Austin Howell free soloing a route called Dopey Duck in Linville Gorge, North Carolina
Ben Wu
Austin Howell free soloing a route called Dopey Duck in Linville Gorge, North Carolina
Austin Howell free-soloing a route called Dopey Duck in Linville Gorge, North Carolina (Photo: Ben Wu)

The Free Soloist Who Fell to Earth

Austin Howell soloed harder and more often than almost anyone else in the country, documenting his exploits on Instagram and a podcast. But behind the scenes his mental health was faltering.

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The footage is shaky, but there’s no doubt what’s in the frame: a man climbing a section of shining white rock. “What in the world,” the guy filming says. “This guy’s fucking insane. He’s soloing, climbing this route, naked, without a rope. He’s out of his damn mind.”

As the camera zooms out, it becomes clear that the soloist is hundreds of feet off the deck. Aside from eschewing clothes and a rope, the climber is also barefoot. All he’s got on is a gray newsboy cap. A twangy guitar lick comes in, followed by the lyrics: You can’t kill me / I will not die / Not now, not ever / No never/ I’m gonna live a long, long time / My soul raves on forever.

The clip, just 1 minute 56 seconds long, ends with a still frame of the climber looking back at the camera and flipping the bird.

Titled “Free Soloing with a Hat,” the video enjoyed a viral moment in the climbing corners of the internet when its subject, Austin Howell, shared it on Vimeo in April 2015. Howell, then 27, was a sinewy string bean with a permanent dirtbag scruff of a beard. His frizzy shoulder-length locks and the hat, which he was rarely without, belied the quickly thinning hair atop his head.

I remember seeing the clip when it came out. I’d been climbing for five years and was then preparing to take a crack at the 3,000-foot Nose route on El Capitan in Yosemite. I was blown away by the absurdity of the video, which struck me as one part Free Solo, one part Jackass. But I was also unsettled, filled with a kind of macabre awe. I began following Howell on Instagram, where he went by @freesoloist.

Howell was an enigmatic character, and I found it difficult to look away from his antics. His death-defying behavior was complemented by a fun-loving temperament. When he went out soloing, for example, he kept mini Snickers in his puppy-dog-shaped chalk bag. If he came upon a roped party, he’d toss a candy bar in their direction.

I followed along as he soloed 19 different 5.12’s, a grade that many people spend their lives trying to climb with a rope on. Many of the routes were in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge and had little margin for error—an overhanging 5.12 could be as steep as the underside of a church dome; a vertical 5.12 might have grips the width of a dime’s edge. One time he free-soloed over a mile of technical terrain in a single day. The number of people in the world soloing that volume at that difficulty can likely be counted on one hand.

Howell saw his free soloing as the product of careful, sober analysis. He spent hours ahead of each hard climb satisfying what he called his “preflight checklist,” making sure he’d accounted and planned for all the variables that could go wrong. But the annals of climbing, like other extreme sports, are littered with stories of risk-takers who convinced themselves that they could reason their way out of catastrophe.

Howell on the banks of Yosemite’s Merced River in 2015
Howell on the banks of Yosemite’s Merced River in 2015 (Dana Felthauser)
Howell, shoes untied, climbing one of the 15 routes he free-soloed on November 5, 2016
Howell, shoes untied, climbing one of the 15 routes he free-soloed on November 5, 2016 (Andy Toms)

Howell first went climbing as a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Houston, in 2006, and from the get-go he felt like he was onto something special. His newfound obsession, however, nearly came to an abrupt end in 2008, when he was climbing at the university’s indoor rock wall. Thirty-five feet up, he attempted a tricky move but couldn’t hold on. He started to fall. At the same moment, Howell’s belayer let go of the brake strand of the rope, a careless mistake. The rope hissed through the belayer’s safety device, and Howell smashed into the ground, fracturing three vertebrae and several bones in both feet. He spent four months convalescing in a back brace. But there were invisible injuries, too.

Terri Zinke Jackson, Howell’s mother, recalled an evening not long after his accident when he came to her and said that he’d gone to the top of a ten-story building in Houston and peered over the edge at the concrete below, intending to throw himself off. He told his mom that he’d been crying so hard, he was too exhausted to follow through. “That’s when we got him in to start seeing someone, and learned the full scope of the head injury,” Zinke Jackson said.

