Everybody starts somewhere. And for me, that was flailing on a 5.8 at my university climbing gym. You could probably do that climb in high-heels! Thus began the next 12 years of my life. Everything else merely arose logically from that moment. At least logically to *me*
Six months put me at 5.10 toproping, and I entered the “Intermediate” category at the annual University of Houston climbing competition. And that’s where it all began, I won big.
Not because I was good, mind you! They pulled my name out of the hat for a rope bag during the raffle. Everybody got a good laugh because they got a good laugh because everybody knew damn well that I didn’t own a rope! And the punchline? The final raffle was going to be an actual rope, that’s what I’d been hoping before
Everyone held their breath in anticipation as they dug around the hat to pull out a name: And the winner of the rope is… AUSTIN HOWELL!
As it turned out, to give everyone a fair chance at the big prize, they put *all* the names back in the hat! Joke’s on them, I’m off to the races now!
So it began. If you’ve got a rope, you’ve gotta learn to use it. I enrolled in the lead climbing class the very next week. Next stop: Enchanted Rock. We were literally reading John Long’s book, “Climbing Anchors,” in the car at 90 miles per hour on the way to the crag. 30ft of webbing, a couple lockers, and two quickdraws. We made it work.
We found a beautiful crack climb called “Cave Crack” which we wanted to run laps on, but we couldn’t figure out access to the top, and we didn’t have any trad gear or knowledge with which to lead the climb. So I figured, “Hey, it’s only 5.6, how hard could it be? I’ve got locker hand-jam skills, and this thing is bomber low-angle hands the whole way!” So I opted to solo the route to find a toprope anchor.
The climb starts in an open cave, which narrows at the top. I reckoned I could squeeze through the gap between the roof and the wall, but it wasn’t so. That space was waaaay more narrow than it looked from the ground! The only way out was to move around the corner to side-step the roof on a bald featureless friction slab. I pawed around the roof, hoping to find a hidden out-of-sight jug, but the wall felt blank. Panic began to set in.
A smidge more than a body-length below the roof was a pod in the crack where it opened wide enough for me to merely stand rather than having to jam my feet actively. I stood there and contemplated life while my feet progressively pained more and more and more. Downclimbing? I didn’t have the skills back then. The only way out I felt was up. But how? I had a rope, 30ft of webbing, a few carabiners, and two quickdraws, nothing more.
There! I noticed a chock-stone wedged back in the crack, about a foot beyond hand’s reach. My mind spun fast and put the pieces together.
If I unfurled my webbing and lassoed that stone with a girth-hitch, I’d have an anchor from which I could yank my way through the crux, to safety. A piece of webbing won’t loop itself willingly around a stone, so I tossed a carabiner on the end of the webbing to give it some weight so that it would flip back into my hand after the toss, and then I tossed
A swing and a miss. Again. Again. Again. I was striking out fast. On my last toss, the carabiner tapped my fingers, not quite close enough to catch, like it was taunting me. I tugged the webbing to retrieve it, but the carabiner caught between the stone and the wall of the crack. Fuck. I can’t retrieve it to try again… what now? It’s fucking stuck? How am I going to proceed if it’s stuck? It’s stuck.. it…. IT’S STUCK! If it’s stuck, that means I can yank on it!
Remembering from John Long’s climbing anchors, I knew a piece like this was only good for a downward pull, so with one hand jammed in the crack for a backup, I pulled down on the loop of webbing. It held. So I weighted it and leaned around the corner.
BAM! There was that hidden jug, right in front of my face! I must’ve pawed my hand in a useless circle all around the thing, the universe carefully conspiring to make sure I never snatched it!
Safety was found, crisis was averted. I gave a tug on my anchor to see how well it was seated, but a casual flick of the wrist was all it took to retrieve the cord to which I had trusted my life. “Cave Crack (5.6 A5)”
Next stop: Multipitch. E-Rock has bolted slabs, and one of them goes 300ft to the top at only 5.5. The third pitch wound up being the psychological crux even though it couldn’t have been any harder than 5.2, it was an anchor-to-anchor runout. Fifty feet unprotected, contemplating a fall straight onto the anchor. I tiptoed and frighted my way up. The extreme hesitation was apparent, my climbing partners reminded me “Just remember man, you can back off, and we can rappel, no big deal!” Something about that galvanized me because I knew the hesitation I was feeling was absurd. I clawed my way up to the next anchor and whooped and hollered.
For perspective, in later years I was able to walk up that pitch hands-free.
Laughter floated up from the base of “Sweat (5.6),” one of the most popular trad routes for learning the craft in Texas. Erik Fischer hollers up “hey man, they were probably alright for a downpull!” All the nuts I’d placed in the upper third of the pitch ripped out after I reached the anchor and put tension on the rope to lower off. Those nuts ripped out of the wall faster than an anchor tied together with fishing string.
