Demystifying the Ball Nut!
Ball Nuts? For those that have heard of them but have never tried them, they are thought of as a piece of aid climbing pro or a relic from a bygone climbing era. But for those that have used them for free climbing, especially on less traveled granite, and in the alpine, they tend to become an invaluable addition to the rack for many climbs. For those who have never heard of them at all, this may just sound like a male anatomy lesson, and for that I am deeply sorry. This is a very different topic. Please google #ballnuts and enjoy the rest of your day.
Ball Nuts were invented in 1987 and brought to market by Lowe Alpine as Lowe Balls. They are now sold by CAMP and they have not changed much other than in a few minor structural details and improved trigger action. Trango’s Ball Nutz are very similar and are said to be made in the same factory. That is apparently what happens sometimes when a patent runs out. I have been happy with the CAMP version myself and the spec sheets show they are a bit lighter in most sizes. Here is a little intro to Ball Nuts by CAMP representative Glen Griscom:
The Virtues of Ball Nuts
Ok, you are still skeptical that these are going to be useful for you? Consider the following for Ball Nuts when compared to the popular Metolius Master Cams in comparable sizes 0 and 00:
- are considerably lighter
- are significantly stronger
- have greater size range
- are much narrower and therefore fit in more places
- are more compact on the rack and in the pack
- are just as easy to place and, if done well, just as easy to remove (though they are typically hard to remove if weighted in a fall)
- cost half the price
- are more durable, thus last longer
- require less maintenance
- can be placed passively as a nut, making them more versatile and potentially eliminating weight of other passive pro
- can be set with a pull and do not “walk” like camming devices can
- come in 3 sizes smaller than the smallest 00 cam, fitting parallel sided cracks up to 0.5cm smaller
The bottom line is that if you sometimes carry small cams of Metolius purple (#0) and gray (#00) sizes, or you climb in venues that feature very small, parallel-sided cracks or deeper (less flaring) pin scars, you might consider adding these babies and the skills to place them to your arsenal. I have found that on more difficult alpine rock climbs in the Sierra, the rock can be clean and compact with thin splitter cracks that take Ball Nuts well. The utility to weight ratio is favorable enough that these have become a frequent inclusion in my Sierra alpine rack, especially when weight is critical. People who have used and loved Ball Nuts know that they fit where nothing else will without a hammer, and they do hold when placed well and called upon to do so. The key is in the placement.
Using Ball Nuts
Tips and tricks:
- When placing a ball nut, retract the ball at least 70% of the way toward the ramp and aim to place it in a place narrow enough that the ball will stop on the ramp at about 30-50%. This helps you ensure that when the piece is weighted that the ball does not slide so far that it gets maxed out. The sliding is what give the piece its holding power and you have to give it some room to do its thing. If it is placed like a regular nut in a constriction then this could be less important.
- Set the nut with a yank so the ball will slide up the ramp. You want to make sure that it is seating in there well. Like any piece of small pro, visual inspection is key to make sure everything has good contact and is in the right place in the crack.
- Think of ball nut placements more like tiny cam placements rather than nut placements. Parallel sided cracks, especially with small irregularities are perfect. Tapering cracks where nuts fit very securely sometimes can create more difficult placements. This is because in such placements, ball nuts can be highly sensitive to upward/outward pulls. Realize when the placement is susceptible to this due to the placement and the anticipated rope geometry. Like with other pro, assess or test your placements for outward and upward pulls before trusting they will stay put as you climb above. Use longer slings to prevent such pulling when needed.
- Remove a ball nut carefully. Unlike with cams, push in on the stem while you pull the trigger. On sticky placements, it is the ball that will probably want to stay on the rock. The ball is made of a soft metal that deforms under higher forces. The strategy is to get the ramp to slide into the crack further while the ball stays where it is. You can assist this by using a nut tool to pull out on the ball while you push inward on the ramp, while pulling the trigger. Giving it some force is usually ok. In worst case scenarios, the ball gets deformed against the rock and you can’t get your nut tool in to assist, or there is not enough room or ramp to make the unit small enough to wiggle out. This is where sometimes these can become fixed. We have all seen fixed pieces, but most of them are from placement errors or walking. This is less likely with ball nuts, but be aware that after they take a hard fall, ball nuts arguably have more likelihood of fixing than your average cam or nut. At least they are quite strong in such cases!
So get out there and play with your Ball Nuts! You will never look at thin cracks the same way again.