Free soloing 5.12 was common for Austin Howell. Over the last six years the 31-year-old Lombard, Illinois, resident spent more time climbing without a rope than with one.
“Climbing, to me, has been a path towards peace,” he wrote on his website. “Soloing isn’t just a rare occurrence for me, it’s my way of life.”
Despite his experience, on Sunday, June 30, something went wrong and Howell fell 80 feet to his death from a climb in Linville Gorge, North Carolina, in the remote Pisgah National Forest. It’s unclear at this time what route he was on and whether a hold broke or he simply slipped. The cause of the fall is being investigated by the Forest Service.
Howell often posted videos of his solos on his popular social media accounts and on his website. Usually, he’d be climbing a huge roof of sandstone in the Southeast, swinging from one hold to the next on steep, no-way-to-reverse-a-move routes, his wild straw hair shooting up in the air making him resemble Doc Brown from Back to the Future. He was fond of tie dye t-shirts and newsboy hats. Sometimes, though, he soloed naked, eschewing even climbing shoes and a chalk bag.
He also opened up online about his mental health struggles both on and off the rock. “The most terrifying moment I’ve ever had wasn’t while soloing,” he wrote in a post from April. “It was a long time ago on top of a building, while my mind fought to destroy me … Freesoloing isn’t a death wish, it’s a life wish. It’s the single best therapy I’ve ever found for calming my tumultuous mind. The control that I’ve developed on the wall transfers into my daily life. This is important, because I’m not the guy who ‘beat depression.’ I don’t get to be that guy. I’ve got to manage this for my entire life.”
In other posts he wrote about his struggles with Bipolar II, a disorder characterized more by depressive states than manic ones.
“He just had this urge,” his mother, Terri Zinke Jackson, told the Chicago Tribune. “He explained it as feeling his most free and relaxed and comfortable when he was climbing. He fought depression and anxiety, and it almost seemed like it was medicating for him to do it.”
Over the years he’d been injured climbing several times, including breaking his back and his ankles; in 2007 he fell headfirst onto a ledge on the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite, breaking his skull, wrist, and five vertebrae in his neck.
Howell was born in Friendswood, Texas, a small town outside of Houston. He dropped out of college after studying electrical engineering for two years at the University of Houston and went to work repairing cellphone towers in Atlanta. He moved to Illinois in 2017.
Through Howell's postings on social media and his website, one friend wrote on his Facebook wall, he “tried to live transparently and struggled openly with demons, showing the way for others who struggle to follow.”