As Howell’s physical injuries healed, climbing became his polestar, the animating principle around which the rest of his life revolved. It was in this period, too, that he started to free-solo.

According to Zinke Jackson and Austin’s father, David Howell, who divorced in 1991, doctors said that Austin suffered a “slow brain bleed” caused by the impact of the fall, which could lead to personality and emotional changes. It could take up to five years for Howell’s brain to recover from being rattled as violently as it had, they were told. Austin began seeing a psychiatrist for the first time after his accident, something he would continue on and off over the following decade.

Depression, David said, was new in the post-fall Austin—at least that’s what he believed. He suspected the brain trauma was to blame. “I changed Austin’s first diaper when he was born,” David said. “I know him better than he knows himself. Me and his mom discussed it, and we never saw that in him. I think a lot of it was that first accident he had.”

Austin saw things differently. In blog and social media posts years later, he wrote that his depression was an innate, lifelong condition. He recalled imagining different ways he might kill himself as a near constant part of his adolescence. He eventually received a more specific diagnosis in early 2018: bipolar II, a variant of the disorder that manifests itself in prolonged bouts of depression interspersed with shorter periods of mania. Initial symptoms and diagnoses commonly occur in the late teens to early twenties.

As Howell’s physical injuries healed, climbing became his polestar, the animating principle around which the rest of his life revolved. It was in this period, too, that he started to free-solo.

His first foray without a rope was unplanned. He had just floated up Texas Crude, a moderate 40-foot crack at Enchanted Rock, in the Hill Country, while holding a conversation with friends and absent-mindedly placing safety gear. Back on the ground, he gave his partner a camera and said, “I’m about to do something so incredibly stupid that obviously I’m never going to do it again.” 

The next weekend, Howell soloed 32 different routes, some 2,200 vertical feet of rock. Soon after, in his junior year, he dropped out of college to climb full-time.

Howell climbing one of the 15 routes he free-soloed on November 5, 2016
“Life is an inherently dangerous sport,” Howell liked to say when people expressed concern over his soloing. (Andy Toms)

In the years after Howell’s accident at the university rock wall, he came into his own as a climber. From 2009 through 2015, he developed his own philosophy of soloing, replete with maxims for any occasion, many borrowed from others: “Life is an inherently dangerous sport” or “Thinking is the best form of life insurance.” He liked to repeat a favorite adage of “Hollywood” Hans Florine, who has climbed El Capitan more than anyone else: “The only thing better than climbing is more climbing.”

But soloing was more than a feat of bravado for Howell. “Freesoloing isn’t a death wish, it’s a life wish,” he later wrote on Instagram, paraphrasing the late Michael Reardon, an outspoken free soloist who died in 2007 when he was swept away by a rogue wave at the base of a cliff he’d been climbing. Reardon, with his punk-rock attitude and no-fucks-given approach to soloing, was Howell’s biggest climbing influence.

“[Soloing is] the single best therapy I’ve ever found for calming my tumultuous mind,” Howell wrote. “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.”

Through climbing and therapy, Howell made significant progress toward finding emotional balance. After school he moved to Atlanta, where he built a community. But on Mother’s Day 2015, “it started all over again,” said Zinke Jackson.

Howell, now 27, was in Yosemite, trying to make an ascent of El Capitan. He was climbing with a partner, using ropes, but even still, Zinke Jackson tried to stay busy to avoid thinking of the different ways Howell could get hurt up on the massive wall. She works as a real estate agent, and had driven down to Galveston to lead a home tour. Partway through the showing, she got a call from the Yosemite Parks Department. Austin had been in an accident.

He’d been climbing the first pitch of the Nose, the iconic route that splits the monolith right down the center. “A piece of aid gear pulled out under body weight,” Howell later told Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine. “Then, an additional piece probably pulled out as well. Then I hit the ledge.” He fell around 20 feet and landed on his head. He was airlifted to a hospital in nearby Modesto, where the news was grim: He’d fractured his wrist, his right shoulder blade, five vertebrae, and his skull, which resulted in another traumatic brain injury. He’d also obliterated his left ear drum and would never hear out of that side again.

