Friends and fellow climbers pay tribute to prolific free soloist Austin Howell, who died in North Carolina’s Linville Gorge last summer.
On June 30, 2019, rock climber Austin Howell died after a fall while free soloing Shortoff Mountain at Linville Gorge in North Carolina. He was 31.
At the time, we were in the process of editing two articles we had worked on together about Austin, a fearless and free-spirited adventurer, who was passionate about his sport. One was about free-soloing for this magazine, Blue Ridge Outdoors, the other about the climbing in video games for Electronic Gaming Monthly.
After interviewing Austin multiple times, transcribing those interviews, and researching his endeavors, it has become difficult to put into words the profound effect his sudden passing had on us as writers. Moreso, it wouldn’t be right to compare our experiences to those of the many friends, family, and fellow climbers who were close to him.
So to honor his memory almost exactly a year after his passing, we interviewed some of Austin’s friends and fellow climbers and asked them to share memories, as well as what drove him to excel and test his limits on the rocks. He’s remembered as an ambitious, extremely skilled climber, who was willing to help others that had the same dedication to the sport with a selfless nature and precocious attitude.
“He definitely didn’t want to die,” says Ben Wu, a guide and photographer. “It was climbing that gave him life.”
Susan is a mother of two who’s been climbing for 10 years and first met Austin at Joshua Tree in 2015. She watched him free solo and was “oddly comfortable with it.” They were self-proclaimed “corporate dirtbags,” ascendant in their respective industries and working day jobs that allowed them to spend as much time as possible climbing. They formed an immediate bond and she counted him as a “brother from a different mother.”
At the time, both lived in the Chicago area, and they climbed in the Midwest on both rock and ice. They took impromptu climbing road trips on a whim. Austin, an expert lead climber, encouraged Hill’s climbing by sending her routes and exercises, and they had planned a trip together to Linville Gorge.
“At a drop of a hat he would send climbing routines for anyone he knew. He wanted to teach people everything he knew and give back. I really feel he was an artist, the smartest person and most complex and genius person I’ve ever met. Climbing for him was his way of giving back to this world. His ideas were so robust and well thought out. He could see the problem before it was actually there. He was the best problem-solver I’ve ever met.”
Jim climbed at the same gym as Austin, Vertical Endeavors, which is located just outside of Chicago. The two became friends and Austin encouraged and mentored Jim’s climbing. The two were planning to meet up at the gym the weekend after Austin got back from Linville.
“He liked to climb peacefully, and not jump around like some people, it was like a thing of beauty and I miss that so much. He didn’t do things to be flashy or get attention. From a distance he comes off cocky, but he really wasn’t a show-off artist or anything. He loved climbing; he didn’t go out to seek attention. He would skip a route if he felt it was too dangerous.”
Bones was an instructor at Vertical Endeavors, and Austin’s outgoing persona led them to be close friends. Rangel is also a professional videographer and he filmed Austin on a handful of climbs at various crags arounds the Midwest in the hopes of making a documentary. Austin worked teaching cell-phone tower workers how to climb safely, and he brought Rangel to the on-site practice towers so the two could rehearse rappelling and shooting together.
“One of the first things he showed me was the [well-known] photo of him soloing naked and I thought this guy is dorky and hilarious and that’s my kind of friend.
“I was never too worried about filming him. I trusted his process, listening to him talk in-depth about climbing on those trips, and how precise he was with his climbing. He usually listened to music when climbing, and on some of the easier climbs I have some funny clips of him dancing to the music on a hold.”
Jason is a musician and outdoor adventure guide in North Georgia. He connected with Austin on social media, where he was very active and communicated with many fellow climbers on Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram. Jason and Austin spoke or texted nearly every day, sharing a common love of music and climbing. The two had planned their first climbing trip together that summer.
“He had just sent me his soloing music playlist and it was like Tony Hawk sending a trick guide. I looked up to the guy for some of the routes he did that probably no one else will probably do on this planet ever again. He was an amazing guitar player; he played excellent 12 string guitar. He played very melodically and chill, and very beautiful. The music he put in the background on his Youtube channel is almost eerie.”
Ben is a photographer and adventure guide who lives near Linville George. He first met Austin while resting with his brother on Jim Dandy. He remembers noticing the free soloist approaching wearing unlaced hiking shoes, a tie-dyed shirt that read “Keep Austin Weird,” shorts, and a beret. Austin offered them Snicker Bars and continued climbing ahead of them. He found him on Instagram and they communicated regularly. Two years later Austin invited him to rappel and take photographs of him at Shortoff Mountain.
After a long day of shooting, the two parted ways, with Austin staying behind to do a few more laps. He learned of Austin’s fall from the search and rescue team at the trailhead. He was tasked with informing Austin’s friends and family about his accident.
“Even though I didn’t know him very well, he had this really infectious personality. You could tell his excitement for climbing and for life in general was genuine, that was very contagious. He inspired me to be a better person and work on my own goals.”
Cover Photo: Austin Howell, photo by Ben Wu