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Metolius Ultralight Offset Master Cams: A good choice for desert aid climbing
Posted on: April 19, 2021
MSRP: $59.95 each
Offset cams have been a game-changer for rock climbing.
I'm old enough to remember the challenge of protecting flared, water-grooved cracks and the strange trapezoidal dimensions of Yosemite pin scars with regular cams and nuts. The shapes of those protection pieces involved straight lines, best designed for placements with a more uniform shape: rectangular prisms and square isosceles pyramids with a gentle taper. In reality, climbers, especially aid climbers, encounter situations when the only available placement is in a strange inset that has almost no discernably congruent planes—a trapezium that would challenge even the most adept mathematicians. In such cases, a climber might have set a cam that had only two out of four lobes engaged, hoping that this placement would be enough to at least hold body weight or slow a fall.
Now that several companies are making offset cams—which have two smaller lobes on one side to accommodate a parallel-sided crack that tapers toward the front or back—we now have a greater chance of finding solid protection where there previously was none. These cams have proven so reliable that I know of several climbers who now carry these in lieu of nuts for protecting tapered or flaring placements. While I think that entirely dismissing passive pro is a mistake—nuts have a simplicity that can offer better safety than cams in some cases, because there are no moving parts (fewer variables), and many nuts can fit onto a single carabiner—I would feel remiss not to carry at least one set of offset cams on any mission in the Black Canyon, Yosemite or on desert towers.
The author can be seen as a tiny dot in middle of the prow, halfway up the Tower of Babel in Arches National Park during his solo ascent of Zenyatta Entrada (5.8 C3-, 450') in February (Ancestral Puebloan, Hopi, Navajo, Ouray, Paiute, Uintah, Ute, Zuni land). [Photo] Mikenna Clokey
I recently discovered the merits of the Metolius Ultralight Offset Master Cams on a trip to Arches National Park in Utah (Ancestral Puebloan, Hopi, Navajo, Ouray, Paiute, Uintah, Ute, Zuni land). Before these cams found their way onto my rack, I'd also been using Black Diamond offsets as well as the Alien offsets of yore (Fixe Hardware took over production of the Aliens, and I have not yet tried the new designs). They all have their shining qualities, but today let me tell you what I have come to really appreciate about the Metolius Offset Master Cams: in a sentence, they are good for aid climbing in soft rock, i.e. desert towers.
Let's start with a look at the Metolius cam lobes themselves: the middle-to-large size units have noticeably wider lobes than the 2014 X4 Black Diamond offsets on my rack, though the BD units have a narrower head width in those sizes (note: BD has replaced the X4 with the Camalot Z4 Offset design). Conversely, in the smaller sizes, the 2014 BD lobes are wider and the head width appears to be the same.
Keep in mind that each design lends itself to being more suited for different situations. That's why I think it's important to "diversify your portfolio," as investment bankers say, and to carry a variety of brands and styles. This is especially important when aid climbing, because small variances can make all the difference between a solid placement and a sketchy one.
The Metolius Ultralight Offset Master Cams turned out to be the MVP (most valuable piece) during a solo ascent of the Tower of Babel (5.6 C3-, 450') in Arches National Park at the end of February. The route has a reputation for its beat-out pin scars and soft rock. Indeed, the very first placement off the ground was the orange/red (#3/4) Metolius offset in a pin scar that was boxed out in the frontal dimension but tapered toward the back. Since this placement was the first and only thing between me and the ground 20 feet below, I was relieved at how perfectly that #3/4 cam fit into the scar, with those fat lobes biting into the grainy white sandstone—and I had total confidence stepping onto it. That same cam ended up becoming a frequently used piece throughout the rest of the route, and the red/black (#4/5) was the piece that gave me passage through one of the final cruxes high on the tower. MVP!
