Boulder’s Timmy O’Neill: Laughing all the way to the summit
Ryan Summerlin May 7, 2009
CARBONDALE ” On Timmy O’Neill’s current list of priorities, the No. 1 item is rehabbing the left shoulder that was surgically reconstructed five months ago. O’Neill chalks the injury up to inevitable wear-and-tear ” he has been a gung-ho climber for roughly half of his 39 years ” but also to a 120-foot fall he took in 2000, while climbing a massive granite formation in Pakistan. That incident tore his shoulder, threatened his life and caused a pain in the groin area severe enough for O’Neill to believe he had shattered his pelvis. Which he did not.
“It was just the harness ripping out my pubic hair,” he said.
For O’Neill, no subject ” not the instantaneous removal of his short and curlies; not the paralyzed condition of his older brother, Sean, caused by a 100-foot jump off a bridge into the Mississippi River some 20 years ago ” is off-limits as a source of lightness and humor.
And certainly not the world of outdoors adventuring, and the people who inhabit it. In fact, that might be O’Neill’s favorite well in which to find laughter. Through his decades of climbing, kayaking, backcountry skiing and the like, the Boulder resident has had plenty of contact with what he sees as the stereotypical extreme athlete: “He’s that archetype: extremely excited about climbing the world’s tallest mountain ” because it’s the world’s tallest mountain. This man lives in superlatives. And it’s not enough for him to have the experience ” he’s got to possess the experience. He needs to have a memento of the experience.”
Friday, at the second 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale, O’Neill sends up that archetype when he will perform his “Mallory Revisited” at the Carbondale Rec Center. The stage piece has O’Neill in the persona of Dr. Steven “Death Zone” Clark ” a man who, even at the summit of Mt. Everest, is letting his mind wander, thinking about how he can make the experience even more significant.
“The death zone is that location on a mountain, above 26,000 feet, where the body basically begins to consume itself, where life and death co-exist in a very in-your-face manner,” said O’Neill, speaking from Silverton, where a few days’ activity included whitewater kayaking on the Upper Animas River, backcountry skiing on Red Mountain Pass, and climbing an enormous, ancient signal tower at the top of McMillan Peak (and, of course, rehabbing his shoulder, a pursuit he takes with extreme seriousness). “And he’s filled with hubris. A collector of Everest artifacts. So he’ll be showing some of his most prized Everest pieces. He sprays the audience with water that’s melted from Everest snow. He’s really into Everest, really into the death zone. All things Everest.”
O’Neill was kayaking whitewater from the time he was a kid ” “a prepubescent making life and death decisions on these huge rapids,” he says. But when he left Pennsylvania for the West ” first a job at the Old Faithful Gift Shop in Yellowstone, then a job in Yosemite, followed by seven or eight years devoted as much as possible to climbing things ” he raised his personal adventure bar several notches. O’Neill has speed-climbed the Nose of Yosemite’s El Capitan, kayaked the length of the Grand Canyon seven times, and scaled city buildings without ropes.
But for O’Neill, the adventure doesn’t end when his feet finally touch ground. Telling his stories ” through videos, live performances, written pieces and appearances on television, including the National Geographic Channel ” is an essential part of his extreme behavior.
“Death-by-slide presentations … Why would you even bother? It’s so run-of-the-mill. It’s so boring,” he says of the standard method for sharing one’s outdoors feats with an audience. “I had to step up. I take the energy and vitality [of an adventure] and apply it to humor, to telling a story.
“The easy thing is to get up there, recount the ABCs: ‘Here’s my adventure. And I made it back alive.’ Well, of course you did. But people go to these great places and survive all the time. My presentation captures the audience, lets them be present with you, not be drifting off, falling asleep.”
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O’Neill has not had to develop his shtick; it comes naturally. From the time he started sharing his outdoors escapades with others, humor and unpredictability were a part of it.
“Conventional? No. Never,” he said. “My humor is pervasive. Conventional wasn’t even an option. I would have had to create a character.”
