Tread lightly over potentially deadly terrain.
In mid-August 2001 I was following my best friend up the first pitch of Yosemite’s Nutcracker. Chris opted for the left-facing dihedral start to the climb, and, it being August in the Valley, we began our ascent at 5:30 a.m. Chris hiked the pitch, put me on belay, and I began to climb. Halfway up, acute pain erupted in my face and neck and I fell several body lengths before Chris arrested my fall. Twelve hours later I was lying in the Yosemite Medical Clinic, the entire left side of my face horribly swollen; it would be 10 full days before the inflammation subsided and I could climb again. The doctors explained that I have an anaphylactic (hypersensitive) allergy to vespids — yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps — aggressive stinging insects that nest in dark places, like splitter cracks and flakes. It’s estimated that some two million Americans are dangerously allergic to vespids, resulting in 90 to 100 deaths per year — three to four times more fatalities than snakebites. While honeybees (which may be dangerously aggressive in the Southwest where Africanized bees are found) die after inflicting only one sting, vespids are capable of inflicting numerous stings. Luckily, there are tactics for preventing a sting, and methods for dealing with severe allergies that allow anaphylactic climbers to enjoy long routes.Know your limits. If there are hereditary allergies in your family, get an allergy test. This test will quantify and qualify which insects you’re allergic to, and let you know the necessary steps to take if you’re stung.Immunotherapy. Once your allergist has quantified the level of your allergy, you can begin a series of low-dosage injections of insect venom that, over time, greatly decrease the likelihood of an anaphylactic reaction. It’s recommended that anyone with known allergies get a thorough work-up by an allergist to understand the exact parameters of their sensitivity. Stealth clothing. Scientists believe that vespids are attracted to dark colors and flowery patterns on clothes. Black particularly angers vespids, whereas white is a neutral color.Fragrances. Vespids are attracted to fruity smells, so avoid wearing strong-smelling deodorants, perfumes, cologne, soaps, shampoos, and hair sprays. Vespids are lured as well to the sweet fragrance of garbage; make sure your refuse is securely sealed on walls or long routes — also watch out for sweet-smelling sodas. Furthermore, vespids are drawn to the smell of sweat; if you’re feeling especially “fresh,” take extra care. Homeland security. Vespids and honeybees are aggressive only when their nests are threatened. Honeybees typically build their nests in trees, but also may nest in cliff features such as huecos. Hornets and paper wasps nest under roofs and overhangs, but they sometimes construct their homes on blank faces as well. Yellow jackets are burrowers (they build subterranean nests), so take special care to suss out dirt-covered ledges or encrusted cracks for hidden nests. Watch for the flight patterns of insects entering and leaving a zone as an indication of a nearby nest, and avoid that area. In general, if you stay 10 feet away from a nest you should usually be outside the insects’ alarm zone. Cool temps. Stinging insects are cold blooded, so they become drunken and sluggish when the temperature drops. Cooler days, evenings, early mornings, and cooler seasons are ideal for anaphylactic climbers.Scene of the crime. When a vespid or honeybee stings, it releases pheromones into the air that incite other nearby insects from the nest to attack the victim. If you get stung, get away from the site as fast as possible. Approach slowly. If your pitch puts you on a collision course with a nest, look for an alternate passage, or strongly consider retreating. If that’s impossible, the non-allergic leader should approach the nest slowly and quietly, as vespids view quick motion and loud noises as aggressive behavior.Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em. Beekeepers use smoke to dope up their livestock before harvesting honey. Tape a pack of butts and a lighter to your helmet, and light up if you encounter a nest. The smoke might buy you enough time to climb to safety. Fast breaks. Some people require a trip to the hospital in addition to an Epi-pen injection when stung. Depending on the extent of your allergy, consider routes with a straightforward escape, and research what rescue services are available before leaving the deck.Epi-Pens. Epinephrine pens are used by people with allergies to combat anaphylaxis, and should be mandatory gear. Experts recommend carrying two Epi-Pens. Take a length of accessory cord and thoroughly duct tape it to the plastic carrying tube, then girth-hitch the cord to a gear loop. Make sure your partner knows how to administer the injection, and that your pen is current and hasn’t been ruined by hot temps (see manufacturers’ labels for temperature tolerances). This Tech Tip was written with expert consultation from Dr. Richard Lankow and Dr. Beth Bennett.