Fear and discomfort never kept Austin Howell on the ground for long.
Howell, 31, of Chicago, was killed after falling 80 feet off Shortoff Mountain on Sunday. He had been free climbing the mountain alone, said Capt. Brad Browning with Burke EMS.
Howell's blog, “ The Process with Austin Howell, ” lists his soloing trips across the country, including several previous trips to Shortoff Mountain. One of those trips consisted of Howell climbing 5,700 vertical feet in the Linville Gorge in something he called the “Mile of Mojo” in 2016. Another featured him climbing Dopey Duck in the gorge naked with the exception of the hat on his head.
He described climbing as a way to find peace.
“Climbing, to me, has been a path towards peace,” Howell wrote in the Profile tab of his blog. “Free soloing done right is in no way about an adrenaline rush, but rather a feeling of control and calmness.”
A serious climbing accidents had Howell’s doctor telling him he shouldn’t climb again, but he didn’t let that stop him, said Bones Rangel, who was a friend of Howell.
“He never let that stop him even when he messed up his equilibrium and doctors told him never to climb again,” Rangel said. “What climbing did for him was enough to risk the consequences.”
Howell knew what he was doing and would often talk about his future plans, like soloing Separate Reality in Yosemite National Park, said friend and fellow climber Christine Sampson.
“Our gym has a replica - - and he was pointing out the different parts and moves,” Sampson said. “That was one of his projects. You could see how excited he was when he talked about what he was working on.”
Charles Faust remembered Howell as someone who loved everyone.
“He shared his love for what he did and what kept him happy with everyone,” Faust said. “It didn’t matter that Austin was usually the strongest guy at the crag, he would take time out of his day while we were climbing and interrupt everything to help out someone who was new because … improving their day meant more to him than anything else.”
He often helped his friends work through their fears and discomfort. Knight-Byrnes said Howell helped her work through her fear of falling for her lead test when she was climbing.
“[He said] ‘if you’re paralyzed by fear you set that fear,’” she said. “‘You need to then step back and move through the fear.’ He taught me to step into it and work through it.”
She said Howell also helped her through vertigo.
“It’s our natural inclination when we are that dizzy to step back and to sit down or lay down and move away from that dizziness,” Knight-Byrnes said. “And he’s like ‘you can’t do that. It wins. You have to step into the dizziness, to push into it.’”
Fear and discomfort are things Howell has addressed on his blog, including in a March 18 post titled “A simple guide to mental training that actually works!”
“If you look at it one way, discomfort is just another way of saying ‘the unknown,’” Howell wrote in a blog post. “If we wish to expand our comfort zone, then by definition we must venture forth into places of discomfort to know them well. Since we are natural ly comfortable in situations we know well, does it not make sense that expanding one’s comfort zone requires spending time in discomfort to know it well?”
Howell wasn’t afraid to embrace the unknown in his climbing and make adjustments as needed.
Rangel, who filmed one of Howell’s soloing experiences, shared a memory of when Howell had to climb a dead tree, but the tree went sliding down the hill. Instead of going with the tree, Howell jumped off and was able to throw his rope and knots into a crack on a dead tree and start climbing from there.
When they made it to the top, Howell rigged some rope for Rangel to repel down the cliff.
“I was so iffy but I trusted him,” Rangel said. “I also think he would never put me in danger so he would always test the system first and then when I [saw] it worked I would go.”
He encouraged his friends to work through their discomfort or fear of the unknown, too. Jonathon Mc M illan, one of Howell’s former coworkers, said Howell pushed him to open his own business.
“I've owned my small business for two years and it's because he gave me that [final] push that I needed,” Mc M illan said.
He had a way of making people feel like they belonged, and was always willing to give advice.
“Austin was wonderfully weird,” Sampson said. “He made everyone feel welcome — everywhere he went. He was so full of knowledge and freely gave advice to anyone that he encountered. In turn he helped and guided many in their lives and climbing careers.”
When Knight-Byrnes was having a bad bought of vertigo, Howell still encouraged her to come to her training session with him and even said he wouldn’t charge her for it because he thought he could help her.
“He was generous,” she said. “He wanted to help people. He wanted to help people be better people, and be better at being themselves.”
Andy Toms, another friend, called Howell an inspiration.
"Austin was [an] extremely talented climber who overcame mountains, figuratively and physically," Toms said. "He was a inspiration to everyone he knew. It was an honor to know him."
He was open with things he struggled through, like bipolar disorder and depression.
“He was a light in the world,” Knight-Byrnes said. “He was a light in the world because he struggled with his demons. He was bipolar and struggled with depression, and was very transparent about it.”
That was one of his most inspirational traits, she said.
“It was an intentional choice for him to be a light in the world,” Knight-Byrnes said. “And that anyone can do it.”
Faust described Howell as one of his heroes.
“I think in pop culture a superhero is someone that everyone looks up to and looks to for support and is supposed to help them, and is in some ways self-sacrificing no matter how amazing they are,” Faust said. “If that’s what a superhero is, then that’s what Austin was.”