Why Screaming Barfies Suck And How To Avoid Them
If you’ve ever gone ice climbing before—or even thought about it—you’ve probably heard of the dreaded “screaming barfies.” Although the name conjures up a pretty accurate image of the nausea inducing feeling involved, what exactly are they?
Prepare for your next ice climb or cold-weather climbing trip with our guide to understanding—and preventing!—the screaming barfies!
What The Heck Are “Screaming Barfies”?
The screaming barfies—sometimes called “hot aches”—are a particular form of acute tissue ischemia common in ice climbers. While this sounds dangerous, it’s really just a fancy way of saying, “reduced blood flow to a certain part of your body.” For ice climbers, that’s usually your hands and wrists.
This reduced blood flow in very cold hands causes your hands to feel numb. When your hands begin to rewarm—as the name suggests—blood rushes to your hands and your central nervous system sends pain signals back to the now-defrosting nerves in your hands. This causes extreme pain and an intense burning sensation.
Many people confuse tissue ischemia with frostbite, since they both happen most frequently to winter climbers during extreme cold—but these two are not the same. Frostbite occurs when blood vessels clot due to cold exposure and soft tissue in your body begin to actually freeze (immediately dangerous!)
Tissue ischemia, on the other hand, is simply reduced blood flow to muscles or soft tissues (not immediately dangerous!). The unique combination of cold weather, swinging and hanging by your hands while ice climbing, and tight gloves makes tissue ischemia common for ice climbers.
Why? Each of these factors contributes to reduced blood flow to your hands, which causes tissue ischemia.
- Exposure to cold constricts your blood vessels, while redistributing warmth and energy to your body’s core to protect vital organs. This leaves your hands (and other extremities) more susceptible to the cold.
- Swinging and hanging from your hands as you grip your ice picks means your hands stay over your head and heart for most of your climb, which limits circulation as well. In addition, over-gripping your tools limits circulation too.
- Tight gloves can also reduce blood flow and oxygen to your hands (one of the reasons why properly fitting gloves are so important!).
A study revealed that 81% of climbers reported having developed symptoms from tissue ischemia during climbing. The duration, intensity, preparation, skill level and a variety of other factors can all impact tissue ischemia, and your risk of developing it.
While there haven’t been enough studies done to say for sure that duration or intensity of climbing increase your odds of getting tissue ischemia, anecdotally, climbers report getting the screaming barfies more on particularly cold, long or difficult climbs. However, since it is short-lived, and typically only experienced once per climb, it shouldn’t have a lasting impact on your climbing performance or ability.
What Do “Screaming Barfies” Feel Like?
You know that pins-and-needles feeling when your feet fall asleep and then start to “wake up” again? It’s the same principle at play here, but on steroids.
As you climb, blood flow to your hands is reduced, leading to numbness and tissue ischemia. When you lower your hands again after climbing, the process of “reperfusion” (returning blood flow) begins. Once your nerves have oxygen in them again, they “wake back up” and send pain signals back to your brain—and the “screaming barfies” begin.
Ice climbers report that the pain is between a 3 to 5 out of 5 on a pain scale. Since intense pain can trigger your central nervous system and the emetic response, some people may throw up—thus the “barfies” part of the name.
Typically, though, it’s marked by intense hand pain, numbness and tingling, throbbing, aching, nausea, dizziness (due to reduced blood pressure), and—obviously—irritability. Less frequently, ice climbers experience vomiting, lowered heart rate, or the dulling of other senses, such as blurred vision or muffled hearing. All of this is typically due to the pain, rather than being a sign of something else being wrong.
How long do “screaming barfies” last?
The good news is that this is all pretty short-lived. Most cases of screaming barfies (73%, one survey revealed) only last between one to six minutes. Of course, that can feel like a long time when you’re in pain—but it doesn’t typically cause any lasting damage!
