The phenomenon is known as the "screaming barfies," and it is an unfortunate physiological condition unique to the sport of ice climbing. It was a few years back -- and 90 feet up in the air -- when I first fell victim to the malady, my blood-drained hands clenched in pain around a pair of ice axes.
"You OK up there?" my climbing partner shouted. His voice echoed through the trees, ascending the heights of the frozen cliff. We were alone and high above the St. Croix River. I stepped back from the edge, my hands frozen.
The pain -- sharp, raw, uncapped -- pulsed from wrists to fingertips as the blood rushed back to my hands. True to the name, I wanted to scream, and felt like I might vomit.
As outdoor pursuits go, ice climbing ranks near the "extreme" end of the spectrum. Participants gear up with boots and crampons, ice axes, ropes, carabiners and layers of winterwear. Swing an ax, step up and pull -- then repeat. The motions of the sport are often repetitive. The climbing medium-- dripping, creaking, cracking, moaning formations of ice -- is ever-changing and unpredictable.
Each winter, water drips and freezes. Icicles form in clumps on cliff faces and valley walls, congealing slowly into massive pillars of smooth ice. In Minnesota, all the factors for the sport are present, and area climbers have dozens of waterfalls to pick from. There are short ice ascents near downtown St. Paul in Lilydale Regional Park. Massive columns of ice freeze stories high in river gorges on the North Shore.
Above the St. Croix, where ice climbs form on crumbling cliffs, my partner, Sean, shouted up for a signal. The pain was slowly dissipating from my hands. "Belay on!" I yelled over the edge, affirming to Sean it was time to switch roles. I pulled up the extra rope and coiled it in the snow. Wind tore through the treetops below my feet.
Rock climbers in Minnesota often view area cliffs as practice grounds for the "real" vertical terrain and mountains of the West. Cliff walls rarely top 100 feet high in the region. But in ice climbing, the adventure is more real. In wintertime, on the face of a frozen waterfall, it is quiet and cold. You and your partner are likely to be alone, a long hike through snow and forest bringing you to the bottom of an icy face.
You climb methodically. The lead climber on an ice route picks and steps gingerly off the ground, swinging an ax, working up and up. You reach and step with spiked boots. You aim your ax pick and swing for divots in the ice, praying for purchase on a vertical face.
Ropes freeze stiff as cables on some climbs. Carabiners can fuse closed. Climbers dress four layers deep on cold days, Gore-Tex and heavy mitts a buffer from the deep chill.
In the St. Croix River Valley, I stamped in my boots to warm my feet. Sean started his ascent below, and I reeled in rope as he climbed. A piece of ice calved off the wall above, bouncing near my belay stance and sliding over the edge. "Ice!" I shouted, a warning to Sean about the falling object coming down.
Sean climbed quickly, reaching high, piercing the ice with metal picks. His breath puffed out in tiny clouds. Ice glinted on his eyelashes as he reached the ledge.
"I'm spent," he said, leaning against the wall, axes drooping from gloves clamped in a death grip. We rappelled off the cliff, hiking through the woods to a trailhead as the sun set.
Our climb on the St. Croix, one of dozens I've completed over the years, was a typical day on the ice. On the 90-foot route, there was some pain and some drama. A steep pitch, gravity, glare ice and sharpened climbing tools -- the necessary ingredients for the sport -- add up to an activity that is rarely easy or dull.
But ice climbing is not all misery and hard work. The sport is safe with the right equipment and technique. In Minnesota, where routes tower to 175 feet high, the ascent of a wall of ice is the closest a climber can get to a true alpine adventure -- sweeping mountain views or not.
On the best days, on a frozen waterfall in the sun, ice morphs to a "plastic" medium. Each swing of the ax, each kick of the boot is solid and safe. You can climb fast, stepping high, swinging the axes easily into good ice. On those rare days, the "screaming barfies" stay far away.
- Stephen Regenold writes about the outdoors and gear at www.gearjunkie.com.