Austin Howell was “free solo” enthusiast who climbed without gear


By Dee Longfellow

For The Lombardian


Early Tuesday morning, July 2, the Lombardian learned that Lombard resident Austin Howell, a free solo climber, had fallen to his death from Shortoff Mountain located in North Carolina. Howell was just 31 years old.

A free soloist is a person who likes to climb mountains and other steep heights without using any ropes or safety devices. While extremely risky, Howell always claimed the benefits outweighed the dangers, calling it “the epitome of cool-headed rationality.” He also expressed that safety lies in anyone’s ability to keep calm and make competent decisions.

“As long as the choices we make are commensurate with the skills we take up the wall, then we’re being ‘safe enough,’” Howell said in a blog post he wrote in March.

Rescue authorities confirmed that Howell had died on Sunday, June 30, from injuries sustained when he fell more than 80 feet from Shortoff Mountain in North Carolina, where he had been climbing without safety gear of any kind. One report indicated that Howell sometimes even climbed without clothing.

Rescuers received a call at about 11:45 a.m. on Sunday that a climber had fallen. It took them about 90 minutes to rappel down to Howell’s location. Other climbers were there and had been performing CPR, but officials said he was pronounced dead at 1:30 p.m.

Howell worked for a telecommunications company, training technicians to repair cellphone towers, but friends say climbing was his true passion. His mother, Terri Zinke Jackson, said he tried climbing while studying electrical engineering at the University of Houston and quickly loved it and continued it, even after several falls and injuries.

“He explained it as feeling his most free and relaxed and comfortable when he was climbing,” Jackson said. “He fought depression and anxiety and it almost seemed like it was medicating for him to do it.

When Howell damaged his inner ear in a fall, his sense of equilibrium was thrown off and doctors advised him never to climb again, but Howell didn’t follow doctors orders.

“He wasn’t going to let fear get him down,” Jackson said. “He made the choice to continue climbing and started exploring free soloing more. That’s how we got here.”



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