objective is a new link-up in the Torres or a big push in the mountains of Alaska or a big wall on Baffin, things have gotten much, much lighter. It’s a breakthrough that opens the door for a new era of climbing.
Words: Shey Kiester
Photography: Jon Glassberg & Josh Uhl
Videography: Louder Than 11 Productions
Production: Advent Integrated