Doctors kept Howell in an induced coma for over ten days. When his mother arrived, doctors explained that he was in no shape to travel. But when Howell awoke, he wanted out of there. Zinke Jackson rented a Suburban, plopped a mattress down in the back, and drove Howell to his childhood home in Friendsville, Texas, over the course of a week.

But Howell could think of nothing except returning to the rock.

“About ten or twelve weeks into his healing, he just cut off his casts, took off his neck brace, and said he was leaving,” Zinke Jackson remembers. “And we had a big fight. I was like, ‘No, you’re not!’ But he’s a grown man, he can do what he wants to do.” Howell’s father came and took him to Lucedale, Mississippi, where he lived.

Zinke Jackson was incredulous. Howell was still recovering from his injuries, and doctors had told him that, due to his hearing loss and its effect on his balance, he’d have trouble walking and would never be able to climb again at a high level. He’d be unable to remain steady on his feet, let alone on the wall.

“It put a wedge between us for a little while,” Zinke Jackson says. “He wanted me to be more supportive, but I didn’t want him to get hurt again.” Howell didn’t talk to his mother for a year and a half after he left Texas for Mississippi.

“In Austin’s world, if you weren’t going to be cool with his soloing, he wasn’t interested,” says Brandon White, a 32-year-old Marine veteran who was one of Howell’s closest friends. “It was a hard line for him. If I pushed him too hard, he’d never talk to me again. Meanwhile he had herds of people cheering him on.”

Through his Instagram and Facebook accounts, Vimeo videos, blog, and a podcast he created called The Process, Howell developed a following. He posted mind-bending photos and videos of dangling by his fingertips high in the air, and wrote uncommonly candid reflections about his mental health. “For me, climbing is the one time where my mind shuts down. There is no me, no depression, no elation, just the next move, the hold I’m on, the feet I’m using for balance, and the core tension keeping it all together,” he wrote in a 2015 blog post. Thousands watched, read, and hit the like button on his content.

I was one of them. Mine was more than a passing fascination with Howell’s stunts: Though I’ve been a climber for over a decade now, I’ve suffered from depression for far longer. My lowest point followed a major depressive episode after college in 2012; my high school sweetheart had dumped me, I hated my job, and my social network felt paper-thin. My memories of that time are ones of deep loneliness. Of wandering snow-covered streets around Cambridge, Massachusetts, until 4 A.M. Of nights spent drinking alone. Rock climbing became a refuge, an escape from a brain that felt like it needed a reboot. The physical problem-solving—being forced to think about nothing but the moves, the thrill of executing a sequence just right—helped to temper the darkest darkness. I had never free-soloed, but Howell’s pronouncements about how climbing helped him deal with his demons felt like they spoke directly to me.

In fact, there are a growing number of studies that have examined how rock climbing can be an effective therapeutic tool in battling depression. Although no studies have yet looked at possible links between free soloing and mental health (researchers I spoke with pointed to the ethical problems inherent in studying people who participate in extreme sports), prominent examples of depressed climbers using free soloing as therapy—or at least as a coping mechanism or release valve—are easy to find.

I had convinced myself that the solo was a one-off; that I just wanted to taste that rarified air. But sure enough, a week later, as would happen with each progressively harder solo going forward, I was already thinking about the next step.

In Alison Osius’s Rock and Ice profile of Earl Wiggins, a prolific free soloist, Wiggins’s sister, Lynda, describes her brother’s battle with depression and how climbing helped him manage it. “I do think that climbing took care of his problems for years,” Lynda said. Yet in the end, he couldn’t escape his anguish even through free soloing. Wiggins died by suicide in 2002.

In Free Solo, the filmmakers ask Alex Honnold, “Are you depressed?” He deflects. But in a separate interview with podcaster Tim Ferris, Honnold addressed it head-on: “I think I kind of gravitate toward being a somewhat depressed person,” he said. “Or—I don’t know, actually. I’m sort of just flat… I feel like I don’t have any of the highs. I kind of go from level, to slightly below level, to back. Sometimes you just feel useless, you know? But in some ways I embrace that as part of the process, because you kind of have to feel like a worthless piece of poop in order to get motivated enough to go do something that makes you feel less useless. But then, ultimately, that still doesn’t make you feel any less useless, so you just have to keep doing more.”

