Rock climber dies after falling 80 feet off NC mountain, officials say

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A man died Sunday after he fell off a mountain he was trying to climb in western North Carolina, Burke County officials said.

Emergency officials said Austin Howell was pronounced dead at about 1:30 p.m., according to a Facebook post on the county government’s page.

The 31-year-old Chicago resident fell about 80 feet off Shortoff Mountain in Morganton, North Carolina, officials said.

Howell is believed to have been free climbing without any ropes or harnesses, Burke County Emergency Management Director Michael Willis said in an interview with McClatchy.

“All indications are that this was a true accident,” Willis said of Howell, adding the Chicago man was rock climbing on his own.

At about 11:45 a.m., a call came into the Burke County Emergency Communications Center that a rock climber fell from the mountain, officials said.

But Howell landed in a gully that was difficult to reach, and Willis said it took emergency responders a couple of hours to get to him.

Other climbers reached Howell and were performing CPR, but he was soon pronounced dead from trauma, Willis said.

When he fell, Howell was free climbing in a section of Linville Gorge that officials called “one of the most difficult portions,” of the mountain, according to the post.

Willis said the U.S. Forest Service has posted warnings about the dangers in the area, but it is a popular place for climbers.

“It’s a hot-call area for us,” Willis said of his department, which annually responds to 50-100 emergency calls in that area. Not all of those calls are for fallen climbers, and other emergencies include lost or missing hikers, in addition to dehydrated and sick visitors.

The fatal fall is under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service.

A U.S. Navy team rescued a group of Boy Scouts from the summit of Mount Baker last year after the foursome got lost in poor visibility and dug a snow cave for shelter overnight, when temperatures dropped below freezing.

Noah Feit is a Real Time reporter with The State and McClatchy Carolinas Regional Team. The award-winning journalist has worked for multiple newspapers since starting his career in 1999.