Killer Bees: Attacked on a Multipitch Climb in Hueco Tanks

Question: How do you escape a cloud of angry killer bees when you're hundreds of feet off the deck ? Answer: It's not easy.

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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.

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.

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