Learning how to properly place protection is an essential skill as you progress as a traditional climber. There are many types of trade pro including cams, nuts, hexes, tricams, ball nuts, and more. The common denominator is that they are removable, as opposed to fixed gears that are permanently attached to rock (such as bolts).
In order to place commercial equipment safely and effectively, you must develop a good eye for where to place the equipment on the road, and you must be skilled at discerning safe placement from an unsafe location.
In this article, we’ll focus on the placement of two of the most common types of gears: nuts (also called stops or cones) and cams.
Gear Placement Principles
There is a handful of guiding principles to follow when learning to place traditional hardware:
- The placement of gear is only as solid as the rock around it. Examine the rock and make sure it is solid. Do not place equipment in contact with blocks or flakes that could come loose or break.
- Be efficient in choosing the right size equipment for placement. Use your fingers and hands to measure the crack, then choose the part that matches that measurement.
- Cams generally work best in parallel cracks, while nuts generally work best in tight cracks.
- Avoid shallow locations where the part can easily come out of the crack.
- Position the equipment so that it is secure, but also consider how difficult it will be to remove.
- Placing a piece too deep in a crack or too tight will be difficult for a second climber to remove.
How to Place Nuts
Nuts are metal shims of various sizes and shapes, threaded with cables, and designed to accommodate rock shrinkage. While not as glamorous as the cameras, these industrious passive pieces shouldn’t be overlooked. They are relatively inexpensive and lightweight, and when properly placed, they are very reliable. Long before cams existed, climbers climbed summits with nothing but nuts on their support.
Nuts are often sold in a set that consists of about a dozen pieces, ranging from small to large. It is common to divide the setup into two groups organized by size and attach them to two separate carabiners. Hang the carabiners on the loops of your harness or on a sling for easy access.
Finding the Right Nut Placement
First of all, when looking for a nut placement, you need to examine the rock and make sure it is solid. Do not put a nut in contact with loose blocks or flakes that could come loose or break. As with any gear placement, the placement of a nut is only as solid as the rock around it.
The nuts work by getting stuck in a constriction in the rock, so look for a crack that is wider on top and narrowing as it goes down. Nuts work best in vertical cracks with narrowings, but they can sometimes work in horizontal cracks if the crack narrows when opening. Nuts don’t work well in cracks that widen outward or downward because there isn’t enough constriction to hold the part in place.
Selecting the Right Size Nut
When choosing the size of the nut to place in a crack, keep in mind that generally more contact between the nut and the rock equals a stronger placement. This means that a larger nut is usually stronger than a smaller one.
Examine the crack and constriction and determine the larger size nut that will go into the crack and effectively get stuck in the constriction. For beginners, this process is mostly trial and error. If the nut is too big, it will either not fit into the crack or it may not fit the choke perfectly. If the nut is too small, it may tend to go through the crack.
As you gain more experience, you will get better at selecting the right size nut on your first try. But even with years of climbing under your belt, you won’t succeed every time.
Nuts can be placed in two main positions: with the wide sides in contact with a rock or with the leaner ends in contact with the rock. The wide sides provide more contact with the rock and are therefore generally safer. Most important, however, is how the nut fits into the crack; if the placement with the narrow sides in contact with the rock looks more solid, go for it.
Most of the nuts are curved on one side, giving you additional placement options. When looking at the crack, try to match the curve with the shape of the rock to maximize nut-rock contact.
To place a nut, first, unclip your set of nuts from your harness or sling. Without removing a nut from the carabiner, grab the nut you think is the right size and hold it by the wire as you insert it into the crack. The rest of the nuts will slide down the carabiner as you insert the coin.
Pull the nut down into the constriction, paying attention to the surface contact between the nut and the rock. Place the nut with the cable facing in the direction of pull if you were to fall, which is usually down and slightly outward.
Setting the Nut
If you are happy with the placement, unclip the carabiner that still holds the rest of your nuts and put it back into your harness or sling. Attach a quickdraw or sling to the wire loop of the nut you just placed and gently pull on it to test the security of the placement. Do not pull so hard that if the nut pops you will lose your balance. Assuming the nut holds and the placement looks good, pull harder on the sling to really place the part in the choke.
The quickdraw or sling not only gives you something to pull on to adjust the nut, but it also helps reduce the amount of pull on the work once you’ve cut the rope. The rope tug as you climb may remove a nut from its location, so always use a quickdraw or sling to prevent this.
Cleaning the Nut
Cleaning (removing) a nut can sometimes be difficult. The key is to think about how the nut has been placed, and then reverse it. For example, if the nut was inserted into a constriction from the top, you will need to push the part up to remove it. You may be able to just use your hands and the wire rope to gently wiggle the nut without a nut. Don’t be too strong with the wire rope; you don’t want to damage the wire.
If you cannot release the nut with your hands, remove your nut tool from your harness and go to work. You can try tapping the nut with the tool or hooking it with the nose of the tool to pry the workpiece. Nuts are relatively inexpensive, so if you’ve done your best and can’t get them back, you can leave them behind.
