A Thousand Stings

Swarmed by killer bees, their toxins coursing through his bloodstream, a rock climber passes out on a ledge 130 feet up. Can his buddy reach him in time?

Nicholas Hune-Brown Published Sep 22, 2021 16:50:33 IST
2021-09-22T16:50:33+05:30
2021-09-22T16:50:33+05:30
A Thousand Stings illustration by Steven P. Hughes

The rock hills of Hueco Tanks rise dramatically above the scrubby Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas, four masses of weathered, craggy rock that have long been a climbing paradise.

Doug April was just finishing a six-month stint as a camp host at Hueco Tanks State Park, living by himself in an RV. The lanky 46-year-old was divorced with three kids, the youngest in high school. He had served two tours of duty in Iraq, where he saw plenty that was hard to forget. Through it all, climbing had been a refuge. Out on the rock, he could turn off his buzzing mind and just focus on what was in front of him.

Now, in May 2015, that respite was coming to an end. April had left the Army three weeks earlier, retiring as a major, but he wasn’t through with war zones. In a few weeks, he was headed to Afghanistan for three months to fly reconnaissance missions as a private military contractor. He wanted to make the most of his last days of climbing.

At around 8 a.m., April’s climbing partner, Ian Cappelle, pulled up to the campsite. The 38-year-old geologist had moved to El Paso with his wife five years earlier. Burly and bearded, Cappelle met April while out climbing just after he’d moved to town, and they’d been buddies ever since. Cappelle saw April as a kind of big brother—an experienced climber and a generous teacher.

“What should we do today?” April asked as they packed their ropes that morning. “Well, you’ve been up Indecent Exposure twice already,” Cappelle said. “I’d like to do that route.”

April paused, looking down pensively at his red climbing shoes. Indecent Exposure had always given him the heebie-jeebies. It wasn’t the most difficult route in Hueco Tanks, but it was probably the most intimidating. It had two pitches, or sections between belay points, and both had passages that left you hanging out unprotected over 130-feet drops.

Midway along the route there was a plaque in memory of a University of Texas, El Paso, student who had died while attempting it. But this would be April’s last climb for quite a while, and he wanted to make it a memorable one. Cappelle agreed to lead the first part of the climb, and April would lead the second.

Cappelle began by working his way to his right, his chalked fingers finding their way to the cliff’s handholds. He and April were tethered together for safety with two lines of rope (one blue, one orange) that connected them via belaying devices on each of their harnesses. These would act as brakes if either of them fell, holding the rope tight.

Cappelle clipped the ropes into metal anchors drilled into the rock face as he went, for added protection. Midway through the first pitch, just 20 minutes into the climb, he saw the memorial plaque for the student and silently paid his respects. He made it to the ledge that marked the end of the pitch and attached himself to an anchor. April followed, and they paused a moment to rest, 130 feet up in the air.

April led the second pitch. The hardest section came early on—a huge step to the right, followed by 10 feet of slim, fingertip-and-toe edges. He’d had trouble there in past attempts, but this time he nailed it, making his way to a shelf the size of a refrigerator.

“Oh man, that was great!” he called out across the chasm, about 10 feet above his partner and 25 feet out to the right. Then he spotted something that he had not expected to see along that rocky face. This is weird, he thought. Where did all these bugs come from?

April slapped the back of his neck. That was all the rest of the colony needed to hear. Suddenly, a cloud of bees swirled out of a nearby crack in the wall—more bees than he’d ever seen. It was like a scene from a horror movie. The swarm enveloped April in an instant, stinging him over and over again, the pain spreading across his neck, face and body. Regular honeybees can sometimes be territorial, but Africanized bees, though somewhat smaller, are much more aggressive. They arrived in the northern hemisphere in 1956, when African bees introduced to Brazil to increase honey production escaped, bred with European honeybees and ultimately spread across the Americas, making their way to the southwestern United States by the 1990s.

