The last time I’d climbed in Zion was over 20 years ago. I did one route and was appalled by the lousy anchors in situ at the time, especially as it was deemed one of the area classics. I next turned my attention to one of the sickest roof cracks I’d ever seen. I fingerstacked my way up the initial vertical crack, then thought better of my chances on the roof. I remember wishing I had Friends with foot-long stems, because I thought the cams might track out if I fell on them in the soft rock. Aiding my way back down the crack only reinforced this opinion as several of the placements slid downwards when bounce tested before the cams finally dug into the soft sandstone. I left Zion, amazed by the soaring lines, but disenchanted with the quality of the stone.
Since that visit I’ve logged a fair bit of time on soft rock, whether it be in the Fisher Towers, Czech Republic, or elsewhere. Climbing on soft rock and on loose rock are simply two more techniques to master. And like any climbing technique, mastery is elusive and relative. You can always get better.
Having developed an appreciation of climbing on soft rock, it was time to return to Zion. The lines are as striking as I remember, the walls more numerous than I recall, and the rock hasn’t gotten any firmer. The first day out we climbed with a standard desert rack, i.e. cams out the wazoo. Every other placement I was wishing I had hexes instead of cams, which is the real subject of this blog.
Ah, the much maligned hex. The clunking cowbell of climbing pro. The gumby fashion statement. Most climbers would rather be seen pulling up to the crag in a PT Cruiser than to be seen approaching a climb with a rack of hexes. But here is why hexes rule – they have more surface area in contact with the rock than cams. In soft rock this can make a huge difference. Think of it – how much metal is in contact with the sides of the crack in a typical cam placement? Unless you’re rocking Metolius Fat Cams, the combined surface area of contact is roughly the size of a penny – and just one side of the penny at that. This is barely more contact than a large RP. Cams work by exerting a tremendous amount of force outwards on a very small area of contact – not what you want when the moves are hard and the rock is soft. Contrast the surface contact of a cam (it doesn’t matter what size cam – the surface contact of a small cam and a large cam is basically the same) with the surface contact of a hex. Even the smallest hex placed endwise has more surface contact, and larger hexes can have over ten times as much surface contact, plus they don’t rely on exerting huge amounts of stone-crushing mechanical advantage to hold. In cracks that waver, forming constrictions, they’re the most bombproof pro you can get. In Zion, many of the cracks offer ample hex placements. Granted there are some Indian Creek style splitters in Zion that only cams will protect cleanly, but as hexes don’t weigh much, it makes sense to bring them as well. And when a storm blew in today and chased us off our route, I felt way safer rapping off a hex and a stopper than I would have rapping off cams. Plus it didn’t feel like I was stuffing the crack with Benjamins on the way out.