Honnold’s explanation exposes one of the core pitfalls of free soloing as a potential tool of self-medication. The highs can start to feel addictive, and getting your fix can become more difficult. I’ve noticed this in my own reliance on climbing as a therapeutic tool. Gym climbing and clipping bolts on small cliffs satisfied the itch at the start, but I soon needed other ways to get my kicks. Within a few years I was seeking out longer, scarier routes.

And then I started free soloing.

In 2017, as I crested the top of the 700-foot Redgarden Wall, in Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon, after my first proper free solo, I felt like I had leveled up. Things had a different sheen. My self-worth felt higher. I told friends about my adventure afterward, and they responded with awe. After years of in-person therapy and on SSRIs, I was going without either; I’d come a long way since that year in Boston and felt I could manage the depression on my own. I was climbing more than ever, and the dopamine boosts kept me afloat—and Redgarden was the biggest jolt I’d had yet.

Like Howell, I had convinced myself that the solo was a one-off; that I just wanted to taste that rarified air. But sure enough, a week later, as would happen with each progressively harder solo going forward, I was already thinking about the next step. My solos were easy compared to Howell’s, but I still found myself fixated on how I could one-up my last climb and find that high anew.

So it was with Howell. In the back of his truck, he kept an expensive bottle of whiskey. He told friends, “I only drink from this when I’ve done something radder in my life than I’ve done previously.” At the beginning of his soloing career, he was drinking from it often. Later on, it became harder and harder to earn his sips.

Howell relaxing in a tie-dyed shirt that says “Keep Austin Weird”
“Freesoloing isn’t a death wish, it’s a life wish,” Howell once wrote on Instagram. (Bones Rangel)

Howell’s soloing reached new levels when he started climbing again after the Yosemite accident. He’d always trained, but now he was maniacal about it. Despite the doctors’ predictions, he had learned how to cope with his balance issues.

In April 2016, he free-soloed his first 5.12. He soloed three more that same weekend. Once he broke that barrier, adding to his tally became extremely important to him. That fall he completed what he called the “Mile of Mojo,” at Shortoff Mountain, North Carolina, which involved free-soloing 5,700 vertical feet via 15 different routes. It took him ten hours.

Meanwhile, his depression surged in mid-2017. Howell had moved to Chicago for a new job with the telecommunications company Ericsson, training their engineers in rope-access work. His relationship with his girlfriend in Atlanta had ended, and he was farther away from his favorite climbing areas in the Southeast. Boxes of belongings, still packed, lay strewn around his apartment, and he’d spend nights sitting on the floor with his laptop, getting drunk. Sunny, his pet sun parakeet, was his primary company. Climbing was the only thing that sustained him.

Susan Hill, a close friend of Howell’s who he’d met climbing in 2014, lived a few hours away in Minneapolis. “He came up one day and hung out with me and stayed overnight at our house,” she said. “I could see the darkness in his eyes at that point and just asked him, ‘Are you OK?’ We had a big heart-to-heart. He wasn’t taking care of himself.”

He smelled bad and was cutting himself on the inside of his leg, where no one could see. With assistance from Howell’s former girlfriend in Atlanta, Hill helped get Howell back into therapy. He started taking medication, which he later called “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

As he adjusted to life in Chicago, Howell made more friends and became part of the local climbing scene. He was a frequent sight at the Vertical Endeavors climbing gym, where he was stoked to talk climbing with anyone from a first-timer top-roping easy routes to elite athletes. That was where he met Brandon White, then a neophyte climber flailing on beginner boulder problems. Howell came up and started offering advice.

The two were soon spending days out climbing together at Devil’s Lake, in Wisconsin, another place where Howell developed an extensive free-solo circuit. Some days Howell showed White the finer points of trad climbing—where the climber places his own pieces of protective gear, called cams and chocks, on the way up. Other days they’d just sit on top of nearby West Bluff, looking over the pine trees and blue water, talking about high-energy physics, meditation, or folk music.

More often than not, though, Howell was doing his free-solo thing. He liked to say that after his Yosemite accident, he climbed more pitches each year without a rope than with one.

His first free solo of autumn 2018 was a 5.12 route in the Red River Gorge called Twinkie.

