• Wild Country Helium Friends Review

    I think the first SLCD I ever held was a Friend. I can’t be sure about that, but what I do remember vividly is being taught how to place cams and equalize anchors with the original Wild Country Forged Friends. At the time I didn’t even know what a Camalot was, and Mastercams hadn’t been invented yet. Aliens were still being produced, but I had never heard of those either.

    Fast forward to the summer of 2010. I had just made the decision to leave Thailand for good, opting for a move to England with my wife. Afraid that years might go by before I had the chance to road trip in the US again, I planned to spend a few months traveling around out west, climbing in all of the best areas. A problem that I immediately faced was not having enough gear. While I did get to trad climb in Thailand, I usually only placed gear in North Carolina and since I was only there for a few months a year, I had just eight or nine cams. Stoppers, tricams and my partners’ racks went a long way at Moore’s Wall and Linville Gorge, but I had my mind set on places like Indian Creek and Yosemite Valley – places where a double rack of cams is just the beginning.

    I bought a set of Forged Friends on eBay, and a few “flexi” ones as well. Knowing that I wouldn’t be using them in the horizontal placements that characterize many of the classic areas in the southeast, I figured the old school rigid stems were the best bang for my buck. How right I was.

    Forged Friends are actually pretty light (maybe lighter than Camalots) and they are sized a bit differently. A #1 Camalot falls between a 2.0 and 2.5 Friend, and a #2 falls between a 2.5 and 3.0. This might not seem like a big deal, since both companies manufacture cam sets to cover the entire range, but once you head up a crack with Friends supplemented by Camalots, you see the benefits of having both. There are definitely placements where you’d rather have a 2.5 friend than either Camalot that covers that size, and vice versa.

    So what does all of this have to do with the new Friends? Nothing I guess, but the Heliums have been hyped as a rebirth of the cam, and they are finally here. After falling in love with my set of rigid stems, I simply had to find out what these state of the art cams were like.


    First, let’s be real about a few things. We all have Camalots, even if just a few. They represent today’s standard, and are almost always on sale somewhere. Hell, I have climbed with plenty of people who have never even seen a Wild Country cam! This creates a tough market for the expensive Helium Friends. I’ll just say that I got a killer deal on mine, and within the next few years, you will start to see them go on sale just as often as every other piece of climbing gear. So for the rest of the review, we will pretend that money doesn’t matter.

    A few weeks ago I received three Heliums – 2.0, 2.5 and 3.0. Like I said above, these three cams cover the same range as red and gold Camalots, as well as a bit more on both ends. Combined they weigh just 371 grams, while the two BDs come in at 292 grams. The Friends sport a Camalot-esque thumb loop and stem, a floating trigger, and the quality craftsmanship that you’d expect from climbing gear manufactured in the UK.

    While some of the sizes aren’t a whole lot lighter than the previous generation Friends, the new cams are noticeably featherweight. They are not the lightest on the market, but when someone brought it to my attention that they are a bit heavier than Mastercams of the same size, I had to look it up for myself. Maybe the weight is balanced better in the Heliums, or maybe I’m just biased toward my newly made Friends but my 2.0 feels lighter than the black Metolius.

    The stem is about an inch longer than that of the Camalot, making deeper placements possible. This was an obvious advantage the other day on an overhanging hand crack at the New River Gorge. As I came to a bulge about 30 feet off the ground, the crack began to flare. Getting a cam deep into the crack here is essential, but also difficult. Aside from the fact that a green Camalot would have been tipped out and a red over-cammed, the 2.0 Helium was easier to place and to clean because of the long stem.

    I did take a whip at said bulge, and the red Helium performed beautifully. It held just fine in the bulletproof Nuttall Sandstone, and the resulting marks on the cam lobes looked normal to me. Can’t wait to fall on it next time I pull through the first crux of “Surge Control” at Fern Buttress.

    We warmed up that day on “Cresenta,” a finger and hand crack that traverses under a big roof and then pulls through at a weakness. My buddy Rob slipped at the crux and took a ride that ended close to the deck. He finished the route and I followed, noting that a few of his cams had walked, making them hard to remove. The worst case was a Mastercam that had strolled deep into the crack. It’s stem was short and flimsy, making it that much harder to reach and clean.

    At the end of the day Rob went up “Cresenta” again to cool down and get a clean ascent. Rob is a meticulous red point climber and is obsessive about his rack. He remembers every single piece he places, and on a second attempt he will rack up in order, taking nothing but what he needs. It was hard but I convinced him to take a few Heliums, just to see if Wild Country’s attempt at a stronger spring would keep them from walking. Sure enough, he placed one exactly where the Mastercam had walked. As advertised, the Friend stayed put. And I don’t want to downplay this but it’s simple: The Mastercam walked and the Friend did not.

    I recently took the new gear up “Fathom” at Laurel Knob and it was nice having three light cams on those long pitches. They didn’t really fit in more places than any other cam would have, but the Heliums have strength in numbers. Nine Wild Country Helium Friends cover the same range and weigh less than eight Black Diamond Camalots. Ask any climber and they’ll tell you, they’d take that extra cam.

    Even if you only have the three hand sized pieces that I use, you still get an extra piece. I went to Looking Glass last week for an on-sight attempt at “Hyperbola” (direct). The first half of the route is protected by two bolts and a few stoppers and Aliens. You can see this from the ground, but being a North Carolina classic there is absolutely no gear beta to be found and it is hard to tell what size the crack is up high. I decided to take singles in hand sized pieces for the hundred foot pitch, which in Camalot speak is three cams. I opted instead for the Heliums, which ends up giving me four cams when you count my 25 year old HB Wales 3.5 (there is now a Helium Friend in that size as well). For an extra 50 grams, you get 4 cams instead of three. I like that.

