Killer Bees: Attacked on a Multipitch Climb in Hueco Tanks
“Something stung my neck, and I smacked a bee and crushed it. I looked down to see a cloud of black-and-yellow bees spewing out of the flake, as if the cliff face was vomiting a horde of tiny daggers at me.”
Ian showed up at my campsite at 8:00 and hopped into my car to drive around to the Front Side parking lot at Hueco Tanks, Texas. Arriving in the lot, we started hauling gear out of the trunk. It was 2015, just before I left for a tour in Afghanistan after a season as campground host.
“Hey, Ian, what do you want to do?”
Ian Cappelle was packing one of the double ropes, two 8.6 mils, that we were going to use, while I grabbed the other.
He said, “How about Indecent Exposure?”
“Ohhh,” I said. “I get the heebie jeebies every time I’ve been on it, but if you lead the first pitch, I’ll do the second.” The route had been the site of a fatality in 1984. It is exposed and intimidating: the first pitch runout, the second the crux.
We racked up in the parking lot and walked the quarter mile to the base of North Mountain, one of the tallest formations in this desert climbing paradise an hour’s drive from El Paso. Hueco Tanks is known worldwide for its bouldering, but it also offers great cragging. The majority of roped routes are on the west face of North Mountain, with 200 to 300 vertical feet of climbing.
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Ian began climbing, clipped the first bolt and negotiated the runout to the second one. Then he picked up the pace, moving and placing gear steadily. As he recalls: “I got to a slabby bulge where a plaque read, ‘In memory of Bruce Davidson’ and thought, I know that name. Bruce was the Geological Sciences doctoral student at UTEP [University of Texas at El Paso] who had the accident. I reached the anchors, and brought up Doug.”
I led out right, the wall dropping out underfoot for more than 200 feet. This pitch gives Indecent Exposure (5.9+), established by Mike Head, Mark Motes and John McCall in the 1970s, the name. The terrain starts with a 10-foot traverse to a giant right-facing dihedral that crosses over the bulging 5.12 Deliverance. A big step out to the other wall, then the technical crux—about 10 feet of small edges on fingers and toes—brought me to a refrigerator-sized flake. I stepped onto the flake and clipped a bolt, Ian watching from the belay only about 20 feet across from me.
Last time I fell there, I thought, glad to be over the crux and safe. Then: Where did all these bugs come from?
Something stung my neck, and I smacked a bee and crushed it. I looked down to see a cloud of black-and-yellow bees spewing out of the flake, as if the cliff face was vomiting a horde of tiny daggers at me. As they instantly struck all over my body, I jumped off the flake, falling a few feet before Ian caught me.
“Down, down, down, down!” I yelled.
Ian shouted for help as he paid out the rope; then the air was quiet, except for the buzz of hundreds of bees following me.
Ian lowered me 30 feet, out of the line of sight. He remembers this:
“A bee flew toward me and immediately stung me on the neck. I was swarmed: stung all over, and fighting to keep the bees out of my mouth, ears and nose. I called out to Doug multiple times but couldn’t hear anything over the buzzing. I kept lowering Doug and finally let out all the rope. I checked, thinking Doug would be off in a minute, but the lines stayed tight. Doug was hanging off my harness. The bees kept coming, crawling all over me. The ledge was a carpet of them. As I faded out, I thought, This is a fucked-up way to die.”
I stopped about 80 feet above the ground, six or eight feet out from the wall. The bees were going for my face and eyes. One flew in my mouth, furry and vibrating, and I spit it out.
I yelled up, “Ian, untie the blue rope and escape with it!”
No reply. I put my hat over my face and kept yelling for Ian.
I’m fucked! They were still stinging me. Maybe 15 minutes had passed. No reply from Ian, and I couldn’t see him. Still dangling, I saw a bolt on Deliverance, about 15 feet away. I swung into the wall, catching the bolt on my third try, clipped in and yelled up to Ian again. Silence. Bees were still stinging me. Their carcasses cascaded down the wall like a little waterfall. I would later stop counting at over 200 stings.
