Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Loving the Alien

I should not have succumbed to temptation. I knew better. But the other week I couldn't help myself. I bought a used Alien.

CCH is out of business. They don't make Aliens anymore. Who knows, maybe the things aren't put together very well. But a stranger on the internet was selling his blue Alien and I just had to have it.

I have a sentimental attachment to Aliens. As I've previously reported, a little green Alien saved my life. (Now that's a sentence I never thought I'd write.) When I broke my ankle in a lead fall, that green guy was my top piece and the blessed thing didn't budge a millimeter. Afterwards, I didn't know if I should retire the cam because of the stress it had been under, or whether instead I should place it on every pitch going forward because I now had proof it was one of the good Aliens! I ended up sleeping with the cam next to my bed on the night table for a couple months, and then I happily went back to using it.

I don't have a full rack of Aliens, just the magic middle ones: the aforementioned green and my two favorite pieces, the yellow and the gray. These three cams seem to fit everywhere, and I don't care what you have to say about perhaps-better-manufactured Alien clones like Mastercams, nothing else feels right like these Aliens. It may be the camming angle, the soft metal, the trigger design, or a combination of all three. But there's no substitute. In the Gunks I'll place them on practically every pitch and there are spots I wouldn't want to be in without them: the funky start to Alley Oop (yellow goes in the shallow horizontal), or twenty feet up Morning After (gray goes in the flaring downward-facing pod), just to name a couple.

My climbing buddy Vass also has a bunch of Aliens, including the big ones, so I've used them a lot too, and they're great. But I don't find the big ones as uniquely useful as the ones in the middle range. I would love to have the bigger ones to carry as doubles to my Camalots. Shortly after CCH stopped production, when the cams had pretty much disappeared from the stores, I paid a visit to Tent & Trails in lower Manhattan just to see if they had any Aliens left in stock. As luck would have it they had three: a red (which I really wanted) and two big ones, I think a gold and a clear. In an inspired bit of bargaining, I offered to buy all three from the gear guy if he'd give me a small discount. And he agreed. But then I did something I thought was an act of strength at the time: I walked away without buying them. I told myself I didn't need any more cams, and it was true! But I've regretted this decision ever since. I dearly wish I'd at least bought the red one, which is the next size up from the precious gray one. Oh why didn't I buy those Aliens when I had the chance!

Neither Vass nor I own the blue one, but I do have a blue Alien story. Two summers ago when my family had a house in New Paltz for a week, I convinced my wife and kids that we should climb together one day in Peter's Kill, a single-pitch area in Minnewaska State Park where it is pretty easy to set up topropes. My wife doesn't climb at all, and my kids sometimes do a bit of bouldering with me at the gym, but they have almost no outdoor climbing experience. Obviously none of them is capable of belaying.

I found someone to help us on Jannette Pazer's family climbing internet message board. Hensley lives in the New Paltz area and has a small child. On the day we got together she just wanted to get a couple of climbs in and didn't bring her baby. I forgot my guidebook, but Hensley already had an idea for an area in Peter's Kill she thought would be appropriate for us. I was expecting to walk around back and set up a toprope from above, but Hensley thought we might enjoy climbing on a detached feature affectionately known as the Scrotum Pole, which is separated from the main Peter's Kill wall by a gap. She told me I could avoid jumping the gap by leading up an easy 5.5-ish line on one side of the pole in order to set up the rope for the family, and when I scoped it out it appeared simple enough, so I agreed. I took Hensley's light rack with me for the pitch. I hadn't brought any cams or nuts, since I thought we were just going to be top-roping from bolted anchors.

So I set off on the pitch. I pulled a little overhang right off the ground, placed a piece or two, and continued upward. My wife was chatting amiably with Hensley and me. She had no idea that when I'm leading I usually find conversation unwelcome. I didn't say so, of course, because this was supposed to be a casual little day out to demonstrate how fun and safe climbing is. So instead of asking her to be quiet, I pretended I was happy to engage in some chit-chat while leading even though I was starting to find the protection opportunities on this particular climb a bit sparse. I did my best to play merrily along, but the spoken dialogue we had was accompanied by a very different inner dialogue going on in my head at the same time.

Wife: How are you doing up there, honey?

Me: Fine, fine! I think you'll like this pitch, the moves are nice!

I'm already in groundfall range, where's the fucking gear??

Wife: This is the first time I'm actually seeing you use those little doohickeys. I never understood how they worked before.