The night before, he and a friend, Bones Rangel, were at Miguel’s Pizza, a popular climber hangout. They ran into some folks from Vertical Endeavors and joined them at a table. Over pizza and beers, Howell filled them in on his plans for soloing Twinkie the next morning and invited them to come watch, unable to contain his enthusiasm.

The next morning, everyone met up at Fantasia crag. “He was holding a cup of coffee,” said Alicia Legowski, one of the climbers from Chicago. “And he stumbled over his own feet, and the coffee went up in the air and got all over him. And we were like, This is the guy we’re going to watch solo?

Conditions were abysmal. Ninety-degree heat and 85 percent humidity had turned the air thick. Howell tied into a rope so he could lead climb Twinkie and re-familiarize himself with the route, which he had sussed out in the spring. As he led up, the sandstone edges felt like they were covered in grease. He hung on the rope five times before lowering from the top, dejected. Half an hour later, he climbed the route with a rope again. Conditions had improved slightly, and he didn’t need to weight the rope. He top-roped the route once more, then decided it was time to solo it. Over the next hour, he and Rangel rigged up some ropes so Rangel could film the feat.

“He was holding a cup of coffee,” said Alicia Legowski. “And he stumbled over his own feet, and the coffee went up in the air and got all over him. And we were like, This is the guy we’re going to watch solo?”

By the time Howell was ready to climb, two other guys were getting ready to head up Twinkie with a rope. Howell asked them if they’d mind if he went first. He always made sure to ask permission before starting up a hard solo at a crag if others were around; he didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. The other climbers obliged. Howell laced up his shoes, tied his chalk bag around his waist, and started up the route.

“I was really nervous,” Legowski said. “But a few seconds in, I could tell he was super comfortable up on the wall and very confident in himself. And it almost put me at ease.” Everyone kept silent as they watched. One of Legowski’s friends, unwilling to witness a tragedy, turned his back on the spectacle.

Some minutes later, Howell reached the top. As everyone waited for him to hike down, the other two men who planned to climb Twinkie began gearing up. One of them realized that his shoes were missing. Howell, who wore the same model, had put on the other climber’s shoes by mistake.

Howell climbing one of the 15 routes he free-soloed on November 5, 2016
“For me, climbing is the one time where my mind shuts down,” Howell wrote in a blog post. “There is no me, no depression, no elation, just the next move, the hold I’m on, the feet I’m using for balance, and the core tension keeping it all together.” (Andy Toms)

The Twinkie solo encapsulated many idiosyncrasies of Howell’s free soloing: climbing hard, steep routes that had awkward descents; a tendency to climb with his shoes untied, or without chalk; always sandbagging himself on rehearsal climbs; an undercurrent of recklessness, despite his claims to the opposite.

And then there was the performative quality. He invited others to come watch the Twinkie solo in person, and he went to elaborate lengths to document it. With other solos, if he couldn’t get a photographer friend to join, he’d rig up an iPhone or a GoPro himself. He’d then post the clip and stories about his ascents on Facebook and Instagram. He detailed his solos in blog posts that became the blueprints for his podcast episodes. This side of his soloing—publicizing or bragging about his ascents—is probably the thing for which Howell received more criticism than anything else.

“I don’t mind people soloing and posting videos and all that,” read a typical post in a thread on the climbing website Mountain Project about Howell’s soloing. “What galls me about this guy in particular is he tries to claim like he’s just out there doing it for the pureness of the climbing… then sprays to anyone and everyone and pays to advertise his podcast and shit. At least be honest about your intentions and motivations.”

Lindsey Marie Vetter, an ex-girlfriend of Howell’s, told me, “I used to kind of bust his balls a little bit about that. He was so humble, but he was so self-promoting all the time. I was like, ‘Give it a rest, chill out. We all know the story.’ But he was just so excited about it all the time. I just don’t think he could contain it.”

Howell refuted that sharing his achievements had anything to do with ego. “A narcissistic craving for attention isn’t driving this show,” he wrote on Instagram, “because I don’t get a bump off of praise like most people. Instead, it feels foul, and false, because my mind tells me it ‘knows better.’”

