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Austin Howell, 31, Known For Bold Solos in the Southeast, Dies in Free Soloing Fall

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Howell soloing Built to Tilt (5.10b), Shortoff Mountain, North Carolina, in 2014. Photo: Andy Toms.

Austin Howell, widely known in the climbing community through his Instagram account “Freesoloist,” died after a fall while free soloing at Shortoff Mountain, Linville Gorge, North Carolina, yesterday, June 30.

Howell fell sometime in the late morning. A press release from the Burke County Office of Emergency Services reads, “At approximately 1:18 pm, rescue crews reached victim utilizing rappelling equipment while other climbers were performing CPR on the victim. The victim was pronounced deceased at approximately 1:30 pm.”

At present, it is still uncertain which route Howell was soloing.

Howell’s parents updated his Facebook page with a brief message on the afternoon of June 30: “We are absolutely devastated to share that our beautiful, smart and witty son, Austin Howell passed away today. He was an absolute joy and will be remembered by everyone as a Teacher, lover of nature and Climber. He tried to help everyone he crossed in life and always confident in everything he did. I am proud he has touched so many people in the time he was with us.”

Susan Hill, a good friend of Howell’s, has been investigating the circumstances and a better picture of precisely what happened is beginning to emerge. Howell spent the morning soloing around on climbs in an area called Titled World and then did a couple laps on Dopey Duck (5.9) and Golden Rule (5.11a/b). Afterward, Wu left the crag while Howell continued soloing.

Hill told Rock and Ice in an email, “As Ben was approaching his car from the trailhead is when Austin fell. Before Austin fell and when he was still climbing two other climbers were next to him on Dopey Duck.”

Hill reached out to one of these climbers, Riley Collins, who provided the following information: “He [Howell] yelled ‘No’ and that’s when we looked up. He didn’t scream or anything, as if he accepted it. … It had to be an instant he fell 80 feet after a hold broke. He was about 20 feet from topping out. … It wasn’t his fault, he did all the prep, the hold broke.”

Howell first got attention for his soloing back in 2015, after posting a video online of himself climbing Dopey Duck, a 350-foot 5.9 in the Linville Gorge. The video showed him climbing not only without a rope or protection—but without shoes or clothes of any kind, save for his signature hat.

Rock and Ice’s editor at the time, Jeff Jackson, wrote a column after he first saw the video. Titled “Naked Soloist is Saner Than I Am,” Jackson mused on the punishing process of long days of new route development. Towards the end he wrote of Howell, “Unencumbered by any gear—not even clothes—this guy was obviously having a great time recreating in the sunshine on a splitter day. The irony reverberated through my bad shoulder like a hot poker. How pure, simple and … fun!”

Later that spring, Howell had an accident while climbing—roped—on the first pitch of the Nose on El Capitan, Yosemite. He took a fall and landed on his head on a ledge, leaving him with multiple fractured vertebrae. Howell made a full recovery, and from there took his soloing to new level of difficulty and seriousness.

Howell soloing on Shortoff Mountain on the morning of June 30. He fell later that morning. Photo: Ben Wu.

In the next few years, Howell began soloing harder and harder terrain. In 2016 he free soloed his first 5.12. His hardest free solo came in 2017, when he climbed Dalai Lama (5.12c), in Denny Cove, Tennessee.  Other notable climbs included an onsight free solo of Tangerine (5.12a), Little River Canyon, Alabama. He free soloed Satisfaction, a 5.12a at Foster Falls, Tennessee, nine separate times in his life.

Also in 2016, Howell completed what he called the “Mile of Mojo” at Shortoff Mountain—the site of his fall yesterday—a challenge described on his website as a day in which he soloed “fifteen separate routes ranging from 300 to 450 ft in heigh and from 5.6 to 5.11d in difficulty for a total of 5700 cumulative vertical feet.”

By the end of his life, he had soloed 19 unique 5.12s, repeating some of them various times for a total of 37 laps on 5.12 pitches.

Following news of his death, friends and fellow climbers began sharing memories of Howell on several Mountain Project and Reddit threads, as well as on his Facebook page. One post on Mountain Project read, “He was a generous and kind teacher, and I know of so many people whose lives he touched positively, both on and off the wall.”

[Also Read Climbers We Lost in 2018]

Another post on Reddit echoed those sentiments: “He was a personal friend and hero of mine and was an inspiration to anyone he met. Whether you were a climber or not he could make you believe in yourself.”

Yet another read, “One of the things that really came through in his comments here was how genuinely he shared others’ stoke—whether they were excited to have passed their gym lead test, onsighted their first 7 on gear, or started breaking into 12s. I never had the chance to know him in real life, but he seemed like someone who understood that a big part of the joy of climbing comes from accomplishing something that had once seemed impossible, and that this joy can happen at any level.”

[Also Read John Bachar Remembers Michael Reardon]

Howell’s approach to soloing inspired debate among followers, from those claiming he was too cavalier, to those who fully supported his approach, soloing philosophy and thought processes—which he shared in great detail on his website and in his podcast, “The Process.” But Howell soloed with the intention of living to climb another day: “The purpose of any solo is to get back down to the ground safely. Sometimes that means sending, topping out, and walking back down… Sometimes that means reversing your moves,” he wrote in a blog post about the “Mile of Mojo.”

Another shot of Howell soloing on Shortoff Mountain on the morning of June 30. He fell to his death later that morning. Here he recreates the photo taken above by Andy Toms, and flips the bird at the camera—an homage to his biggest soloing inspiration, Michael Reardon. Photo: Ben Wu.

As with other soloists—the late Michael Reardon was Howell’s biggest inspiration—Howell thought and wrote a lot about risk and motivations, consequences and death. In a blog post after soloing his 12th unique 5.12, he wrote, “Folks are alarmed when they see soloing because they think I could die. And the fact is that I could. But life is an inherently dangerous sport, the only safety any of us have lies within our ability to make competent decisions, but even so… sometimes your number comes up and there’s nothing you can do about it. The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing particularly safe about a human hanging from a rope 50ft off the ground. No matter your style of climbing, if you fuck up badly enough… You will die.

“While it’s obviously imperative that I think while practicing my lonesome dance with gravity, that doesn’t make me unique in any way. We all have to think. It’s our best form of life insurance.”

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