Rock Climber Decribes Mt. Lemmon Bee Attack; Stung "Upwards of 1,500 Times," He Says

Robert Mackley was counting the number of bee-sting marks on his hand the other day, just to help the time go by.

He got to 90 on one hand, before he got to the wrist.

The 26-year-old Tucson rock climber is still recuperating from a nightmare-inspiring, August 10 attack by "killer" bees on Mt. Lemmon. He says he was stung about 1,500 times while fixed in place at the top of a popular climbing route.

"I was hoping to get back to work this week," says Mackley, who works as a carpenter when he's not out scaling cliffs. "I don't think that's going to be possible. I'm still pretty weak."

Last week, following news reports that contained sketchy details about what happened -- including one TV news blurb which claimed equipment failure was to blame -- Mackley published his own account of the calamity.


"I'm still covered in bee stings," Mackley says, adding that the stings are like open wounds or embedded cactus needles. The hospital staff tweezed as many as they could.

"Some they pulled out by putting, like, Elmer's Glue on my skin, letting it dry, then peeling it off," he says.

Mackley, his girlfriend, their young child and their two friends, Nick and Jim, had decided to attack an old favorite of Mackley's that fateful afternoon, a route called "Resume Builder." Rated a moderate 5.8 in technical difficulty, it also happened to be the first climbing route that Mackley had ever tackled as a newbie climber several years ago.

Mackley led the near-vertical, 75-foot route and tied into the metal anchors sunk into the rock at the top. Nick went up next, and soon they were both hanging from the gear, feet resting on small ledges. 

Soon after Jim had scrambled up, Mackley says, the bees arrived, buzzing loudly, and began their surprise attack.

Mackley lowered the man he had just belayed. That was the easy part -- which was why Jim ended up with "only" about 100 stings. Then Mackley had to slam an ATC device (see picture at right) onto the dangling rope for Nick, who had never rappelled before. Five minutes later, Nick was down -- with about 400 stings.

Unfortunately for Mackley, he had sort of over-tied himself into the anchors at the top of route, given the situation. He'd expected to hang there for a while, showing Nick the ropes, and in the attack the two knots he'd tied through the anchors and into his climbing harness had cinched tight.

Suddenly, his life seemed to depend on untying a figure-eight knot and a clove hitch. But he couldn't do it. Minutes later, his hands were too swollen and numb to even try. He had to hang there and take it.

Rescuers got Mackley down a couple of hours later.

Things we're considering for our next climbing trip: Bee suit. Can of Raid. Parachute.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.