Keep Your Hands Warm Ice Climbing

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Screaming Barfies: “When your hands hurt so much that you want to scream & barf at the same time”

The Screaming Barfies are something that nearly every ice climber has experienced at some point or another. It is actually called reperfusion, and causes the pain experienced when the blood flows back into your hands after freezing them while climbing. If you are not sure whether or not you have experienced the Barfies, then you most definitely have NOT! Although it can be amusing to watch your hardcore tough-guy partner trying not to cry like a 6 year old watching The Hostel, it’s not so funny when it happens to you. Fortunately, as you do more ice climbing, you will not only learn ways to avoid the Barfies, but indeed how to avoid freezing your hands in the first place.

Here are some ways to help keep your hands warm ice climbing:

1. Climb Leashless – This is a great way to help keep your hands warm while ice climbing. Not only do most leashes cut off the circulation to a certain degree, but just as importantly, they inhibit your ability to “shake out” like you would while rock climbing. If you are not comfortable leading without leashes (your call on that one!), at least give it a try while following or top-roping pitches.

2. Shake Out – Now that your leashes are off, keep the blood flowing by shaking out frequently. Don’t wait until your hands turn to frozen blocks of wood, but rather drop your hands and shake out every move or two right from the beginning. This also has the advantage of preventing your hand & forearm muscles from tiring as much as they would without shaking.

3. Relax Your Grip – Everybody squeezes to hard, period. The harder you are squeezing, the less your blood can flow through your hands. With modern leashless tools, you should be able to relax your grip to the point that your weight is mostly held by your pinky resting on the hook, or “fang”, at the bottom. Even top climbers could probably relax their hands another couple percent most of the time.

4. Glove Selection

a. Thickness – One of the most common mistakes is to assume that thicker gloves equals warmer hands. A proper pair of ice climbing gloves will have fairly thin material on the palms, no matter how much insulation is on the backside. The thin palms will allow you to hold the ice tool much easier, without having to squeeze too hard (see above). This of course reduces the strength required as well, and also makes it substantially easier to aim your swings. Many experienced climbers actually find that their hands stay warmer with a nice dextrous pair of thin gloves.
b. Fit – This is a tough one since a loose fitting pair makes it harder to hold on, but too tight a pair makes your hands much much colder. One strategy is to buy gloves with a snug fit, but only use them on warm days until they break-in and the insulation packs out. It’s worth noting that a major cause of frostbite is having glove (or boots) that are too tight.

5. Multiple Pairs of Gloves – Carry a warmer pair of gloves/mitts for belaying and keep your climbing pair inside your jacket to keep them warm. Not only does this keep your hands warmer while belaying, but it can also keep your climbing gloves dryer. Also, carry a second pair of climbing gloves in case your first pair gets wet. Finally, consider using yet another pair for the approach so that you don’t sweat inside your climbing pairs.

6. Freeze on the 1st Pitch – Nothing keeps your hands warm for the day like freezing them good at the beginning. Most people find that their hands do better & better as the day goes on.

7. Get Scared – OK this might not be a good tip in general, but there is no doubt that a bit of fear keeps the blood pumping! Just don’t forget to shake out and relax your grip too.

8. Practice – Be happy to know that your hands will stay warmer as you gain more experience. This is partly because you will get better at all the above tips, but it also seems that your body does adapt somewhat to keeping your hands warm. One possible explanation is that the more time you spend in the cold, the more your body realizes you aren’t going to die, and therefore stops sucking all the blood to your core instead of your extremities.

9. Eat & Drink – It can be hard to do on a cold day, but if you get dehydrated or short on energy you will be alot colder in the long run.

10. Zen the Cold Away – well, it’s worth a shot…

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