This article appeared in Rock and Ice Issue 223 (January 2015).
I hiked, alone, to a cliff where I hoped to bolt rock climbs; partners were hard to come by in the remote Maya mountains outside of
Belmopan, Belize. I had been collecting field samples for an environmental-impact study covering the district, but had saved this particular GPS grid
line for a long, dry afternoon. The area was directly adjacent to a different crag that I had recently developed, and the coordinates fell right over
a large streaked belly of clean limestone. I fixed a 70-meter rope to a tree and tossed it down the cliff. Peering over the edge, I hoped the rope
reached the ground. I clipped in and rappelled some 50 feet to a ledge, then stopped to chop with my machete through some soft trumpet trees that clung
loosely to the karst formation. I punched a messy hole, threw my rope through it, and carried on. The rope must have disturbed a colony of bees, however,
because I was soon engulfed in an angry cloud of buzzing and stinging.
Each bee buzzed full-throttle past my ears, like a revving race-car engine. Instinct sent me rushing back up to the ledge, climbing on trees and aerial
roots. At the ledge I unroped and fled to the farthest edge but the bees just kept coming, in exponentially accelerating numbers. They mainly attacked
my head, bulleting into my eyes, ears, mouth and nose. As they crawled into the vents of my helmet, I threw it down, and they were soon thick and massed
on my head.
In a moment of clarity I stopped pacing the ledge, quit screaming and rubbing dirt on my head, deflected the idea of jumping, and began to focus on my
only real option. As soon as I managed to find and clip into my rappel device, I took up slack in the rope and jumped, hoping to bypass the hive.
Unfortunately, as I skidded down, I plowed into a knot right at the spot where the nightmare had started. In a cacophony of noise, panicked and with my
eyes clenched shut against the onslaught, I held my weight with one hand and with the other attempted to fish out the loops. The tangle remained stuck
and I saw myself dying there, hanging from my rope.
Almost embarrassingly, I remembered a line from the television show “Game of Thrones”: “And there is only one thing we say to death. Not today!”
Mustering another try, I rubbed the bees temporarily from one eye and again clutched the knot. I fingered the problematic loop, pushed it and others, and
felt the kinks pop through. Nearly blind, I hurried on toward the bottom. I had to free one more knot, but rejoiced to see that the rope end fell to
the dirt. I touched down feeling that I was one step ahead of the bees, but they caught up before I could even pull the rope tail through my device.
I dashed for the river, a quarter-mile away, crashing on weak legs straight downhill through the jungle. The cut end of a cahoon frond snagged my ribcage,
and I nearly fell on my machete blade. Realizing it still hung from my harness, I dashed it away. Don’t pass out. Stumbling on, I spotted ferns and
the river, and collapsed into the cool, clear water. As I emerged, I saw that my attackers had relented. I was conscious, and the sun shone on my face.
I attempted to stand but all my muscles had constricted, so I resorted to pawing and rolling in the shallow rapid. I crawled up the riverbank
to my Jeep, tried to unlock it, and fell down. I lay in the tall grass shaded by aromatic orange trees, looking up. Bliss. No, shock.
I rocked my body up, and threw for the bracket that held the side mirror. Got it! I hung on, clumsily fiddling with the lock until it popped open. The
door swung out and knocked me flat again. I dragged myself up, started the engine, and took off, careening through the citrus rows of an orange-tree
plantation. I laid on the horn until I found an employee.
He shrank back in shock, saying, “Abejas Africanas.” I barked, “Ayudame, estoy muriendo!” (Help me, I’m dying!)
He didn’t know how to operate the transmission, so I reached over from the passenger seat to shift while he fishtailed us down the rocky two-track road,
across the river and to the plantation buildings.
At the main gate, I waited as he and other workers gathered and conversed. Finally, to speed things up, I yelled, opened the door, and rolled out into
the dirt. No one in the crowd would touch me for fear of the bees still moving around in my hair and clothes. Then I opened my eyes to see a massive
tractor tire skidding to a stop close to where I lay. A young man jumped down in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes, and assured me in English Creole
that we would get moving “rytenow.” He helped me out of the dirt and into my Jeep, and drove half an hour to the hospital while I vomited all over
the back seats and attempted to radio my coworkers, resisting the urge to sleep.
Arriving in the antiquated ER of Belmopan’s only hospital, I convulsed violently while nurses cut my hair with a straight razor and began to pull a multitude
of stingers from all over my body. My brother, who was also working collecting biological samples in the area, had heard the radio chatter, and reached
the hospital within minutes. He was told by doctors that I was unlikely to survive the night, which passed restlessly in the short birthing bed I was
assigned. My neck stiffened so that I could barely move it and dark fluids leaked from nearly every orifice.
The next day I traveled by ambulance to Belize City, about an hour away. There I lay for several days with failing kidneys and liver. I must have been
the youngest person there on dialysis by 20 years. I squinted through swollen eye slits and pushed spoons of food past lips that would make even Jagger
The dialysis pulled me through, my parents arrived, and eventually I was well enough to return to the States for further supervision and testing. A month
after the incident, I was back in Belize.
What now? I’m better, at least physically. I keep thinking that after this scare I should settle down a little. Right? Choose one of the many locales I
have fallen in love with, apply for a residency, and dig in.
Yet, considering the overflow of emotion I’m experiencing, I’m far too excited to be alive to be settling down, even on my own terms. I’m tempted to tear
a hole in my savings, blow all my money on plane tickets, and reunite all the little dirtbag families I have ever been a part of over the years. I
want to go around the world hugging each and every friend, girlfriend, student and mentor I have met along the way. Whatever I do, life is all the
Mitch Parker has been nurturing a small climbing community in Belize, made up of local youths.