Broken Holds and Lost Lives: How Loose Rock and Free Soloing Ended Two Climbers’ Lives

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Austin Howell free soloing at Shortoff Mountain, North Carolina, before a broken hold cost him his life.

Austin Howell free soloing at Shortoff Mountain, North Carolina, before a broken hold cost him his life.

“If it wasn’t for soloing, I might have been dead already,” Austin Howell, a 31-year-old Chicago climber and electric tower worker wrote in an April 1 blog post titled “Stepping Back From the Edge, Landing Under A Knife.” Unfortunately, free soloing, which had helped Howell battle depression, also proved to be his demise.

On Sunday, June 30, Austin Howell soloed Dopey Duck, a three-pitch 5.9, and Golden Rule, a three-pitch 5.11, while Ben Wu took photos at Shortoff Mountain in Linville Gorge, North Carolina. Wu left for the day and Howell proceeded to solo another route, 200 feet from Dopey Duckpossibly Energizer (5.11c/d). At around 11:30 a.m., Riley Collins, who was climbing on Dopey Duck, heard Howell cry, “No!” Howell then fell 80 feet, likely after a hold broke. Immediately, Riley and his climbing partner, Jay Massey, rappelled down. Massey attempted to administer CPR but failed to find a pulse. The climbers contacted the Burke County Emergency Communications Center, and first responders reached the victim about 90 minutes later. At around 1:30 p.m., Howell was pronounced dead.

“The control that I’ve developed on the wall transfers into my daily life,” wrote Howell in the April 1 post on his blog, The Process. Howell struggled with mental health issues including depression and bipolar II disorder, which he spoke candidly about in his blog posts and his podcast. Howell often discussed topics including mental training, how to solo “well,” and assessments of risk and danger. He also posted many videos of his free solos on his YouTube channel. “He was a community-oriented individual and started becoming happier when he started sharing more with his community,” his friend Susan Hill said. “He’d finally found himself a week ago.”

A frequent free soloist, Howell had free soloed over seventeen 5.12s across the Southeast; he onsight-soloed Caternary Crack (5.10b) in Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, and soloed Twinkie (5.12a) at the Red River Gorge and Bottled Up Warrior (5.12b) at Foster Falls, Tenessee, and Dalai Llama (5.12c) in Denny Cove, Tennessee. He’d also climbed up to 5.13 with a rope, including Hematoma (5.13a) in Lower Leda, Tennessee, on his second go, along with three other 5.13s in the Southeast. Despite his seemingly risky antics, Howell carefully calculated his ropeless ascents. He even safely downclimbed his onsight-solo attempt of Jet Screamin Hooter Queens (5.11b) in Black Cliffs, Idaho. He wrote about this instance in a Mountain Project comment: “I downclimbed safely after deciding moves near the second bolt were too insecure to ensure reversal if I committed further.” Additionally, his friend Sam Burchett reiterated Howell’s cautious attitude: “I genuinely thought this wouldn’t happen to him because of how often he backed off solos if it wasn’t exactly how he felt it should be. A hold breaking is one of the few ways I could see it go wrong...”

For Howell, free soloing helped him to battle his depression.

For Howell, free soloing helped him to battle his depression.

In a similar incident on Saturday, May 18, 48-year-old Robert Dergay of Boulder, Colorado, fell an estimated 100 feet while free-soloing the popular Bastille Crack, a five-pitch 5.7 on the Bastille formation in Eldorado Canyon.

“I was on the first pitch below him when the fall happened,” reported Noah Bergman on a Mountain Project post. “He hopped on the route about 30-45 minutes before us. He was well past the second belay ledge, probably on the traverse. There was a large rock fall that came down with him.”

Originally from North Carolina, Dergay moved to Durango, Colorado, in his early 20s for school. He began climbing shortly after his move and climbed for 25 years, soloing for 20 of them. He had a common circuit of routes along the Front Range, where he lived and worked on his business, Boulder Murphy Beds. “On any given day you could see him running up and down one of those areas,” said his friend Chris Adleman. Often clad ion Teva sandals, wool socks, and a 20-year-old T-shirt, Dergay was a fixture of the Front Range, well known for his joking and his soloing.

Dergay climbed beyond the Front Range, roping up in the Black Canyon, Red Rock, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National Park. He spent as much time as he could in the mountains, climbing as often as possible. “He was a larger-than-life individual with a booming voice. It didn’t bother him whether he was 10 feet or 200 feet off the deck,” said Adleman. “Bob was calm and collected all the time.”

The dangers of soloing make many people question the sanity of climbing, but as Howell wrote in a blog post about soloing, “It’s a life wish.”