The Story Of The First Wild Country Friend

One of the original prototype ' Ray Jardine' Friends © Alex Messenger
One of the original prototype ' Ray Jardine' Friends
© Alex Messenger

Artefacts: Prototype Friend

We take modern camming devices for granted – blindly stuffing them into cracks and trusting them, literally, with our lives. But these modern moving miracles nearly didn't come to be. It took someone with aerospace engineering skills, personal motivation and a passion for climbing to design them; and a chance meeting with a visionary entrepreneur to launch them.

The Friend was invented by Ray Jardine, an aerospace engineer from Colorado contracted to NASA. By 1970, he'd decided to give up the space race to concentrate on Yosemite climbing. As climbing standards rocketed so did his need to protect soaring crack lines.

Ray began to work on his first prototype Friend in 1971, during the following five years both his climbing career and Friend development accelerated. He started with a sliding wedge design but, after continually straining his mind, came up with the concept of a double set of opposing and independently spring-loaded cams. Each of these cams would be able to adjust to widely varying surface irregularities, held together with a high-tensile steel bolt.

The very first Friend (that Ray always carried around in secret) had a 15-degree constant camming angle. This constant-angle spiral is ubiquitous in nature, from seashells to spiral nebulas; it's an expression of uniform growth.

Ray's original device was just four cams on an axle without a trigger. The trigger was the patentable bit.

Ray Jardine on Seperate Reality 5.12a (E5 6b), Yosemite. The front cover of Mountain magazine 56 © Mountain Magazine
Ray Jardine on Seperate Reality 5.12a (E5 6b), Yosemite. The front cover of Mountain magazine 56
© Mountain Magazine

In 1974, Ray took his first set of rough-hewn prototypes to Yosemite and climbed dozens of difficult routes with them, including setting a new speed record on the Nose. One day Ray went climbing with a guy called Chris Walker. Chris was racking up and there were lots of other climbers milling about. In order not to draw attention, Chris said to Ray: "Have you got the, er...Friends?" The name stuck.

Wild Country:

Entrepreneur Mark Vallance was first introduced to Friends in 1975, on his second trip to Yosemite. After making him swear (on the Bible) to keep them a secret, Ray put his hand into a blue nylon bag and pulled out a No. 3 Friend. Despite having never seen one before, Mark immediately understood their potential: he triggered the unit and placed it in a crack.

Sir Chris Bonington, Mark Vallance and Derek Walker © Mick Ryan - UKClimbing.com
Sir Chris Bonington, Mark Vallance and Derek Walker
© Mick Ryan - UKClimbing.com

During the summer of 1977, Mark received a letter from Ray Jardine offering him the worldwide production rights to Friends. A bank loan for £5,000 founded Wild Country to manufacture them; a second mortgage paid for Ray's patents.

The first several hundred Friends were assembled on Mark's kitchen table: they were so expensive to manufacture that he had to cut out the middleman. Back then a Friend (with 27 components, 10 assembly stages and 25 assembly operations) sold for £7; the cost of a wired nut (with four components and three assembly stages) was £1.20. Mark needed to sell 3,000 in the first year to stay in business. In the first month, February, he sold 18. The second month he sold about 50. He hit 3,000 in early September. Without any advertising, he'd sold to 15 countries in the first six months. He was in business; the Wild Country Friend had arrived.

Original article by Alex Messenger in Summit 57. In each issue of Summit, a different piece of climbing history is profiled. Join the BMC here as well as getting a free copy of Summit there are whole host of benefits.

Prototype friend and Mark Vallance's account taken from the Mountain Heritage Trust (MHT) archive. MHT is the archive arm of the BMC – see www.mountain-heritage.org

Ray Jardine's information taken from the Wild Country Cam book – Download the cam book at: www.wildcountry.co.uk

Thanks to: Terry Gifford, Maxine Willett & Richie Patterson.

More photographs of Ray Jardine and his original Friends below.


photo
Ray Jardine using his Friends on the first ascent of the Phoenix 5.13a. Yosemite, 1977.
© Wild Country Collection
photo
Ray Jardine's original prototype Friend with the J-trigger slot.
© Wild Country Collection

Richie Patterson keeping mum about the new Wild Country Helium Friends © Mick Ryan - UKClimbing.com

WIN SOME OF THE NEW WILD COUNTRY HELIUM FRIENDS

The Friend Redesigned. Check out our competition (open to all registered users at UKClimbing.com and UKHillwalking.com) COMPETITION: Helium Friends...£1,000 worth of Prizes: 20 chances to win.

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photo
Ray Jardine's original prototype Friend with the flexi-stem.
© Wild Country Collection
photo
Ray Jardine big walling in 1977, Yosemite.
© Wild Country Collection

Hungry For More Cam History?

If you want to read more about the story of the cam, including details about Greg Lowe's Crack Jumar, Cam Nut and Spilt Cam visit Nuts' Story: Clockwork Friends by Stéphane Pennequin at the Needle Sports website.


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11 Sep, 2011
I was in Yosemite in 1975 & 1977, knew Mark and had climbed with him on grit, and in '77 we climbed together on the Cookie (Waverley Wafer, I think - a great lead by Mark, I found it pretty difficult) but despite our friendship I was told nothing about Friends and what was about to happen even though I knew something was going on! By 1978 we had Friends on our rack when climbing Salathe Wall without pegs, and sold them at the end of our stay for the cost new in UK, such was the interest in them. Mark's daring venture into business revolutionized climbing, the downside being that there are now far more routes I will never be able to get up!
11 Sep, 2011
The actual development of Friends is far more complex and nuanced than this Wild Country puff piece suggests. Jardine was neither the only nor the first person to consider camming devices, and the controversies surrounding who did what when have not been resolved.
11 Sep, 2011
See the link at the bottom of the article.
11 Sep, 2011
Oops, sorry, I missed that.
12 Sep, 2011
Love that picture of Patta. Cool as a cucumber.
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