When we emailed Black Diamond to ask about their unique use of dyneema in Camalot Ultralights they invited us TO THEIR LAB! We spoke with Jeremy Steck and Alex Baker who helped develop the Camalot Ultralight and got to demo their break test machine.
We also conducted slow pull and drop tower tests of our own to see just how strong C4's and Ultralights cams are and compare the differences.
In 2005 Black Diamond introduced the Camalot C4. It became the best-selling cam of all time. Eleven years later Black Diamond engineers shaved 25% and the Camalot Ultralight was born.
C4's vs Ultralights: What's the difference
To make the Ultralight Black Diamond replaced the metal cable of C4's with a loop of 12-braid dyneema. They shaved some material off of the four cam lobes. They used lighter gauge trigger wires. Finally, they employed lightweight plastics.
Durability: This is probably the biggest difference between Ultralights and C4. The weight savings of Ultralights comes at the cost of lifespan and durability. Black Diamond will resling both styles of cams. However, the dyneema stem of the Ultralights cannot be replaced. Black Diamond recommends Ultralights be retired within 10 years of their production date. On C4's the only soft good is the replaceable sling, so its possible to use C4's for decades if the metal and plastic parts remain in good working order.
Weight: Ultralights are 25% lighter than the *original* C4's, but in late-2019 Black diamond updated the C4's and made them lighter, narrowing the gap.
Size Range and Price: Ultralights are only available in sizes #0.4 - #4 and cost between $99.95 - $149.95. C4's are available in many more sizes from #0.3 to #8 and cost between $79.95 - $99.95 in overlapping sizes.
All of the cams we tested broke at higher forces than would ever be generated in normal climbing situations. Our tests did not show a significant strength advantage for the C4 or the Utralight, both were super good enough. One interesting thing we discovered is that placing the cams fully open resulted in significantly higher overall strength. Our Stainless Steel Camalots (a generation before the C4) broke at very high forces despite being at least 20 years old. We even tested some 30 years old camalots (between one and two generations older than the SS Camalots) from the 90's and they all broke above 10 kN
Talking to the Engineers at Black Diamond
Ryan Jenx got a chance to visit the Black Diamonds lab and speak with Jeremy Steck and Alex Baker. The Ultralight started out as a somewhat personal project for the engineers but over the course of three years grew into the product it is today. It is unbelievable how much work Black Diamond put into developing the Ultralight. They used dyneema in a way that had never been done in climbing cams, redesigned their manufacturing process, and used all sorts of high tech materials to bring the Ultralight to life.
It was fascinating to get a demonstration about how they test their equipment and how their break tester is set up. They admitted that they cannot be sure exactly how long Ulralights will last and elaborated on how many factors there are to consider when making a determination of when to retire them. It was a privilege to speak with them and we hope to return in the future to ask more questions and learn more about what they are up too.