If I stay here, I’ll die. I would have to untie and down climb the last 40 or 50 feet.
It didn’t look too difficult, with big huecos on a low-angle slab, maybe 5.6? I girth hitched all my long slings together for about 12 feet of protection, untied and started down. Dead bees squished under my fingers as I gripped the holds and moved below them. The bees were still attacking, but in decreasing numbers. At this point I was numb from the poison.
I made it to the ground and started scrambling down the trail, bees still stinging though I didn’t notice them anymore. Nauseous and delirious, I stumbled to the road as the first park ranger pulled up; someone had phoned in an alert. The ranger and I exchanged a few words as he danced away from a few bees that still followed me.
“Ian!” We both called Ian’s name. We could see him at the belay, about 250 yards diagonally up from us. He was curled up, a dark cloud of bees covering him like a blanket that was in continuous motion.
We yelled his name again and again.
Well, shit! I couldn’t just leave him there to die, and even if he was already dead, I couldn’t sit and wait for the El Paso Search and Rescue team. There was absolutely no way I could go to Ian’s funeral and look his family in the eye if I didn’t try, even if I died trying. If the situation was reversed I hoped he would do the same.
The ranger, who had pulled up right by the trail, ran me over to the regular parking lot, saving me five minutes. I grabbed an extra rope out of the trunk, filled up my Camelbak and drank another quart of water. I felt sick, numb and thirsty, and just wanted to quit and say, Fuck it.
Wanda Olszewski, the head ranger, arrived in her truck and gave me a radio and a small mesh net to cover my face. I started walking up the back side of North Mountain, wishing I had the stamina to run. The attack had started maybe 30 or 40 minutes ago, and it would take at least another 15 or 20 to reach the top, set up and rappel to Ian.
Will he still be alive?
Halfway up the hike, I ran into two more climbers, Lowell Stevenson and a friend. “Lowell, Ian and I were on Indecent and got hit by bees! I have to get him. Can you help me out?”
“Hell, yeah, lead the way.”
The three of us scrambled on to the top and set the anchor. I dreaded the descent, everything in me wanted to quit, but the thought of getting stung to death was the lesser evil than living with myself if I gave up.
I tied in, and Lowell lowered me. I wasn’t sure I could even reach Ian.
After 70 feet, I could see him, about another 30 feet down. Bees were still stinging the shit out of him, forming the same moving blanket that I had seen from the road, amid a sinister high-frequency buzzing.
He raised his head for an instant, his eyes, lips and ears puffy with venom. I saw pain and despair but, most important, life.
“Lowell, keep lowering!”
As Lowell resumed, bees landed on my arms and hands, stabbing, leaving poison sacs. It doesn’t hurt anymore. At the belay I clipped in with my daisy chain and untied from the lowering rope.
“Ian, I’m going to get you out of here.”
I pulled up the empty hanging ropes as fast as I could, and rigged my ATC to the anchor. Though semiconscious, Ian reacted well to simple instructions. As I unclipped him from the belay and started the lower, he was able to push his face and body away from the cliff face.
An ambulance showed up, and medics hurried to the base of the climb. They untied Ian and started helping him, one on each side, to the parking lot. They accidentally veered off the path, and, in an encouraging sign of spirit, Ian yelled, “You guys aren’t on the fucking trail!” With the arms they were holding, he pulled the medics in the right direction.
I rapped, getting stung until I reached the ground; a medevac bird landed, and I watched the crew load Ian and fly away. A medic offered help, but I declined. Our friend Troy Wilson and his partner waited right next to our car and had both completed a wilderness first responder course. I stripped down to my boxer shorts, and they scraped the stingers out with credit cards (using tweezers to pull out stingers squeezes more poison into your body).
I hurried on to the ER, where I found Ian conscious. He was held overnight and released. He didn’t remember yelling at the medics or much of anything after he passed out.
Ian and I have climbed together since, but not on that route.
—with contributions from Ian Cappelle.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 266 (November 2020).
Douglas April, a retired US Army infantryman, cavalryman, aviator and intelligence officer, lives on his sailboat in San Francisco Bay.