Looming above me is a 50 foot wall of ice; a waterfall frozen by the brutal winters. On my feet, I wear boots with sharp spikes jutting out called crampons. In my hands, I hold two ice picks, ready to tear into the sheer wall of ice. I’m basically a walking safety violation. A rope goes from my harness to the top of the ice wall and back down to the guy (known as a belayer) who’s there to save me from injury or death should I slip and fall. I’m about to try ice climbing, and I’m positively shaking. A blast of winter chill slaps me in the face as I step up to the wall and swing the pick.
Every year, the Munising Ice Festival is held in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.), drawing climbing enthusiasts from all over the world, including Will Gadd—considered to be the third best ice climber in the world—who regaled us with stories of his climbs on K2 and Everest.
The first morning of climbing is cold, but not cold like one might expect of a normal wintery day. This was biting, freeze-the-inside-of-your-nostrils cold. But not even the frigid temperatures can keep away the climbers as we head for the Curtain—a frozen waterfall of ice about 200 feet across and 50 feet high.
I watch as some people clamber up the wall, making it look quite easy. I start to feel a little better, then I hear a scream. Looking up, I see a man dangling upside down. He has broken off a sizeable chunk of ice, lost his balance, and is now dangling precariously. He quickly rights himself, shakes off the nerves, and finishes the climb.
Now it’s my turn. Picks in my hands, spiky shoes on my feet, and a cold sweat on my brow, I face the ice.
“Just remember to stop every so often and shake your hands out,” my belayer tells me. “You don’t want the screaming barfies.”
“Huh? The what?”
“Screaming barfies. But don’t worry about it; just remember to shake your hands out every few feet.”
I try to clear my mind of his warning as I kick my crampon-covered boot into the wall. Little shards of ice fly off in every direction. I kick my other boot in. So far so good. Ice climbing is a very slow-moving process. You must move slowly and methodically, making sure each kick of your foot and throw of your ax provides a good stable hold.
Little by little, I make it farther up the ice. My heart is racing. My hands are clenched hard around the ice picks. After about fifteen minutes of unstable climbing, I reach the top. I breathe a sigh of relief. I did it. I look down at the tiny cheering people below me and then out toward the beautiful and icy Lake Superior. At this moment, I’ve never felt so alive.
I lean back and start descending the ice wall. It’s at this point I realize how cold I truly am, and I can’t feel my hands. I hit the ground and try to take my hands off the ice picks. They aren’t budging.
“I think you’re about to have the screaming barfies,” my belayer says.
“Screaming barfies” is a term used by ice climbers to describe what happens during or after climbing. Because your hands are constantly above your head for 30 to 45 minutes, all the blood rushes away. When you finally lower your freezing hands, the warm blood rushes back in, thus causing you to want to scream and barf at the same time. This is now happening to me.
The best way to describe the sensation is to imagine a time when you’ve fallen asleep on your arm only to wake up and feel like someone is poking a thousand needles in it. It’s like that, times a hundred. I suck it up and scream inside my head. I never again forget to shake my hands out.
Despite my encounter with the barfies, ice climbing has become one of my favorite adventure experiences. If you ever get the opportunity to do it, don’t pass it up. There were all ages at the Ice Festival from 4-year-olds to people who looked about 80. You don’t need any skill, just some pointy shoes, ice picks, and a whole lot of self-confidence. Go and experience the nature, experience the rush, experience the beauty. The ice is calling you … but watch out for those screaming barfies.