Later that day he says “oh yeah, I forgot to mention, on trad… you’re not really supposed to fall,” as my forearms were pumping over the bulge on “Grass Crack (5.10a).” Stemming onto the adjacent wall is “off-route.” So I stemmed and yelled “TAAAKE!” I’d taken five consecutive whippers onto a number 5 stopper 15ft off the ground trying to figure out the balance move while blood from my fingers slicked up the jams.
About twenty feet above my last bolt, there weren’t many options. This bald slab didn’t have much more than dime-edges, and every now and then you got excited upon finding a nickel. The edge in front of me wasn’t much more than a potato chip.
I fell back to logic to escape my predicament.
Alright. Someone’s climbed this before me. That’s how I know that this is a route, it’s established. Five feet from here, there’s an obvious hold and the only thing between here and there is this damned potato chip to stand on. I looked twenty feet down at my last bolt and did the math.
After falling twenty feet, there’d be twenty foot of slack out, meaning twenty more feet of falling. Then belayer slack, that’d mean another 5-10ft and stretch. I’m seventy feet up, so let’s assume 20% for safety margin… that means 14ft. 20, plus 20, plus 10, plus 14 is 64 feet. That’s comin’ in hot. Good thing Jeremy wore his running shoes. He’d need them to stop this asteroid from forming a crater. A fall like that would kill the dinosaurs.
And that’s when it hit me. While there might be times in life where it’s perfectly reasonable to freak out… I have yet to find one where it’s productive. Freaking out doesn’t ever help you, but if you catch yourself freaking out, don’t freak out about it. There’s nothing worse than freakin out about freakin out.
The only thing between that hold and me is this fucking potato-chip. Someone has sent this route before me; therefore they used that thing, put their foot on it, and it held their weight in defiance of physics, so when I put my weight on this foothold… it’s going to… IT HELD!
I clipped the bolt and yelled “I’M GOING TO LIIIVE!”
Gravitron. 5.11d X – it has four bolts in the space of about a hundred and fifty feet
I went to Enchanted Rock because I like being “up there,” wherever “up there is,” much to the dismay of my mother who continually found me forty or sixty feet up a tree. The neighborhood kids would play hide and go seek. Pretty quickly I realized that nobody ever looked up, and if they did, they’d realize it wasn’t worth the effort.
I sat up there for three rounds, and they never spotted me. That got a bit boring, so I picked pine-cones out of the branches and threw them. I nailed one of them on the head, and they still didn’t figure it out. Fucker deserved it anyway, he’d whupped my ass one too many times at Magic The Gathering.
Enchanted Rock was “Up There.” The tallest thing reasonably accessible in Texas, especially considering that we were based in Houston. Reimer’s Ranch was rad and all, but it’s fifty feet tall. At the tallest. We’ve got that in the university rec-center. Enchanted Rock tops out at 300ft for the tallest lines, and everything in the park has a VIEW! There’s something vaguely disappointing about topping out a rock climb only to wind up eyeball level with the treetops behind you. That’s why I like Devil’s Lake so much, every route is gorgeous. It’s the sort of aestheticism that you just don’t get many places. Devil’s Lake is my Midwestern E-Rock, but I digress, as per usual. But I reckon that’s why y’all come here, or at least that y’all‘ve come to expect it at this point.
Enchanted Rock has the best 5.10 cracks on earth, the 5.11’s are horrifically runout slabs, but typically they won’t kill or maim you. They’ll just inspire a change of pants. The 5.12’s *will* kill you. At least the trad ones, and if you’re not trad climbing… what are you even doing? In our minds, El Capitan was the ultimate goal. It’s not exactly a bolt ladder.
So we scaled back and worked mileage on those 5.10 cracks to see how much we could do in a day. Maybe we could rack up enough pitches to equate the work of a day on the big stone? The reality was maybe not. We’d only get four or five pitches in a day.
After those runout slabs, contemplating life on potato-chips twenty feet above the bolt, jamming cracks felt like returning home. One day I snapped. I just couldn’t not solo these climbs. Suddenly it was just the most obvious thing in the universe like “oh yeah, soloing, why the fuck *wouldn’t* I do that?”
The next weekend I soloed 32 routes in two days. That’s a Yosemite worthy workload.
A couple weekends later I soloed Fear of Flying, a route that’s burned into the ethos of CenTex climbing due to the bold nature of its first ascent. It’s the king-line of Texas. I soloed it twice that day
I got a job climbing cell towers, it took me to Atlanta, and I began climbing sandstone in the southeast. The region isn’t exactly known for its cracks, except for Tennessee Wall which is a regional oddity, so I was forced onto the faces and out of my comfort zone.
