Home > News

Bold Free Soloist Austin Howell Dies in Fall

He died at Shortoff Mountain, where he once free soloed 15 big routes in a day

Well known free soloist Austin Howell died after he fell while free soloing at Shortoff Mountain in North Carolina on June 30.

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.”

Howell’s parents wrote on his Facebook page: “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.”

View this post on Instagram

“Sandman” 5.12b/c (7b/+) – my nineteenth 5.12 solo – I ran three laps on it, which brings me up to 37 laps spread amongst those climbs Many thanks to @slzerdz for the hospitality and the belays! It@made for a sublime morning of climbing before I left town! I’m home today, with a flight to catch this evening. North Carolina here I come 😉 It only took me thirty minutes of preparation, and it felt remarkably relaxed when all was said and done. Perfectly my style: Big moves, positive crimps, twisting body motion. Plus I’ve been training hard, and became psychologically prepared by climbing thin and insecure sandbags at Devil’s Lake – that place is great practice! If you can master a move at DL, you can do it *anywhere* So it might be soft, but I don’t know my own strength, and I haven’t climbed enough hard things lately to feel “calibrated” well enough to make a firm comment. It might just have been a perfect fit for me, and I might just not know my own strength right now 🤷‍♂️ Regardless, it was *extremely* fun! one of the most pleasant solos of this year actually! #SendingWithAHat #LifeWithoutLimits #KeepAustinWeird #Mojo #YoloSolo

A post shared by The Process With Austin Howell (@freesoloist) on

In 2015, a video of Howell free soloing Dopey Duck, a 100-metre 5.9 in Linville Gorge, without climbing shoes or clothes went viral. That same year, he was seriously injured in a roped climbing accident in Yosemite. A fall on the first pitch of The Nose left him with a broken back. After his recovery, he began free soloing more difficult climbs.

In 2017, he free soloed his hardest route with a send of Dalai Lama 5.12c in Denny Cove, Tennessee. Over the years, he also free soloed Satisfaction 5.12a in Tennessee and Tangerine 5.12a in Alabama.

Back in 2016, he free soloed 15 routes (up to 150 metres and 5.11d) in a day at Shortoff Mountain. He describes every route in detail on his website here. He made nearly 40 free solo laps of 5.12 routes during his years climbing without ropes.

“The only safety any of us have lies in our ability to make competent decisions,” he wrote in a March 10 blog post.

“We do this based on the consequences we see, the abilities we have, and the difficulties in our path. As long as the choices we make are commensurate with the skills we take up the wall, then we’re being ‘safe enough.’”

He once wrote in a blog post after soloing 5.12, “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 50 feet 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.”

Howell’s mother, Terri Zinke Jackson, said he will be buried in Mississippi, the home state of his extended family. “He was truly a wonderful human being,” she said. On Facebook and Reddit pages set up in his memory, many friends and family have shared stories.

“He died pursuing his passion, doing the thing that drove his very existence,” one wrote. “Few people will be granted that luxury. His stoke will live on, and his presence will always be appreciated, never forgotten.”

Our condolences to Howell’s family and friends.