In other good news—most climbers don’t get screaming barfies more than once per climb, since getting them can actually increase circulation for the rest of the climb. As a result, some climbers attempt to induce screaming barfies early in their climb to get them “out of the way.”
Personally, can’t recommend this—but if you’re hard-core and need to have your hands in top-condition for a long climb, you might give it a try!
How To Recover from Screaming Barfies
If you feel the pain, tingling and throbbing associated with screaming barfies start to come on, there’s a few things you can do to help make it easier to recover.
- If you’re belaying: Have a partner help you belay or even take over the belay for you, especially if you’ve never had the screaming barfies before. The pain can be severe, and for the safety of your climbing partners, it’s a good idea to have belay backup!
- If you’re climbing: Make sure you’re clipped into a nearby anchor and get your crampons locked in on a sturdy foothold.
Then, shake your arms out as much as you can to bring blood back into your extremities until the pain and nausea subsides. Switching to warmer gloves can help, if possible. Feel free to scream, shout or cry if you need to! Just keep your arms and hands moving and shaking and remember that the pain will be over in just a few minutes.
How To Prevent Tissue Ischemia
Although climbing-induced tissue ischemia isn’t long-lasting or dangerous, it’s painful and disruptive enough that most climbers definitely try to prevent it!
Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to prevent screaming barfies while ice climbing. First, remember the key ingredients to prevention with the four H’s: Heat, Hydration, Handgrip and Heart.
While ice climbing, you can improve blood flow and reduce your screaming barfies risk by focusing on:
- Heat: Keep your hands warm and dry.
- Hydration: Did you know dehydration reduces blood flow? Drink up!
- Handgrip: Gripping your tools too hard reduces blood flow—focus on light and effective gripping.
- Heart: When your hands are frequently above your heart, as with winter climbing, it reduces oxygen to your hands. Dropping your arms and shaking out your hands often encourages blood flow.
Beginner climbers, try these practical tips to help prevent the dreaded screaming barfies:
- Keep your hands dry and warm. Bring extra gloves and swap them out as your climb to avoid wet hands. Not only does this help prevent hypothermia and frostbite, it also helps with circulation.
- Use a multi-glove system. Instead of just having one active pair of gloves, bring the right gloves for different tasks. For example, you should bring puffier gloves for belaying and thinner, more technical gloves for good dexterity on pitches.
- Get well-fitting gloves. Too-tight gloves limit circulation and cut blood flow, making it easier to get screaming barfies. Wear gloves that fit properly to maintain optimal circulation!
- Loosen up! No, seriously—keep a nice, relaxed grip on your ice axes! Beginners tend to overgrip, which limits circulation.
- Keep moving. When you’re belaying another ice climber, your hands can get cold fast. Swing and move your arms around as you belay. Do some jumping jacks or another quick exercise before starting your climb to ensure warm hands at the start.
- Shake it out. After you get an ice screw in, drop your arms one at a time (below heart-level) and shake your arms and hands well to encourage continued blood flow. Do the same occasionally after you get your ice picks in the wall.
- Stay hydrated. The more hydrated you can be, the better! Bonus points for warm hydration, like tea or broth.
- Keep yourself fueled. Your body requires more calories to stay warm, so exercising in cold weather requires more fuel. Bring—and eat!—plenty of snacks to help your body stay warm.
Ready to Get Climbing?
Warm or cold, our Explorer Chick crew is always ready to get out there and make some amazing adventure memories!
Ready for a hiking, ice climbing or rappelling adventure with a group of adventurous women? We’ll do all the planning—you can just show up ready for a good time! Our expert guides will lead the way and give you an unforgettable adventure!
Rachel is a hiker, traveler, writer and adventurer. Whether she’s home in New England or halfway across the world, she’s probably just looking for her next mountain to climb. If she’s not traveling or hiking, you can probably find her sketching, taking long walks around town, reading on the porch or perfecting a new recipe.
Favorite outdoor adventure: solo-hiking through the Dolomites in Italy!
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