How to Place Cams
Cams, short for spring-loaded cam devices (LCDs), are a type of active protection (meaning they have moving parts). They are very popular because they are generally very easy to place. There are many different cam designs, but the principles of their operation and placement are very similar.
Simply put, cams work by converting the downward and outward pull of a fall into force against the walls of a crack. Combined with friction, this force can hold the cam in the crack and catch you when you fall.
Cams are generally easier and faster to place than nuts: you squeeze the trigger to retract the cam lobes, insert the cam into the crack, and release the trigger to allow the lobes to expand and make contact with the rock. However, for safe cam placement, you must be proficient in finding the right location to place the cam, choosing the right cam size, and placing the cam.
Finding the Right Cam Placement
When looking for a place to place a cam, look for cracks with parallel sides or small pockets. You generally want to avoid any widening cracks above or behind the cam as the cam will tend to move into the wider space. This is called “walking”.
Also, avoid cracks that widen too far outward or downward. Flared cracks often do not provide sufficient surface contact with the cam lobes to create a secure placement.
As with any placement, keep in mind that a cam is only as strong as the rock around it. When a cam falls, it creates a tremendous outward force that can lift sections of rock. Examine the rock to make sure it is solid and beware of flakes and freestanding blocks. Tap the rock with your fist and listen to the sound it makes. If it looks hollow, see if you can find another place to put the cam.
Selecting the Right Size Cam
Cams come in a variety of sizes, allowing you to place them in cracks less than half an inch wide to cracks over five inches wide. Choosing the correct size cam for a crack is very important to create the safest placement.
As a rule of thumb, go for the larger cam that will fit into the crack. However, you need to evaluate the route and think about which cameras to use when. You don’t want to use up all of your big cameras early on to find you desperately need one further down the road.
Beyond just looking at a crack and estimating the size of the camera that will work best, you can use your hands and fingers to measure the crack. With experience, you will learn that a crack that fits your fingertips takes on a specific cam size, and a crack that fits your cupped hand takes on another size. Eventually, you won’t even have to see a crack to know what size camera it takes, you can just feel the crack. However, we are not suggesting placing the cameras blind; Always visually inspect your locations when possible.
If you are new to camera placement, it will take some time before you can pick the right camera size on your first try, and even after years of experience you won’t always be successful. But the higher you climb, the better you’ll get there.
To place a cam, unclip the appropriately sized cam from your harness or harness and squeeze the trigger to retract the cam lobes. Insert the cam into the crack and release the trigger to allow the lobes to expand and make contact with the rock.
When placing the cam, consider the direction of pull if you fall and position the cam so that the rod points in that direction. Usually, it will be down, but the steering may vary depending on the route or the specific use of the cam.
To confirm that you have selected the correct size cam, examine the degree of lobe retraction. Most cam manufacturers provide recommendations on the degree of cam retraction and we encourage you to follow those guidelines. Black Diamond suggests a 50-90% shrinkage for its popular Camalot cameras. Metolius places colored dots on the cam lobes which indicate the ideal retraction range for some of their cams.
With a cam in hand, you can get an idea of what the retraction range looks like. When you hold the cam without depressing the trigger, the cam is retracted to 0%. Pull the trigger as hard as possible and the cam will retract to 100%. Without placing the cam in a crack, play with the trigger and find the point at which the cam lobes are retracted 50%. This is generally a good starting point for solid cam placement. Anything less than that won’t be very stable.
Another way to think about retraction is to look at the angle formed by the straight intersecting ridges on the bottom of the cam lobes. If the angle is around 60 degrees or less, you are in the correct range.
Under-camming and Over-camming
The amount of retraction is important because when a cam is weighted during a fall, it expands. If the cam is barely retracted (under the cam) to begin with, it will have very little expansion when weighted and not be as secure as a more retracted cam. In addition, a cam that is not sufficiently retracted tends to get loose in a crack and may be prone to wander around the crack.
On the other end of the spectrum, a cam retracted more than 90% is likely to get stuck in the crack permanently. The over-retraction (over-cam) of a cam involves placing a cam fully or almost fully retracted.
A cam over cam is generally very secure, but it is also almost impossible to remove as there is very little retraction left in the cam. Cameras don’t come cheap, so try not to get them stuck.
Once you’ve placed the camera in a crack, observe your placement and remember these key things:
- Is the cam rod aligned with the intended pull direction in the event of a fall?
- Are all cam lobes retracted evenly?
- Is the cam approximately 50-90% retracted?
- Is the camera positioned so that it will not open if it works?
Practicing Placing Nuts and Cams
As you learn how to place the nuts and cams, get in gently. Here are some tips for practicing good equipment placements:
- Follow a more experienced climber on an ascent and examine their positions as you clean the parts.
- Find a crack accessible from the ground and experiment with the material placements. Tie a scarf in one piece and apply your body weight to get a feel for how the piece is placed. Be aware, however, that falls generate much more force than just standing on a piece.
- Do a leash simulation: Recruit two friends and have one of them secure you on the top rope while the other secures you with a separate rope as if you were leading the climb. You can place gear, cut rope, and even do scraps knowing you have the top rope as a backup.
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