When Africanized bees sense a threat, they don’t send just a couple of bees to ward it off—they send hordes, and they’ll keep chasing for the length of four football fields until the threat is eliminated. If someone’s stung 1,000 to 1,500 times, scientists estimate, they’ve got a 50–50 chance of dying. Since the 1950s, swarms of Africanized bees have been responsible for more than 1,000 deaths worldwide; there’s a reason they’re known as killer bees.

Cappelle watched in disbelief as April jumped off the ledge. He felt the jerk of tension in his harness as his partner’s weight pulled the rope taut. He had no idea what was wrong, nor why April urgently yelled, “Lower me, lower me, lower me, go, go, go!” But from his perch on the narrow ledge, Cappelle played out all 200 feet of rope, ripping it through the belaying device as fast as he could. Below him, the wall sloped inwards beneath the ledge he was standing on, and April dis­appeared from view. That’s when Cappelle saw the first bee flying toward him. He figured it would go away if he just ignored it. Instead, it flew straight at him and stung him on the neck. The stings came quickly after that—one, two, three, four and then a crescendo of pain as the bulk of the hive attacked him. Cappelle tried to cover his face, a high-pitched whine drowning out everything as the bees attacked his ears, eyes, nose and mouth.

 

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His mind raced as the bees stung him. Why hadn’t April unclipped himself once he reached the ground? Cappelle could have pulled up the rope, anchored himself to the wall, and rappelled down to safety. But April was still hanging there, dead weight. Cappelle stood on the ledge and sucked water out of his climbing bottle, desperate to stay hydrated in an effort to stave off the effects of the bee venom. He reached up to brush the bees off his head and felt a layer of insect bodies an inch thick, stinging him over and over again. The toxins coursed through his bloodstream.

At a certain point, his thoughts turned from panic to a strange calmness. It was a terrible way to go. He was so sorry his wife was going to lose him this way, but there was nothing he could do. The world shrank around him, contracting to a pinprick, and Cappelle blacked out, slumping down on to the rocky ledge.

Below him, April hung suspended in midair, six feet away from the wall and about 65 feet off the ground. He’d been stuck that way for about 10 minutes, and the bees hadn’t stopped stinging.

“Untie the blue rope!” he yelled up to Cappelle. They were double-roped for safety, and he wanted Cappelle to use one of the ropes to rappel himself away from the insects. But neither man could hear the other. All they could hear was the deafening buzz.

After so many stings, April’s body was numb to the pain. He could feel the bees climbing all over him, but the stings hardly registered. One flew into his mouth—vibrating and fuzzy, with a slight flowery taste—and he quickly spat it out. After more than a dozen stings, people can experience vertigo, nausea and even convulsions and fainting. April had been stung hundreds of times. He pulled his baseball cap over his face and tried to think.

He had always been able to keep his head in a bad situation. He’d crashed a helicopter in training and seen men die in combat. And no matter the danger, he’d always managed to flick a switch in his brain to turn off the fear and concentrate on what needed to be done.

What needed to be done now was clear: He had to climb down. The face of the mountain was crisscrossed with climbing routes—he just had to find one. About 15 feet away, he spotted an anchor that was part of another route. He swung himself toward the bolt, caught it on the third try and clipped himself in. Then he released the ropes that were attached to Cappelle, leaving them dangling in the wind.

On a good day, this wouldn’t have been that difficult a route, but this wasn’t a good day. April was pumped full of bee venom, his body inflamed and his mind swimming. And yet, through that fog of pain, toxins and fear, he managed to carefully pick out the route. The climb down was the longest five minutes of April’s life. By the time he made it to the ground, he was nauseous and nearly delirious. He stumbled towards the road just as a park ranger pulled up as part of his daily patrol. “Ian,” April gasped, gesturing up at the cliff. They could see Cappelle up on the ledge. He was in a foetal position, a massive cloud of bees surrounding him. “Ian!” April yelled. His friend didn’t move. The ranger called search and rescue. But April did the math in his head. It would take them about an hour to get a team from El Paso. And to get a team that could safely climb up to Cappelle and remove him? That could take climbers who didn’t know the area a few hours more. Cappelle likely didn’t have that much time. April knew what he had to do. “Drive me back to my car,” he said to the ranger. “I’ve got another rope in there. I’ll go get him.”