The apparent disconnect between Howell’s actions and his words made me start to wonder about the provenance of the naked-soloing video. I tracked down Lohan Lizin, the film’s videographer, who Howell listed in the credits. Lizin’s narration makes it seem like he’s a random unwitting climber who happened upon this bizarre scene by chance. It turns out he’d met Howell a couple years before the video, which took place on a climb called Dopey Duck, but Lizin hadn’t seen him again until running into him at Shortoff Mountain that day. After getting reacquainted and climbing some together, Howell mentioned his idea of climbing Dopey Duck naked. And he asked Lizin to film it for him.

“He said it would be cool if I acted like I was some tourist or something and not much of a climber,” Lizin told me. “Austin said, ‘Just say some goofy shit, pretend like you just stumbled upon it and pulled your cell phone out and started recording.’”

I was taken aback to learn that the video had been staged, but not totally surprised. It revealed the complicated motivations behind Howell’s actions and, more than anything, it made me sad. Taken all together—free-soloing ever more, ever harder, and seemingly for the attention—there was only one way it was going to end, as several of those closest to Howell told me.

“One day after he admitted to free-soloing,” said his father, “I told him, ‘Son, you know what’s going to happen if you keep doing this, right?’”

“Yeah, Dad, I’ve thought it all through,” Howell told him, “and I’m willing to take the consequences of my actions.”

Austin Howell making an approach with climbing gear.
Howell was clear-eyed about his mental health—free soloing was just one part of a therapeutic tool kit that by the end included counseling and medication. (Dana Felthauser)
Howell climbing in North Carolina, the morning of his fatal fall
Howell climbing in North Carolina, the morning of his fatal fall (Ben Wu)

Driving down North Carolina State Highway 126 in early December 2021, stands of leafless oaks betrayed the hills beyond. There was not a cloud in sight. After months of immersing myself in Howell’s life, talking with those who knew him, listening to his podcast, and combing through his social media, I’d convinced myself that the only way to understand him was to follow in his footsteps. My plan was simple: I would make a pilgrimage to Shortoff and free-solo Dopey Duck. I thought there was some nebulous gonzo-journalism value to be had, perhaps some final epiphany to be gleaned.

I prepared as best I could, using the Shawangunks, a climbing area above New Paltz, New York, and close to my home in New York City, as a training ground. The Traprock architecture is similar to that of the cliffs at Shortoff Mountain: big, horizontal bands, with jutting overhangs separated by sweeping faces. On one of the last days of summer in 2021, I started up the first pitch of the 250-foot High Exposure, the Gunks’ most famous route, without a rope. At a monstrous ledge halfway up, I stopped to bask in the morning rays and took a couple selfies on my iPhone.

The second pitch begins with one of the most famous sequences in modern rock climbing. To gain a headwall, you have to surmount a gigantic roof by stepping on a polished chip of rock hovering over the void. The second you commit to it, there’s nothing but air beneath you.

I positioned my right foot on the chip, took a breath, and reached around for a good side pull. As I grabbed it, the cobbles smooth beneath my fingers, I imagined, just for a second, what would happen if I released the tension in my core. That’s all it would take for my foot to wiggle a millimeter to the side and skate off that chip. I’d plummet more than a hundred feet to the ground. I cleared my head, pulled through the move, and stood up onto the face, now in more secure territory. I listened to my heartbeat. I calmed my breath. I closed my eyes. A few minutes later, I scampered over the top of the cliff.

A few months later, in North Carolina, I turned onto a dirt road and drove through a forest of red maples. My commitment to soloing Dopey Duck had wavered. I was no longer sure exactly what I hoped to gain from this exercise. And I was scared.

At a dead end, I threw the rental car in park, shouldered my pack, and started up the trail. l was alone, as Howell often was here, and I walked slowly up the switchbacks, admiring the views of Lake James off to my left and the Appalachian Mountains in every direction. I listened to the haunting lyrics of one of Howell’s favorite songs, “Wolves,” by Down Like Silver: When I die / Let the wolves enjoy my bones / When I die/ Let me go.

It was a song Howell listened to during one of his hard solos, and it prompted thoughts of risk, danger, and mortality.

“Rather than shirk the discomfort of these thoughts mid-route, I instead stayed with them and used them as a focus for meditation of sorts, while exploring the inner recesses of my mind, managing my heart rate,” Howell said on a December 2018 episode of his podcast. “I allowed irrational anxieties to float across the sky of my mind, like clouds drifting across the sun in an otherwise empty firmament. They did not carry my attention away, but rather, they simply just were. And I allowed them their own space to be. Beside my attention, rather than competing for it.”

