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'Horrifying' bee attack killed rappeller dangling from cliff

Fellow climbers, working by lamplight, recover body of 'all-around good guy'

  • Updated

Tucson rock climber Steven Johnson - found dead on a cliff Monday after suffering hundreds of bee stings - was remembered Wednesday as a spirited climber and valued friend.

"Steve was a well-liked, long-standing, integral part of the Tucson climbing community," said Jason Mullins, owner of the Rocks and Ropes climbing gym. "We're all saddened by the news. He'll be greatly missed."

Johnson, 55, who was found suspended from anchors on a sheer cliff, died as a result of "mass envenomation" resulting from hundreds of bee stings, said Dr. Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County.

"It was tragic and horrifying," said Eric Rhicard, one of four climbers who recovered Johnson's body from the cliff near Mount Hopkins, south of Tucson.

Rhicard and his fellow climbers went to the area Monday, after learning late in the afternoon that Johnson had planned to look into some climbs there on Sunday - and then didn't show up for work Monday.

One of the climbers found Johnson suspended on the cliff. After conferring with Santa Cruz County sheriff's authorities, Rhicard and the other climbers set out to reach their friend.

Rhicard said it appeared that Johnson had rappelled on a rope partway down the cliff to determine if he could climb a new route on the rock face.

"His rope was hanging off the cliff very near this beehive - within a few feet of it," Rhicard found when he climbed toward Johnson's body. "If the rope moved, the bees could have come out. Or it could have been a new swarm that moved in. I have no clue as to exactly what happened."


Rhicard and the other climbers, working after nightfall by the light of headlamps and a large spotlight, secured anchors and ropes to lower Johnson's body to the ground.

"We got him down to the ground at 10:30 or 11" Monday night, he said.

Members of the Santa Cruz County search-and-rescue unit arrived later with a stretcher to transport the body, Rhicard said.

He said the climbers found Johnson's small dog, which also had been killed by bee stings, and buried it on the mountain.


"We are all just missing him like crazy," said Maria Nasif, a Tucson climber and professional photographer. "He's been a friend of mine for 15 years. I climbed with him just a couple of weeks ago."

Said Rhicard, "He was a competent climber and an all-around good guy. He was loved by everybody. He went out of his way to be friendly. This is a great loss."

Kyle Johnson, son of the deceased climber, said in a brief interview that no plans have been made yet for services or a memorial.

"I'd like to thank the climbing community who reached out to my younger brother and my older sister and me," Johnson said. "We greatly appreciate it."

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz

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