Timmy: I know that for me, climbing isn't about of course being close to death, it's just to celebrate life. And I think that part of climbing is problem-solving in risky scenarios, it makes it engaging, it makes it real. If I knew that it was going to be successful, I probably wouldn't go.
Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process, and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way.
Erik: And that unexplored terrain between those dark places, we find ourselves in in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers.
Jeff: Today, we meet Timmy O'Neill. Hailing from Philadelphia, Timmy left after one semester of college to head out, and design a life for himself. He quickly became known as the Urban Ape, scaling buildings around the country like the Chicago Tribune Tower without any ropes. Now, he's a seasoned Patagonia sponsored climber with a lengthy and impressive resume that includes setting world speed climbing records in Yosemite and first ascents around the world in Venezuela, Patagonia, Pakistan, and Greenland. He's also a world-class slackliner, mountain biker, and kayaker. Outside of his athletic achievements, Timmy is always giving back. He co-founded Paradox Sports, a national non-profit dedicated to providing inspiration, opportunities, and adaptive equipment to the disabled community. Timmy's vitality and zest for life continue to inspire others as he pushes on to live a life of meaning.
Erik: So, we have an amazing guest on the No Barriers podcast today and that is my friend, Jeff and me, we have a great Timmy O'Neill. You know, Timmy, I don't even know where to come in with you because you have this incredible multi-fascinated life, this incredible no-barriers life. I mean, just to reel off things, your speed records in Yosemite, and incredible climber, a professional athlete, a sponsored athlete, you've founded non-profit organizations, you read a book a week. It's not just like you're a dumb climber. You have so many interesting facets and so, I don't even know where to come in with you. But maybe, let's just go to the obvious place, to your climbing career, which is amazing. I mean, you are like, where's Timmy in the world?
Erik: You're all over the place. You just got back from Norway. You're one of the pioneers of Yosemite. Yeah, tell us what you just got back from in Norway.
Timmy: I was over in Norway, climbing in the Lofoten Archipelago. First of all, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me on the No Barriers podcast.
Jeff: I'm massaging Timmy's back right now as we're-
Timmy: It feels good, there it is. The rhomboid's right there in the center between the shoulder blades. Oh that's it. Thanks Jeff. So, I was over in Norway with my fiance, Sarah.
Jeff: Congratulations by the way.
Timmy: Thanks, dude.
Erik: Yeah, awesome.
Timmy: I'm growing up so much. We were over climbing in the Lofoten Archipelago which is in the north west part of-
Jeff: Say that slowly.
Timmy: Lofoten Archipelago, a group of islands.
Erik: Way north.
Timmy: Yeah up in the arctic circle. So, it was the land of the midnight sun, so we brought headlamps, but didn't need them. Kind of like you, you don't need headlamps either Erik. We had sun, you know the sun basically dips below the horizon just momentarily, so we were able to do these huge routes. It's tons of granite climbing, and then we lucked out with the weather. It was really nice.
Jeff: Is it cold? Is it warm?
Timmy: It was warm and sunny in the day and typically it can be kind of cold and wet. Last summer, wasn't a good season there, but this summer's been like the best.
Jeff: How do you get back to those big peaks?
Timmy: You're walking, so the biggest one we did was Vågakallen, and that was a pretty long approach, like several hours and it was 17 pitches up to the summit and then a huge descent and walking around.
Erik: Someone said, I think I heard a picture described where you're up over the fjords.
Erik: That's the one.
Timmy: Yeah, exactly. The ocean is out there. What's interesting too in Norway is they do a lot of tunneling. Tunneling through, it's like something out of The Hobbit. They're tunneling through these mountains and then there's the bridges, really elegant looking bridges. It can be a really harsh place, I guess, but we didn't experience any of the harshness. We got really good weather.
Jeff: You know the thing about you, though, for people who don't know Timmy, which is probably like two people who don't know Timmy's story. What that story is, is a little bit of a shaving off of a typical journey for Timmy O'Neil.
Erik: Yeah, how many countries have you been to?
Timmy: I don't know, probably 40?
Erik: Yeah, I bet more even.
Timmy: Something like that.
Jeff: Yeah, but you just go to really obscure, well not always obscure, but you go to obscure places sometimes and just crush different rocks, and mountains, and hills, and you do it with fun people.
Timmy: I turn them into rubble, so nobody else can climb them.
Jeff: Justify them.
Erik: I mean, we could use the whole show talking about your climbing resume and adventures. You've been to Patagonia, you've done amazing things there. Talk about some of the speed stuff in Yosemite, because that's how I originally heard of you.
Timmy: Well, I remember climbing with that Dean Potter and a bunch of the stone monkey's they called them from the 90's and 2000's. I remember Dean and I went for a climb up The Prow on Washington's Column, and we set the speed record, and it was my first time-
Jeff: On purpose, or accident?
Timmy: He knew, I didn't even know. He called me a secret weapon. He's like, "Oh yeah, this is going to work out really well." So, then we systematically went through and starting breaking the records in Yosemite that had stood for like a decade. But, my favorite day in Yosemite, one of my favorite days ever rock climbing was with Dean, and we did the north-west face of Half Dome. We started the clock there, and then we did that in just around two hours. And then we ran down the death slabs-
Jeff: Which for everybody, how many pitches? I mean, not for you that day, but for-
Timmy: It's like 24 pitches.
