Totem, a relatively new brand on the hardware scene, have brought the much-loved "Alien" cam design back onto the market, after David Waggoner - the original designer and manufacturer - tragically died in 2009. For many these were the ultimate in micro-cam protection though were not without fault; however, Mikel Apezetxea - Totem's founder - has taken on production of these cams, tweaking and improving their design in the process.
David Waggoner of CCH (Colorado Custom Hardware) first developed the Alien cam back in 1988, when he designed a four-lobe cam on which the springs were located within each lobe. This allowed him to significantly reduce the headwidth, a valuable asset in cams of smaller sizes. In addition to the narrow headwidth David prioritised holding ability, using a softer alloy than other manufacturers for the lobes and a very flexible stem wire increasing the likelihood that they would stick in marginal placements. David patented his design and as word spread throughout the US, the Alien cam gained a cult following from climbers looking to climb hard, scary aid routes and free climbs with marginal or small cam placements.
However, things were not all perfect. It was often difficult to get hold of Aliens if David wanted to go climbing, then in 2006 a number of Aliens failed well under the forces they were rated to and CCH issued a recall, damaging many climbers' trust in them. Then, in 2009 David fell ill and passed away and Aliens were no longer available, leaving those who still believed them to be the best micro-cams on the market bidding for the remaining cams.
On to present day
A few years ago Totem started to re-produce the Alien cam, albeit with a few subtle design changes. Since then Totem's founder, Mikel Apezetxea has gone even further and taken David's original design and improved upon it. I was very excited to get my hands on a set and see if they would live up to the hype.
There are four sizes of Basic Cam: Red 0.95 (Purple Dragon/Camalot), Yellow 0.75 (Grey Dragon/Camalot), Green 0.65 (Blue Dragon/Camalot) and Blue 0.5 plus three offset sizes.
Mikel has improved on Waggoner's design in a number of ways, but the main improvement is that Totem have developed a system to ensure that the head of the camming unit (the part that failed on CCH Aliens) is soldered all the way up. The way this is done is that a hole is drilled at the top of the head which once the solder has travelled all the way up it flows out of, providing a visual confirmation. The excess solder is then removed leaving a well-finished product.
Other improvements include rounded edges and diagonal teeth on the cam lobes for improved contact with the rock, flexible trigger wires for smoother action after extended use and internal springs on the smallest size (blue) - a feature that was unavailable on the CCH version.
So, on paper these should be one of the best micro-cams on the market, but how do they fare when they are used day-in, day-out on a wide range of rock-types found in the UK?
In short, the answer is very well - very well indeed. I have a bit of a mis-trust of micro-cams after having a micro-cam rip out of a placement when I got scared and sat on it in Squamish. The placement wasn't perfect but it wasn't that bad either, I lost the cam the next summer and never bothered replacing it. Climbing in the low to mid Extremes does however sometimes mean that you wish you had small cams, and after using a friend's Aliens in the UK and then some Basics whilst in America last year, I began to realise that it they might be more useful than I gave them credit for.
I got the Basics just over a year ago, and since recieving them have climbed a lot of trad, all over the UK from Peak Grit and Limestone to Culm Coast to Welsh Mountain crags. The Totem Basic cams have restored my faith in micro-cams and then some, I have found them great to use and easy to change from Camalots/Dragons to Basics.
What gives me faith in these cams is a number of things; the soft alloy that bites into the rock on marginal placements is great (other companies use quite harder alloys in their cams preventing them from biting into the rock as well). In addition to this the smooth action of the cams and super flexible stem make them less likely to flick out of placements. As always, I have taken my role as gear tester very seriously and have put myself in a lot of situations where I really relied on the Basic cams.
Whilst in the South-West I got VERY pumped on the classic Sharpnose route Fay, the crux is protected by rotting pegs and being pretty pumped once above these I could only just about stop to shove in the Blue 0.5 before I sketched my way to the top. I abbed down interested to see if whilst calm and not boxed out of my mind I could ascertain if it was a good placement; it was bomber though I'm still glad I didn't take the ride!
Just after this I gave the Basics a true test of holding power by placing the Green 0.65 in a polished slot on the Stoney Middleton classic Oliver. Two falls onto it later and I still hadn't reached the top but I was now convinced that I would always be taking these cams whenever I went climbing.
These are just two examples that stick in my mind but having used them extensively there is no doubt in my mind that Totem have really improved on the CCH Aliens, they are much smoother and the flexible trigger wires retain this smooth movement even after extended use.
There are some drawbacks that have to be accepted to get the performance these cams give. The soft alloy does mean that if you are taking repeated lobs on a rough rock-type, they will wear out quicker than cams that use a harder alloy, though for British trad climbing I think you'd be going well to wear them out with any degree of speed, mine still have years of life left in them, even my older one which I got before going to America last year. The other minor niggle I found is that due to the flexible stem, it can sometimes be tricky to remove them from fiddly placements. For me, these are acceptable drawbacks for the peace of mind I get when I place these cams, to know that if anything is going to hold a fall, they will.
Not once whilst writing this review have I wished, whilst pumped and scared, that I had any other cams racked to my harness and were I to buy any micro-cam on the market today - this would be it. In fact, if I felt like I needed a double set of cams, or was strong enough to carry another set, I'd buy another set straight away. They are quick to place, confidence inspiring and well made. All that could be done to improve the set would be to make a smaller size!
Totem Basic Cam:
The Basic Cam uses the traditional internal spring and sheath trigger systems to get a narrow head and a very flexible body
- Internal cam springs for narrow head width
- Sheath trigger for maximum flexibility. Stainless 5/32" 7x19 wire rope for all Basic Cam sizes
- 16 degrees cam angle, soft lobes with teeth for well trusted holding power
- Lobes are CNC machined from 6061-T6 aluminium alloy
- Double sheath on trigger. The outer sheath layer has free rotation motion for improved abrasion resistance
- NEW trigger wires system. Flexible and strong while maintaining a correct independent lobe motion
- NEW rounded lobe edges. More consistent rock contact on non parallel cracks and less flash material on lobe edges
MORE INFORMATION: Beta Climbing Designs Website