    Finally, I have to comment on durability. I’ve only been using these cams for a few weeks but I have been climbing on them non-stop and I tend to put a beating on gear. I’ve only taken the one fall, but they have all held up well and I expect them to endure everything I can throw at ‘em. I can’t imagine having any problems.

    It is hard to write a review without commenting on competing products, and obviously I haven’t tried. Thankfully my discount has nothing to do with my writing, so I can pretty much say what I want. There are a lot of companies out there making quality products, but the Heliums are going to be hard to beat. They are the lightest cams on the market without sacrificing durability. The stems are longer than Camalot stems and also stiffer and more durable than the largest Mastercam stems. And perhaps most importantly, they got it right where DMM, their main competitor, went wrong: they have an easy to handle thumb loop and a thicker, more durable sling.

    Final Verdict:  Helium Friends aren’t “the cam reborn” but they are pretty close. The design, beautiful. Execution, perfect. I hope to climb many pitches and take many falls on mine. They are now my first choice when I take singles, and they will be complimented well by the rest of the gear I carry around.

    Ryan Williams

    Ryan grew up in the south and learned how to climb in the mountains of North Carolina and West Virginia. Upon graduating from NC State University in 2007, he travelled all over the world working as a guide, bartender, furniture mover, farm hand and anything else that would fund his next trip. Ryan is currently living in London with his wife, trying to get his life together and use the UK as a home base from which to explore the mountains of Europe.

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Discussion 7 Responses

  1. October 14, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Nice review Ryan. I have always been a fan of the WC Friends, so I can’t wait to start adding the new Heliums to my rack.

    • October 14, 2011 at 8:32 am

      Thanks Mike, I think you’ll love them.  The sizing is a bit more refined when compared to the older friends… meaning that the overlaps are more consistent.

      I’m actually about to call you and order a harness!  Small world haha! 

  2. October 15, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Interesting that they went with the dyneema sling on the thumb loop.  I have been seeing many photos of the Camalots reslung with the dyneema and the cable breaking or completely distorting.  It looks like these do not have that issue since you fell on them a few times.  Does the stiffer spring make the trigger harder to depress also?  I have used the classic forged friends as well, but they aren’t my favorite.  The staggered sizing is great, but I hated the trigger on those things.  I still prefer the TCU’s to supplement the BD as they are ultra light and in between sizes as well.  It is also interesting they didn’t go with the double axle design since BD’s patent has run out as noticed with the Dragons.  Thanks for the write up.

    • October 15, 2011 at 11:45 pm

      I was honestly a little disappointed when companies started going with the dyneema slings instead of nylon. I personally think dyneema is a great weight saver when you’re heading into the mountains, but for the average cragger nylon is more practical.

      The material on the Heliums is not the skimpy 10 mil stuff, it’s more like the Bluewater Titan Spectra (13mil). It is tubular, as opposed to the spectra/dyneema tape that you see from Black Diamond. I’m not sure if the stuff on Dragons is tape or tube but it’s roughly 10 mil and won’t be as durable as the stuff on the Heliums.

      I realize though, that the issue is the width. I have seen the BD tests, but I’ve also seen partners take repeated whips on Trango Splitter Cams, which have thinner spectra than the Heliums and the same style thumb loop. Nothing bad ever happened. Either way, the slings on the Heliums are sewn in the same way as the nylon on the Camalots… with the double layer over the wire. Dunno if this makes a difference or not.

      The Helium that I fell on shows absolutely no signs of wear. The wire and rubber coating are in pristine condition – there may be .5 millimeters of deformation in shape, but it’s no more noticeable than any of my Camalots. Only time will tell I guess, but I’m not the kind of guy that repeatedly falls on gear, so I might not be the best person to test them (I’m confident that the guys at WC did a fine job).

      As for your real question, the stiffer wires are barely noticeable. The action is much more similar to that of a Camalot than anything else. They are nowhere close to C3′s, which seem to be the hardest trigger to depress. 

      The new cams are really nothing like the original rigid stems, those are just what I have experience with, and I agree that their trigger action is not ideal. The best comparison is with the latest version of the Tech Friends. The most noticeable difference is the new thumb loop and long stem – they are so much more user friendly. I hated the design of the Tech Friends, and felt like they were way behind other manufacturers in terms of ergonomics.

      Finally, to address the Mastercam/TCU issue. I love both, and have both. In sizes below 2.0 Friend (Black Metolius) I’m taking either TCU’s or Mastercams/Aliens depending on how many horizontals I plan to encounter. I can’t imagine that the Heliums would work as good in those sizes, and I’ll probably never find out. This is one more plus for the hand size Heliums in my mind – just where TCU’s stop and Mastercams get to flimsy, the Heliums take over in basically the same size format.

      I’ve gone completely away from BD’s in favor of Mastercams, TCU’s (Powercam in red), Aliens and Friends. The only Camalots I carry anymore are 1 and 2… sometimes .75.

  3. October 25, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    I had a chance to use a couple of these. What I really like about them was their longer stem. This is a genuine advantage over BDs and others. I wish though that the long stem was less stiff. As far as their size range goes compared to others, they might best be deployed in a the mid-to-larger range, as mentioned above. My one-time use criticism of these was they seemed a little more prone to walking than BDs or Metolius–a only slightly less stiff cable covering could help this. Their heads are a big wide too, which will prevent funkier placements. 

  4. November 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    I just ordered a full set 00-4, they will be here in two more days, Im stoked to go play with these beautiful cams! Thanks for the review

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