One week ago, I sat in the parking lot ready to meet the senior resident who would be supervising me through my first rotation as a general surgery resident. I thought I would check Facebook while I waited. I saw a post from the Burke County Government Facebook page about a climbing fatality and immediately thought, “Austin is in NC, I wonder if he knows the guy.” I proceeded to read the post, and my eyes froze in horror and disbelief as I read that my friend had fallen between 213-300 feet and was pronounced dead at 1:30 pm earlier that afternoon.
Seconds later, my senior resident messaged me that he was there, ready to meet. I forced myself to compartmentalize what had happened, and proceeded to learn about my new duties as a physician. When I got back in the car after our meeting, I called my wife Megan and told her what had happened. But I had not fully processed it, and wouldn’t process it for the next week. I am still processing it, and that is part of the reason why I am writing this article.
Let me back up a bit to when Austin and I first met, before he, my friend Jim, and I started climbing regularly several times a week. I was working on a 5.11- (an intermediate-advanced route) on autobelay (a rope that is attached to a mechanism that will follow you up the wall, slow your descent, and thereby allow you to climb without a partner). Next to me, this guy with a tie-dye shirt, long, unkempt hair under a pageboy hat, untied shoes, and drenched in sweat was flying up a 10+ on an autobelay. I had done that 10+, and found it to be challenging. It looked rather effortless for him. He came down, re-clipped the autobelay, and hurried off to another autobelay. I thought little of the interaction afterward.
The next day, I was about to take my lead test. My friend Jim said he would introduce me to his friend Austin first. As it turned out, Jim’s friend Austin was the same guy who had destroyed that 10+ that had so greatly challenged me. “Oh, I saw you yesterday,” I remarked. “You were doing some speed-climbing.” “Yeah,” he agreed. “I was trying to climb all of the autobelay routes in a half hour.” I don’t know if the amount of time was actually a half hour or something shorter, but Vertical Endeavors in Chicago is a very large climbing gym, and whatever time limit he gave sounded impossible to my ears. He then continued, “I did it in way under the time I thought I would.” Upon learning that I was trying to become lead certified, Austin gave me a free lead climbing clinic. And a friendship was born.
Austin was probably the most unique friend I have ever had, for a number of reasons. As a lifelong nerd, I have had some pretty “unique” friends, so it is not for his odd hair, style of clothing, or insanely advanced climbing skills that I single him out. Instead, Austin was different because he understood me almost immediately, and without any prompting, he proceeded to use that understanding to make me a better climber and a better human being. Furthermore, this gift he gave me was not because we had a profound, unique bond of friendship–as I have found out this past week, he gave the same gift to nearly everyone he met. That was Austin Howell.
I am analytical, driven, and ambitious. 10 minutes after we had met, Austin figured that out about me. And for the next several months, I received personal, free climbing lessons from this guru who, unbeknownst to me, was very well-known in the climbing community. He gave me technical explanations of the principles of certain moves, tapping into my engineering mindset (I never even knew he studied engineering until this week). He gave me constructive criticism, and always backed it up with a logical argument. I might have thought this was just his teaching style, but then I saw him teaching others–to one, he might provide extremely simple feedback. To another, he might provide nothing more than words of encouragement, never criticism. And to another, he might say nothing at all, but just climb with them, and let them observe him. At a certain point, I realized that Austin taught me differently than he taught Jim, and he taught us both differently than he taught others. Austin had figured out what made us tick, and without being prompted, had utilized that knowledge to increase our joy and sense of accomplishment as we climbed. What a unique, precious gift.
Austin battled depression, and was open about how he felt that free soloing helped him gain control on and off the rock face. He had a blog, “The Process,” dedicated to describing his method of critical thinking and risk management that he undertook before climbing. I disagreed with his free soloing. I felt that the risk was too great to climb without a rope at such elevations. But he never asked me for my opinion, and so I never gave it to him. I did watch and share his videos. I read his blog. I admired his control, and wanted to get good enough to reach the 5.12 level, myself. In the back of my mind, I had a nagging worry that I would one day read that Austin had fallen.
Some criticism Austin gave me that ran right in line with his climbing philosophy was that I was too tense on the wall. I will forever remember his valuable advice, “Relax into the climb.” He described how free soloing helped him to relax. Without a rope or sometimes even clothing (content warning: nudity and language), Austin felt freed from earthly cares up on the wall. He reminded me of that climbing scene from Mission Impossible: II when Tom Cruise is hanging on in an outward facing iron cross and he just smiles. He’s having the time of his life. That was Austin. He was not a careless, adrenaline-junkie thrill seeker, he did not have a depression-induced obsession with death, he was not suicidal; he was happy. No–he was joyous. When he taught people how to climb, and when he was climbing, he was at peace.
It is possible to completely support someone and be completely against their behavior. I completely supported Austin, understood why he free solo’ed, and still entirely disapproved of free soloing, itself. Right before he fell, I was starting to “come around” a bit. I thought, “Maybe if you’re *really* really good, like Austin, and you do the route with a rope first, maybe *then* it’s safe…maybe…” But his fall taught me a powerful lesson. It doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter how much critical thinking and risk management you undertake. It doesn’t matter how many hours you train per day. You can’t control a hold that had previously supported countless climbers suddenly coming loose. At that point, you are just like everyone else, subject to the laws of gravity, and you need a rope. We all need a rope.
I want to record some of Austin’s advice to me, because it applies to more than just climbing.
“Stop complaining that you can’t make big moves because you’re short. I’ve seen you make big moves. You have no excuse.”
“Until you actually attempt a route, you’re not allowed to say it’s too hard for you.”
“You have the skill. I’ve seen you climb and you’re a good climber. You just have to believe in yourself.”
“Learn to cross over. It’s all about economy of motion. Practice crossing over every day.”
“Learn to use your hips to shift your balance on the wall. Use your whole body, not just your arms and legs.”
“You could actually *use* the crack instead of stubbornly ignoring something you think is going to be hard.”
“I would not put you up a route I didn’t think you can do. You can do this. And when you do it you’re going to come down and be like, ‘Austin, I did it!’ and then you’re going to want to do it every day you come in here.”
“Being up there is just like being down here. If you could do the move 1 ft off the ground, you can do it 30 ft off the ground or 100 ft off the ground.”
“Climbing should be fun.”
“What’s better than climbing? More climbing!”
“Relax into the climb.”
“Just sit back, let your arms shake out, and think about it. You’ll get it.”
I did not deserve my friend and impromptu coach. I regret that I never went out to eat with him, never posted pics of us all climbing together on Facebook, never fully appreciated who he was until he was gone. But Austin’s timeless lessons will stay with me forever, along with his memory. Keep Austin Weird. Until we meet again, buddy.
Photo credits to Ben Wu and others who added these photos to his Facebook memorial page. Please reach out to me to be recognized on this blog.