My first time at Sandrock Alabama saw maybe ten or fifteen onsight solos, finishing with the ultra-classic “Comfortably Numb (5.9+)”
Again I worked up the grades into the 5.10’s and eventually found myself soloing 5.11. On one particular day, I climbed “Dreamscape (5.11c/d)” and just realized “holy shit, I’m going so solo Dreamscape!” It was just so obvious, like… how could I not solo this thing? I had it wired. I could walk in and warm up on that climbing while holding a conversation with my belayer with my shoes untied. Ultimately, I’ve soloed it three times
On that day I had the weird headfuck of realizing that I’d been soloing laps on 5.11’s that my friends couldn’t even send. Holy shit that was weird. I’ve always thought of myself as a steaming pile of mediocrity, but… I couldn’t deny that something special was going on. How many folks solo 5.11 with regularity? Maybe I’ve got some sort of gift for this thing? Perhaps it would be a sin against the universe to squander a gift if once been given. Maybe I ought to take this thing and run with it, just to see how far it’ll go… At that point, I committed fully to becoming primarily a free soloist, and since that day I’ve climbed more pitches without a rope than I have *with one*
I went on to onsight solo a few 5.11’s and felt like I was tapped out for low-hanging fruit in terms of single pitch. So I moved onto multipitch.
“Up there,” steep, and secure. That’s “Linville Gorge.” The first time I visited this place… I just knew I was going to do bad things here. My first route took a while due to lack of, and because we climbed as a party of three, it was “Paradise Alley (5.8+)”
I then came back to solo, onsighting into the 5.9’s, roping up on a 5.10b roof called “Built to Tilt,” and roping up on “Pinball Wizard (5.11)” then onsight soloing a couple 5.10’s
Eventually, my days went longer and longer and bigger and bigger until I up and soloed a vertical mile. More on that in a later episode
At that point, I’d hit the wall. There wasn’t much more available, so I had to really hit it hard to train up and get stronger. I sent 5.13a on a rope, I onsighted a handful of 5.12’s, up to 5.12c.
While I’d committed to soloing once I’d solidified the 5.11 grade, 5.12 was a head trip. I had stalled and piddled after hitting 5.11+, maybe a bit trying to delay the inevitable. After all, having sent upper 5.11 and onsighted lower 5.11, 5.12- was the next obvious step up. Even now I’m trembling just thinking about it. Retelling the story pulls me back in that headspace, wondering if it’s possible, and wondering just who in the fuck I thought I was that I deserved to solo 5.12.
That sort of thing, in my experience, was for guys named Bachar, Reardon, Potter, and Honnold…. And me? I’m just some random nobody asshole!
I rehearsed “Satisfaction (5.12a)” ten times before I admitted that it’d go. I rehearsed “First Offense,” the upper deck pitch above maybe eight times.
On one particular weekend, with Lohan, he introduced me to “Boy” and “The Lion” at 5.12b. They’re side by side in a cave. They were my 11th and 12th attempt at 5.12 that day, and I was tanked before even hopping on the routes. I figured all the moves out and made them feel easy, maybe these would go too? I never actually sent them, but I sent the cruxes and knew they’d feel extremely causal if I hadn’t beaten my bond into a pulp for trying them.
After months of preparation, on the weekend of the sends, I came to Little River Canyon first. I warmed up, and then fired off “Rumble In The Jungle (5.12c),” which linked the low crux of “The Lion” into the high crux of “Boy.” After that, I knew I was golden and soloed both routes. That was the first time I’d ever sent them. The traverse to the adjacent wall and the downclimb were entirely onsight.
The next day I went to Foster Falls, soloed “Satisfaction” and “First Offense,” and then all was quiet for a year. No more 5.12’s until I onsighted “Dalai Lama (5.12c)” with a rope. If I can onsight something, that means either climbing the route like a trash-can or spending so much time thinking that I burn my ass out! So if I un-fuck the route and ditch the effort of making safety, that gives me safety margin above what’s required! So I returned to solo the line about a month or two later.
Better than half a year later, I got a job in Chicago and had to leave town. I wanted to have a parting shot before I left town, some kind of grand huzzah finale. I knew I was in absurd fitness, so I laid the plans for something extraordinary.
Five days before leaving town, I onsight soloed a 5.12a called “Tangerine.”
In the year following that day, I only soloed a single 12a during a trip to Arkansas, which brought me up to a lifetime total of seven routes. Maybe fifteen laps though. I’d often solo “Satisfaction” as my warmup during the approach to Foster Falls.
Then this past fall, a little over a year after “Tangerine,” I soloed eight 5.12’s (including a repeat of “Satisfaction”), doubling my total and bringing me up to fourteen.
One incremental step after another, that’s all it was. After each step, I’d say “What’s the next obvious goal?” Whatever you do, once you start, all it takes is time. And we’ve got plenty of that. Life is as long as it is short. Make it count