Spring-loaded camming devices (SLCDs) or cams are expensive climbing gizmos that are placed in cracks for protection and anchors by lead climbers. It takes time and lots of practice to learn how to properly place safe cams as you are leading a pitch, so many novice climbers tend to place their cams as securely as they can. This practice leads to overcammed and undercammed devices as well as ones that are placed far back inside a crack. It also makes it difficult for the seconding climber to extract the cams.
Cams Get Stuck in Cracks
No climber likes to leave equipment behind on the rock but it's a fact that cams and nuts get stuck and that sometimes you have to leave slings and carabiners if you have to rappel off. Often times the second climber coming up and cleaning the pitch, that is removing all the gear that the leader placed and carrying it up, is not as experienced as the leader in the ways and methods of placing and retrieving climbing equipment.
Leaving a Cam Behind Causes Hard Feelings
What happens then is that troublesome cams get left behind because the second climber just can't get them out, despite all their heroic efforts. Just leaving one cam, which costs somewhere between $40 and $60, behind can lead to bad feelings as well as guilt. "Jeez, Jim. Why did you leave that cam? That thing cost me fifty bucks. You owe me."
Two Ways Cams Get Stuck
There are two common ways that cams get stuck in cracks-they get pushed too deep in the crack so that you can't get your fingers on the trigger and they are overcammed in a crack because the leader picked a size that was too big for the placement.
How to Remove a Cam
To remove an SLCD, the first thing is to pull on the trigger bar which disengages the cams and allows you to pull it out of the crack. If the cam doesn't easily come out, then study the placement. How did the leader place it? Was it shoved directly in or dropped down from above? Next try to remove the cam by using the same path that the leader did when she placed it.
Don't Push the Cam in Farther
If the cam feels tight and won't easily move then you need to be careful as you try to remove it. Try to pull on alternate sides of the trigger bar to release the cams against the rock surface. Be careful that you don't push the cam in farther and cause it to be really stuck. Gently wiggle the unit to loosen the cams.
Use a Push on Stem-Pull on Trigger Motion
When you try to remove the SLCD unit, don't make the mistake of thinking that the trigger bar is like the trigger on a pistol because it's not. If you just pull on the trigger, chances are you will have a hard time removing the unit. Instead push against the stem of the cam with your thumb while your fingers pull back on the trigger. Using that push-pull motion releases the lobes of the cam which are jammed against the rock. Pushing with your thumb allows the cam to begin to collapse and close down. Before trying to remove a unit while you're climbing, practice this motion on the ground by placing cams and removing them.
Get Serious and Hang on the Rope
If the cam still won't come out of the crack, it's time to get serious. The key to removing stuck gear is patience. Don't get too excited and cause the cam to get impossibly stuck. It's a good idea to call up to the leader above and ask him to pull you tight with the rope so that you can hang and use both hands on the cam. Alternatively you can plug another cam in the crack above the stuck piece and clip into it with a sling. Now you can use both hands on the cam, pulling back on the trigger bar and trying to wiggle it loose.
How to Use Your Nut Tool
If that fails then it's time to break out your nut tool, which are also made to use on stuck cams as well as nuts. The thin profile of the nut tool allows you to pull and hold the cam's trigger. Sometimes you can use a couple fingers on one side of the trigger bar and the nut tool on the opposite side, alternately pulling to release the stuck lobes. Use the holes in the side of the nut tool also to snag the end of the trigger bar and apply pressure. You can also use the hooked end of the nut tool to pull on an individual cam lobe to release the pressure on the crack sidewalls.
Figure Out Which Cam Lobes are Wedged
Study the crack to see which cam lobes are stuck since usually only a couple are wedged tight. If you can move the cam lobes, then you should be able to remove the cam with a bit of work and patience. If all of the cam lobes are locked tight, then you might not be able to remove the cam without more specialized tools-which are usually carried by climbers who love retrieving stuck booty gear!
Use 2 Wired Nuts to Pull on the Trigger
Another trick, especially for cams stuck in narrow cracks, is to take a couple small wired nuts like Stoppers off your trad rack. Slide the nut itself up on the wire making a loop. Drop the loop over the end of the trigger bar and clip a carabiner on the opposite free end of the loop. Next, alternately pull on each nut on the trigger and try to loosen the cam. Use your nut tool too on stubborn stuck cam lobes. Remember to push on the SLCD's stem with your thumb as you pull so that you release pressure on the stuck lobes. With a bit of luck, perseverance, and patience you should be able to slowly walk the cam out of the crack.
Practice Freeing Cams on the Ground
Most stuck cams can be freed but they take work. To learn how to remove cams, practice placing and then removing them while standing on the ground. A bit of practice makes a huge difference when you're up on a multi-pitch route trying to remove a stuck cam.