At Cold Mountain Kit we love it when customers write reviews on kit they’ve bought from us as they are always more impartial than our in house reviews ever can be. A huge thanks to Duncan Critchley for this review on the Totem Cam, it goes a lot further than most reviews we’ve read and brings up some interesting points. If you’d like to send us a review of something you’ve bought from us, good or bad we’ll always post it as long as it’s fair and well written.
|Best Uses||UK trad climbing, big wall climbing and aid climbing.|
|Pros||Great in outward and downward flaring cracks. Small pockets and peg scars. Tenuous and doubtful placements. Very durable.|
|Cons||A real limitation is the range of sizes currently available. A little more pricey than most cams.|
I bought a set of Totem cams from Cold Mountain Kit as I was going to Yosemite and reviews said they were good for aiding. I found they were much more than this. I’ve used them for 5 months, on Swanage and Pembroke limestone, north Pembroke sandstone, quarried and natural gritstone, and about 120 pitches of Yosemite granite. At first I wasn’t that impressed, they were good but didn’t seem much better than anything else. What was all the fuss about? After having used them more, my conclusion is Totems are currently the best cams available in the sizes they come in: as good as anything else in good placements, better than anything else in awkward, flared, or marginal placements.
I have a jaundiced view of much climbing equipment innovation but Totems seem to be the most significant development in cam design since the double axle. Uniquely, they apply the load directly to individual cam lobes directly via wires rather than through a stem and axle. This has several theoretical advantages including a stronger camming action for a similar range as double axle units. This is interesting for the closet engineer but there are several examples of new cam designs with, at best, different strengths and weaknesses but no real improvement over conventional designs in how they function on rock. How do Totems work in practice?
First impression are of the lack of stem, replaced by two clusters of 4 wires leading to a narrow but otherwise fairly standard looking four lobe head, and twin clip-in points joined by a tape loop that looks like a handle. Closer inspection reveals the quality of workmanship is very high. After 5 months regular use the lobes and wires show minimal and no sign of wear respectively. They weigh slightly less than the equivalent Camalot, a little more than a Dragon.
In use, Totems function very similarly and are as easy to place and clean as the best conventional cams. The trigger action is smooth, firmer than Camalots, akin to DMM Dragons. The narrow head means they work well in pockets and pin scars. Their great flexibility and stiffer springs make them less prone to walking than most. They are hard to over-cam. I saw dozens of fixed cams in Yosemite, none were Totems. The tape clip-in loop was easy to use with gloves, useful if you’re a winter climbing pervert, and makes a good hand-hold for French-freeing.
Camming devices are a compromise between expansion range and holding power. The wider the range, the lesser the holding power. Totems have a range close to double axle designs but hold in wider angle flares. In practice, marginally greater holding power does not translate into noticeably better real-world performance. Metolius cams should hold better than Friends or Dragons which should be better than Camalots. In reality, differences between them are imperceptible. Totems were different and felt markedly more secure in downwards flares. The biggest difference in performance was in outward flaring cracks. Here Totems were clearly superior, a consequence of the individually loaded cams, holding in some highly unlikely spots. Totems made offset cams unnecessary. I also used Technical and Helium Friends, Camalots, Dragons and CCH Aliens in Yosemite, so can compare them with most of the competition. Totems were always the first choice if the placement was doubtful or insecure.
Totem Cams have been available for 4 years but I’ve not seen them on anyone else’s harness in the UK. Perhaps this is down to their limited availability, though this is recently much improved. Perhaps it’s because they typically cost £10 more than the equivalent competition, but this is a trivial difference over the life of the unit. Perhaps it’s due to most English-language reviews emphasising their utility for aid-climbing, a specialist application for most Brits. Trad climbing in this country often requires making the most of awkward non-ideal gear placements: shallow, irregular or flared cracks, pockets or pods. The reasons why Totems are so good for aid climbing are precisely why they are particularly well-suited to UK trad.
A real limitation is the range of sizes currently available, covering roughly 14mm (green Alien) to 50mm (red Camalot/Dragon). Apparently a smaller size is close to being released. Larger sizes, equivalents to Gold and Blue Camalot/Dragons, would be very welcome. How about it, Totem?.
I take my responsibilities as a gear reviewer seriously and, as I was writing this review, convinced a climbing partner to take a 20m fall onto a red totem at Swanage. Cams work less well in limestone generally, particularly so in the damp, sandy, and friable Boulder Ruckle variety. I usually feel much happier with passive gear there. I need not have worried, the Totem held, and my co-reviewer escaped with a few scrapes.
If you are looking for new cams in medium and small sizes, Totems are currently the best available.
All images courtesy of Duncan Critchley.
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