Me: The gear is small, but it's actually very strong.

Oh, there's a little horizontal crack. Does Hensley have anything on her rack that I can stick in there?? Please, please!

Wife: Now that I see how it works, it all seems much more reasonable to me.

Me: I'm so glad you're enjoying the show.

I can't believe I'm about to hit the deck in front of my whole family. I have to get something in that crack!

Wife: The kids want to scramble up that big rock over there.

Me: Have fun, and come right back! I'll have this rope up for you in a sec.

Oh thank god, this blue Alien fits. Thank you, blue Alien!! I love you, blue Alien! I'm not going to die today. I'm so relieved.

As it turned out, my daughter was scared by the initial moves on the route, my son refused even to try it, and my wife gave it a go but got freaked out when I lowered her too quickly for her liking. So my main goal, the conversion of my whole family to the climbing life, was thwarted. But my love of Aliens was further cemented.

I know there are wise people who have reluctantly stopped using their Aliens. There are good reasons to worry about using them, and I think I have a working understanding of what these reasons are. I just went back and re-read several incredibly long threads on several different websites in the hope that I could briefly summarize the potential problems with Aliens and justify to you why I keep using them. But the issues with the cams are too complicated for a brief summary, and my reasons for continuing to use them don't sound very persuasive when I actually try to articulate them.

I'll leave it at this: my Aliens are all post-recall, and I believe when my cams were made the company was making sure it no longer issued cams with the brazing problem that led to the recall of earlier units. As long as the brazing was done right, I'm comfortable climbing on the cams even if there are other problems that have been identified with them. I am aware that amateur testing has shown that my Aliens may not be as strong as their ratings would indicate, but I believe they are still strong enough for their intended use.

I could go into further detail about my reasons for this opinion, but I don't want you to think I am trying to convince you that Aliens are fine. I know my continued use of the cams is questionable, and that my rationale for leaving them on my rack involves leaps of faith that may be wholly unjustified. I don't encourage you to buy Aliens or use Aliens. I certainly don't propose that you should buy a used Alien from a stranger. That would be unbelievably stupid.

But my used blue Alien already arrived. It sure looks bomber...

And if you happen to be selling a red one...

I sure wish I could quit you, Aliens.

2012 Update:

Since I wrote this post, TWO companies have begun making Aliens again. Fixe bought the Alien name and machinery from CCH. And Totem started producing their own Alien clones, calling them Basic Cams.

I bought a full set of the Totem Basic cams as soon as they became available and I adore them, perhaps even more than my old Aliens, because I have total confidence in them. Unfortunately Totem is only making three sizes, the green, yellow, and a red cam that has been resized downwards to make it just a little bigger than the CCH gray Alien. Totem also makes two hybrid sizes, green/yellow and yellow/red, and since I bought these cams from Totem I have been LOVING them. These hybrids may now be my favorite cams. I thought they were specialty pieces that I wouldn't use much, but because they fit so well in pin scars and horizontals that aren't quite parallel I place them all the time.

The Fixe Aliens look and feel just like the old Aliens. I bought a new blue one just to check it out and I'm very happy with it. Knowing that Fixe's name is behind it gives me confidence that the cam is rock solid. Unfortunately Fixe is only producing a limited range as well, from blue to gray (with no hybrids). If they produce the tiny black one I will buy it in a heartbeat, and will also consider the big ones (larger than red) if they start making those as well.


  1. Seth, this was an awesome article and I really enjoyed it. You're a great writer! Was the route really 5.5?

    As far as Aliens go, I have two offsets: the green/yellow and blue/green. They're freaking amazing. I love the little guys. I've never taken a whipper on them, but I've aided on them multiple times. Pure joy.

    Thanks for the great read!

  2. Oh, and this is possibly the greatest name for a blog I've ever seen :D

  3. Thank you!

    The route was Easy Rider (5.6). If you look on Mountain Project, there are comments from a few people arguing that it ought to be R-rated.


    I didn't think it was as bad as all that, it was really just one spot, and I did find small gear (the blue Alien!) that worked. But if you slipped before placing that piece, you'd definitely hit the deck. Mostly I was reacting to the unusual situation of leading in front of my kids.

    I also should say that I hope it doesn't sound like I'm blaming H for putting me in some kind of risky situation. There is an easier, better protected 5.5 just to the left called Up A Tree, and if I recall correctly H suggested either route as a possibility. I chose the one that looked more interesting to me, and I got what I was looking for!

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