My plan was simple: I would make a pilgrimage to Shortoff and free-solo Dopey Duck. I thought there was some nebulous gonzo-journalism value to be had, perhaps some final epiphany to be gleaned.

I passed a crew of trail workers and imagined how Howell would have stopped to chat with this jovial bunch of sweaty retirees armed with pickaxes and hoes, how he would strike up a conversation about the beautiful day and gush about his climbing plans.

At the descent gully, I stared across at an overhanging wall hundreds of feet above the ground that held some of Howell’s favorite routes. It was from this magnificent wall that Howell fell 200 feet to his death, on June 30, 2019.

That day he went to Shortoff with photographer Ben Wu. Howell free-soloed a handful of climbs while Wu snapped away. After getting some good material, Wu headed back to the parking lot while Howell continued soloing around.

Later, two climbers, Riley Collins and Jay Massey, were making their way down the Shortoff Mountain descent gully. They were planning on climbing Dopey Duck. Eighty feet from the bottom, Collins looked to his left and saw Howell soloing in the steepest part of the face’s roof, only 30 feet or so from topping out.

“I knew it was him because I followed him on Instagram, and he always wore that same tie-dyed shirt and that cap,” Collins told me. He watched Howell make a big lunge to the left to a flake. But something went wrong. He heard Howell yell, “No!”

“That was the only thing he said,” Collins said. “He didn’t scream or anything on the way down. He kind of knew it, I guess.”

Collins and Massey scrambled back to the top of the cliff, and Massey rappelled down to Howell’s body and saw him take his last breaths.

I descended that same dark gully of rotting leaves from which Collins and Massey had seen Howell fall. Once at the bottom, I walked over and stood beneath Dopey Duck. The gleaming stone was cool to the touch. I thought one final time about saying, Fuck it, and just starting up.

I liked to believe that what I derived from my own free soloing wasn’t a matter of ego, but in truth, I’m not sure it’s that simple.

I lay down on top of a large boulder. I chewed on sassafras twigs, letting the root-beer flavor coat my mouth. The Linville River shined silver at the bottom of the gorge.

Howell was resourceful and clear-eyed about his mental health—free soloing was just one part of a therapeutic tool kit that by the end included counseling and medication. But the epiphany I wish he could have had is this: That if you can’t find enough of the peace and mindfulness you need with a rope on, you’ll never find enough of it without it. That the hungry hole at the center of things only grows larger. That the whiskey bottle is bottomless.

Those closest to Howell still carry pieces of him around, some of them literal. His mother mailed snipped lockets of his hair to several of his best friends before he was buried. Howell had made his wish to be cremated known to her and others, but his father insisted that his son be buried in the family plot in Lucedale. In lieu of ashes, his mother hoped friends would let his hair loose in the wind.

After the funeral, Brandon White asked David if he could have a piece of Austin’s climbing gear as a memento. Maybe just a cam or something, he figured. David sent him Austin’s entire rack.

“I place those pieces when I get scared, and it’s like double confidence,” White said.

The upper edge of Howell’s black marble headstone is cut to look like jagged peaks. On the front is a picture of him reclining on some rocks atop Shortoff Mountain, wearing his newsboy hat and a tie-dyed shirt. “The mountains are calling and I must go,” the famous John Muir quote, is etched along the bottom.

The back is similar. “NO FEAR OF FLYING / AUSTIN, FREE SOLOIST,” it reads. And above the inscription, another photo from the same day: Austin, high on the wall, smiling at the camera.

Corrections: (06/20/2023) A previous version of this story misstated the date of Howell's death. He died on June 30, 2019, not June 20, 2019. Outside regrets the error. (08/08/2023) The original text of this story misstated that Howell's fatal fall was the result of rock breaking under his weight. His fall occurred after his feet slipped, not because of the rock breaking. Outside regrets the error. (06/22/2023) A previous version of this story misstated Susan Hill’s place of residence. She is from Minneapolis, not the Chicago area. Outside regrets the error. Lead Photo: Ben Wu