The #3/4 (orange/red) Metolius Ultralight Offset Master Cam was the author's very first placement on the first pitch of Zenyatta Entrada. [Photo] Derek Franz
There's another reason that I've come to like these cams for aid climbing: they don't have the semi-rigid cable thumb loop. I'm very familiar with the arguments against pieces that lack a thumb loop; thus, my first reaction to the Metolius design was disappointment. When free climbing, I've found it very helpful to have a thumb loop like that of the Black Diamond and Fixe Alien cams, as it's easier to hold and manipulate with one hand. Also, when I'm aid climbing, the lack of a thumb loop sacrifices valuable inches: when you only have a sling to clip, you're hanging that much farther down from the placement.
Yet again with aid climbing, however, is that the climber is weighting every piece of gear, and not every placement will be in perfect alignment with the direction of pull; which is to say that the protection is being forced to withstand some odd angles, and the stiff cable thumb loops of the cams are bent and torqued, sometimes to the point of permanent deformity. This problem is not an issue for the Dyneema sling on the Metolius cams. In some placements, I used the metal thumb-stop where the sling connects to the cam as part of the placement: the thumb-stop would rest on the edge of the crack, holding the cam in position while the sling was able to shift around below that point. This method allowed me more control over the directional forces as I stepped higher in my aiders: the stem of the cam stayed put, pulling mostly from one direction even though my feet wobbled back and forth in the aiders immediately below.
As far as losing those "valuable inches," the difference is not as drastic as you might assume at first glace, because the BD units are a little longer overall than the Metolius design, with a more pronounced difference between the larger sizes. And while the BD thumb loop still saves as much as 2.5 to 3 inches, I rarely encounter situations where those few inches prevent me from reaching the next placement, though I do make a goal of using the top steps of my aiders as much as possible.
I have not yet tested the Metolius offsets in horizontal cracks, where the cable stem of the cam is likely to be bent over the bottom edge of the fissure. I suspect the Black Diamond and Fixe cams would perform better, because the Metolius design has a different setup for the trigger slide. The BD and Fixe cams have a trigger slide in the form of a hollow, flexible tube around the main stem, whereas the Metolius trigger slide is made with two smaller cables that parallel the stem on a vertical axis. This means that when the cam is in a horizontal placement, those cables on the trigger slide could shift to the side as the stem is bent downward—because this trigger sleeve is connected to the tiny Kevlar cords that retract the cam lobes, this shifting motion in the sleeve could translate into shifting of the lobes, which might affect the stability of the placement—yikes!
This very non-scientific comparison shows how the trigger sleeve of the Metolius Ultralight Offset cam might perform differently than the Black Diamond X4 when the stem and trigger sleeve are bent downward, simulating what might occur in a horizontal placement. [Photo] Derek Franz
The Metolius Offsets come in six sizes: gray/purple (#00/0, 5kN), purple/blue (#0/1, 5kN), blue/yellow (#1/2, 8kN), yellow/orange (#2/3, 10kN), orange/red (#3/4, 10kN) and red/black (#4/5, 10kN). That's a size range of .34 inches (8.6mm) to 1.56 inches (39.5mm), and a weight range of 1.6 ounces (45g) to 2.4 ounces (69g). It's worth pointing out that Outdoor Gear Lab gave the Metolius Ultralight Master Cam the highest score in weight savings, though the brand received middling scores in other categories.
Overall, I give the Metolius Offsets a solid 3 stars out of five because the other brands with the thumb loops are easier to handle, have narrower head widths for shallow placements and their trigger sleeves are less likely to affect the placement when that part of the stem is bent over an edge. That said, the lobes of the Metolius Offset Master Cams do have great holding power, the units are among the lightest on the market and the price point is about $10 to $20 less than the aforementioned brands. With that in mind, I can say the Metolius Ultralight Offset Master Cams are a pretty good investment for a diversified rack.
Derek Franz on top of the Tower of Babel, February 28, 2021. [Photo] Derek Franz
Alpinist Digital Editor Derek Franz bought his first cam from an EMS store in Boulder, Colorado, when he was 12 years old. It was a black #5 Metolius with a dual-cable stem.
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