It’s cold out there in Canada this season but ice climbers don’t like to sit still with so much ice around, whether it’s 0°C or -40°C. The start to this winter has served up some blasts of cold air, but no matter how tough you are and how well you can take frigid temps, there’s no escaping the dreaded screaming barfies.
Legendary Squamish climber and cartoonist Tami Knight once said that “ice climbers are lunatics with few or no functioning brain cells.” If you’ve had the barfies, then you know. They are an intense burning, tingling, nausea-inducing feeling in your forearms, hands and fingertips.
Andrew Melvin, Ph.D. MBChB, a junior doctor at the University of Dundee in Scotland, coauthored the first study on the burning sensation. The survey revealed that 96 per cent of winter climbers had experienced the barfies. Most felt the pain for one to six minutes and said the pain was three to five out of five. The study revealed that four per cent of climbers did barf. They barfed on an ice climb. The barfies result from tissue ischemia, a diminishing of blood flow to soft tissue and muscle. Exposure to cold constricts your blood vessels to bring blood to your body’s core to prevent hypothermia. Holding your ice axes over your head further limits circulation, as does squeezing your tools too tight. When you cut blood off to your hands they feel numb because some nerves have become nonfunctional.
When you lower your hands, the blood reenters and causes reperfusion. Once your nerves have oxygen again, they scream with joy and send pain signals to you central nervous system. There’s a myth that the barfing sensation (and sometimes the barfing) occurs when blood rushes from your core to your hands (and sometimes feet). Medical professionals have documented that the nausea is your nervous system’s result to pain. The nerve action in your extremities triggers the vomiting part in the brain’s postrema area called the emetic centre. The emetic centre is stimulated by toxins which can induce an emetic response. That response is the barfies.
The Screaming Barfies in Video
How to Avoid the Screaming Barfies
1. Bring warm gloves for belaying: Keep those digits warm before starting.
2. Bring climbing-specific gloves for climbing (thin and flexible): Most climbers find gloves with good dexterity keeps their hands happy.
3. Bring extra gloves in case your active pair get wet: Wet hands get cold fast. If your gloves get wet, have a spare pair.
4. Relax your grip to keep the blood flowing: If you over-grip, you’ll force blood from your hands. Loosen up.
5. Regularly drop your hands below your heart: After you get a screw in, drop your hands (one at a time).
6. Shake your hands on route, slap them on you leg: After you pound in a tool, give you hand a little shake. Slap it on your leg, keep em bendy.
7. Flap your arms like a crazy bird on top of the climb: Once on top of the climb, get keep the blood flowing by flapping them like a bird.
8. Jumping jacks at the base before you start: As you rope up, your body cools. Get a good warm up before starting into a pitch.
9. Stay hydrated: As they say, “A happy mountaineer pees clear.”
10. Get the screaming barfies: Many climbers say that once they get it once, they often don’t again on the same climb. If you’re doing a big route, maybe it’s best to just deal with them early. Maybe.