Screaming Barfies

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  • #7491

    A question about the “Screaming Barfies” (for anyone not familiar with this term, it’s ice climbers slang for the intense pain that occurs on rewarming cold and under perfused hands. Symptoms include intense pain & nausea.

    I had a shocking case the other day after seconding an ice climb in Sweden, temps were around -15deg C, strong wind, blowing snow, and an hour belaying a tricky pitch so I was nice and cool before I started climbing. The climbing went ok, but on getting to the top of the pitch i had to lie down in the snow and took about 2-3 minutes to recover from the pain and nausea while my buddy watched and laughed.

    Now the interesting bit. I was wearing a heart rate monitor at the time, and looking later at the trace I saw something I’ve never noted before.

    Climbing the pitch took 20 minutes
    avg 114 bpm max 136 bpm min 86 bpm

    For the 4 minutes directly after completing the pitch my heart-rate dropped dramatically.
    avg 49 bpm max 57 bpm min 45 bpm

    It then recovered (coincident with my recovery from the hot aches) to around 100bpm, and was normal for the abseil and walk out.

    Has anyone experienced this? Any physiological explanations?

    Those HR numbers (around 50bpm) are what I would normally expect during sleep, or while relaxing on the couch, not having just finished a strenuous ice pitch.


  • Inactive
    Anonymous on #7493

    HI. Your questions sheds light on something that happened to me a few years ago. I was leading an ice pitch. My partner was belaying on the ground. Before I started climbing, he was complaining about cold hands. Sometime during my pitch, his Screaming Barfies became so bad–the pain and nausea became so bad–that he passed our cold. I had no idea. I got to the top of the pitch and built an anchor. When I turned around to look down and confirm that he should lower me, I saw him lying in the snow, and another climber, a stranger, who happened to be there, belaying me. The other climber, wisely, I would say, didn’t say anything when my partner passed out–he just quickly stepped over and put me on belay. Crazy, lucky, insane, whatever. It’s a true story.

    My partner later shared the story on UKC forums, and if I remember correctly, at least one other person had a first hand experience of somebody passing out from the Screaming Barfies.

    So I imagine that some part of the physical response to having very cold hands that re-warm is, or can be, a rapid drop in blood pressure that, infrequently but possibly, results in a loss of consciousness. I don’t think the flow of blood into previously constricted vessels in the hands is enough to explain the dramatic drop in blood pressure. There must be a neurological component as well, perhaps a response to the pain, or some kind of systematic, or larger scale (not just the hands) vasodilatory response.

    Maybe somebody else has some other ideas/firm knowledge?

    I think this is good to know about; for example, climbers might remind themselves to clip into an anchor or ice screw o other protection if they have really bad Screaming Barfies.

    Other notes
    For me, I find it’s worse when I have been inactive (belaying) and then climb.

    Once it happens during the day, it rarely happens again.

    Keeping everything warm–heads, neck, feet, wrists, and so on, as trying not to grip tools to hard, and quickly changing out of cold/wet gloves, seems to help prevent it.

    Even the greats get Screaming Barfies; there is a great video of Dani Arnold and David Lama climing in Alaska where Dani Arnold gets an attack.

    Here in German-speaking Switzerland it’s called “Kuhenagel” or “cow nails” becasue, I guess, your hands feel like cow’s feet?

    Anyway, Screaming Barfies = possible rapid drop in blood pressure. Good to know.


    maxf on #7494

    As follow up to this, I spoke to an anaesthetist today, who suggested it might be due to a vagal (parasympathetic nervous system response) response to intense pain. It is not uncommon for persons experiencing intense pain to pass out, but I’m surprised to hear the hot aches can do it though.

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