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Austin Howell, 31, Dies in Free Soloing Fall

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, on 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 yesterday afternoon: “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.”

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.

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.

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.”


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