That skewed way of looking at the world comes from being one of seven children in his family ” and one of 21 kids in a three-house stretch of suburban Philadelphia. O’Neill was a bright but thoroughly indifferent high school student who stumbled his way to Philadelphia’s Temple University. There, it didn’t take even one semester to bring to the fore the eternal question: What the hell am I doing here?
“I spent $7,000 on 13th grade,” quips O’Neill, who was on academic probation in the fall of his freshman year. “I was anti-inspired. I was such a slave to conformity. I was so focused on what I should be that I wasn’t being anything.”
O’Neill’s savior came in the form of a help-wanted ad, seeking employees in Yellowstone. “What?!” he says. “You could get a job in a national park?” He bought himself a $69 bus ticket and headed West.
While working in the Old Faithful Gift Shop, he developed a passion for climbing. And soon he would discover something even better than working in Yellowstone: not working at all, and spending all your time climbing. For the past eight years, O’Neill has called Boulder his home base, though he doesn’t actually have a home there; he has a storage unit. He does own a house ” in his native East Lansdowne, Penn. ” which he expects never to live in. His mother lives there.
O’Neill has found that outdoor adventures make an ideal context for humor. Living on the edge requires a safety valve, and he is happy to provide it with jokes, self-deprecation and stories.
“Being cold, hungry, afraid, far away from home, lonely ” a tried and tested relief from that has been laughter, making a joke of it. The need for, the desire for laughter comes easily,” he said. “We try to veil these things. But if you unveil them, expose them, they lose a lot of their power.”
For O’Neill, the intensity and laser-like focus of the climbing community opens the door for a particular kind of humor ” the Marx Brothers-esque puncturing of an inflated ego. “These people take themselves so seriously, think of themselves as high above those everyday concerns,” he said.
Though he may not put it in exactly these terms, O’Neill himself has a serious side. He believes firmly in the notion that climbing can be something beyond ego-centric peak-bagging. “Climbing, kayaking and skiing ” they’ve given me a profound connection to the earth and to humanity,” he said. “Whatever I do in life, the message is the same: Live life now. Because you are going to go. I guarantee it.”
By taking on extreme endeavors, he continued, “you’re left with this ingot of what I believe is important to you ” living your life in the moment. Life is living, not stressing. Because, dude, 60, 70 years will pass by pretty quickly.”
O’Neill takes it almost as a point of pride that he has not climbed Everest, and has no desire to: “I’ve never been a snow slogger,” said O’Neill, who prefers his climbing to be as vertical as possible. “Maybe when I’m older and I need extra glory.” For added bursts of adrenaline, O’Neill took up drums three years ago ” his four-piece rock band, the Dust Storm, plays tonight at Carbondale’s Black Nugget ” and drawing. Among his latest projects is drawing the precise outline of the continent of Africa, and all its 53 nations, to scale, precisely, from memory.
O’Neill says his ideal climbing partner is not someone who makes him laugh, necessarily, and certainly not someone who pushed him to the edge. “I can be pretty anxious,” he said. “If I’m going into something serious, I want someone who’s better than me.” Of his own outdoors personality, O’Neill says he is “safe, serious about being in the mountains, someone who wants to get it done.”
In 2007, O’Neill and DJ Skelton, an Army captain who was severely injured while serving in Iraq, founded Paradox Sports. The nonprofit organization brings disabled people into the outdoors. Shortly before establishing Paradox, O’Neill led his brother Sean, a paraplegic, on a seven-day climb of El Capitan.
“I can care less what kind of athlete you are,” said O’Neill. “I care what kind of person you are. What kind of risks do you take with humanity? If you can inspire with that ” congratulations.”
Treading that space between the serious and the comical, O’Neill admits that sometimes he crosses a line. As much as he believes in laughter, he has learned that there are times when it is not appropriate. Now if he can only figure out when those times are.
“I generally find them out after I’ve cracked the joke,” he said. “My desire is to help, to love, to connect. But sometimes it’s cross-wired and my shorthand Timmy-speak comes out the wrong way. And I get chastened. But life is a work-in-progress. If I thought about everything I was going to say, I would say very little.”