April scrambled up the rocks as fast as he could in his condition. The quickest way to get to Cappelle was to hike up the back of the mountain and then rappel down to him. April wore the park ranger’s radio, as well as a mesh net that he pulled over his cap.

Partway up the trail, he ran into two climbing friends and conscripted them into the rescue plan. By the time they reached the top, it had been about 45 minutes since the start of the attack, and April had no idea whether Cappelle was still alive. Even in his nauseous state, it didn’t cross his mind to ask one of his fellow climbers to head down instead. It was his partner down there—he would be the one to get him. April set an anchor at the edge of the cliff and clipped himself in. One of the other climbers began belaying him down.

For about the first 50 feet, Cappelle was out of sight. Finally the cliff grew steep enough that April could see his partner, still motionless, still covered by a swirling blanket of bees. “Ian!” he yelled. This time Cappelle looked up. “He had the same look I’ve seen too many times in combat, where someone’s been blown up or shot,” April remembers. It’s not fear, exactly—more like a look of pure incredulity: How did this happen to me? “That’s how he looked at me. Then he put his head back down.”April made his way down to the ledge. The bees were all over him again, but he barely noticed the new stings. He attached Cappelle to his belay device. “I’m going to get you out of here,” he said. Cappelle was just conscious enough to follow April’s instructions while April carefully lowered him 130 feet to the ground. Below them, the first ambulance was just pulling up. April watched as the rangers and paramedics collected Cappelle. Then he lowered himself down. By the time he reached the ground, Cappelle was in a helicopter destined for a hospital in El Paso. It was only then that the search-and-rescue team arrived at Hueco Tanks.

April turned down the paramedics’ advice to go to the hospital, even though he felt faint. In the parking lot, he ran into two climbers who had wilderness first-aid training. The best way to remove the stingers, they told him, wasn’t to use tweezers, which squeezes the poison from the venom sacs into your body. April stripped down, and the two men used their credit cards to scrape him down, sloughing off hundreds of stingers that fell on to the desert sand. At the hospital, doctors estimated that Cappelle had been stung more than a thousand times—a high enough dose to be lethal. He was lucky; after a day or two, the venom was flushed out of his system, and he was fine.

Months later, after April returned from Afghanistan, the men planned another climb. After all, it’s what they did together—they climbed. And though they returned to Hueco Tanks, they weren’t ready to tackle Indecent Exposure again. “I made sure we weren’t going to do that route,” April said wryly. So up a different path they went. Any trepidation they might have felt being out there dissipated quickly. They reached a small alcove high above the desert and sat down to rest.

In the months since the attack, Cappelle had had plenty of time to think about what could have happened if April hadn’t come back for him. His one memory after regaining consciousness is of a thick carpet of dead bees covering the cliff ledge and then April’s red shoes entering the picture. Cappelle tried to tell April how much he appreciated what he’d done, how he’d come back for him even though he himself had suffered so. But his friend waved him off. It hadn’t even been a choice. “There was just no way he wasn’t going to try to help me,” says Cappelle.

From their perch on the small ­alcove, the two men took in the view. Out there, in the Basin and Range Province, just a little elevation gives sweeping vistas in every direction. The Franklin Mountains sat out to the west, hazy and indistinct. To the north, 136 km away, they could see the faint outline of the Sacramento Mountains silhouetted against a sky that seemed endless. The sun was just right, the breeze light. They stood up again, the rope strong and secure between them, and went back out on the rock.

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