Jeff: 24 pitches.
Erik: It takes two days normally.
Jeff: Yeah, it's a two day climb.
Timmy: A day, or a day and a half usually, and then we ran down the death slabs and up Tenaya Canyon to the second grade six, Mount Watkins, and then we set the speed record on that. The fastest known time at that time. And then, we ran out to the road, drove down to El Cap Meadow, and then raced up the nose. The third and final grade six of the day for the first time that three grade six's were done in 24 hours. We were mostly fueled by viking-size cinnamon rolls and coca-cola. So, it wasn't the healthiest diet, but actually isn't the healthiest undertaking either because, often you're super run out and you're employing the techniques that have marginal degrees of safety associated with them.
Erik: And, Dean passed away.
Timmy: Dean died base jumping in Yosemite. He went for a base jump off of Taft Point and was trying to do this difficult maneuver through some terrain and didn't make it.
Erik: Dean was a legend too.
Timmy: Absolutely, yeah.
Erik: That tore you up, right?
Timmy: Yeah, I mean he was, early in my climbing career, I was doing some of the coolest and most out-there climbing, and so we were both mentors for one another. His death, in a line of many deaths in my life, coming from my climbing partners.
Jeff: Did you dabble in base jumping a little bit?
Timmy: I did, yeah. I got into it a little bit. I went and did 30 sky dives at a place called Lodi, which is in California. And, it's this sort of infamous place, kind of famous for being bad. I got my A license, I did my accelerated free fall course, where you jump out of a plane with an instructor. And then, I went to the Perrine Bridge I think it is, in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Erik: Yeah, where everybody learn to-
Timmy: Yeah, where it's legal. You can jump 24 hours a day, 365. So, I did I think six base jumps off of there.
Jeff: And then how did Dean's death effect you with that?
Timmy: I was done base jumping [crosstalk 00:08:47]
Jeff: You had already stopped.
Timmy: I got into it and I got right out of it.
Erik: Dean just kept pushing the envelope, right? I mean-
Timmy: Yeah, in everything that he did. He was trying to take it as close to the edge as possible and he didn't return from that last one.
Erik: He was base jumping, him and his partner. Hit the ground and died.
Timmy: Yeah, right. They both went in to this cliff basically.
Erik: So how far, what's your thinking, you push the envelope in climbing obviously-
Erik: But, right, there is... you've had, I mean obviously not to be depressing, but I mean you've experienced a lot of deaths and so forth. What's your balance in terms of sustainability and how far to push things?
Timmy: Well, I know that for me, climbing isn't about, of course, being close to death. It's this feeling where I feel closer to life, right? You hear that all the time. The goal isn't to cheat death, it's to celebrate life. But, inherently going out to these mountainous locations are the objective hazards that can come get anybody, right? I think that part of climbing is problem solving in risky scenarios. It makes it engaging, it makes it real. You hear all the time, the necessary parts of life are cutaway or removed and only the most important decisions are the one's you're looking to make.
Erik: Risk and uncertainty, right?
Timmy: Yeah, if I knew that it was going to be successful, I probably wouldn't go.
Jeff: Right. Does your recent engagement, does it change your optic at all with that? I mean, I know she gets after it, your fiance. But, does it alter your scope any?
Timmy: Well, yes it does, and then also I just turned 50, right? So, as you age, your body behaves differently. The longer you stay exposed to something, perhaps the more likely it is that you will have that catastrophe.
Jeff: Give us a tangible example of maybe-
Timmy: Of dialing it back?
Jeff: Yeah. Is there one?
Timmy: Well, yeah, I mean, maybe there isn't one that I'm like, okay I'm not doing that.
Jeff: I'm just curious about if you had actually pulled one out.
Timmy: Well, I mean, for example-
Erik: You climb with blind people.
Timmy: Yeah, or like free-soling the First Flatiron. It's so easy, right? But still, if you do slip you are going to die. You're going to tumble down this rock face. So, last night, I got in from California and I immediately drove straight to Chautauqua, and raced up the First Flatiron. I love it. There's something about this engagement with really needing to be present, and then really having your decisions matter, right?
Jeff: That's your jam though, you could do that with your eyes closed, because you've done it so many times.
Jeff: But, the consequences are still-
Timmy: It's still free solo. It's still legitimately a dangerous undertaking. And, I think as far as dialing it back for me, I've been having this conversation with myself around when is enough, enough? Like, when are you actually done going for big objectives. Or, is it maybe not that you're done, but you change the objective, like it's no longer an objective that's risk in the sense of outdoor adventure, but it's risk in the sense of maybe a business venture, or having a relationship, or starting a family with children.
Erik: I just listened to this podcast with Mark Twight. Mark Twight's this, he calls himself a recovering climbing addict. He called it Dr. Death, right-
Timmy: Was it the Enormocast with Chris Kalous?
Erik: Yeah, exactly. He said, I'm a recovering climbing addict. I'm trying to figure out how to live normally, quote-unquote normally, without climbing. But I mean, I did think, that's different, because he was cheating death, right? Every time he went out there he felt like he was cheating death. You're talking more about climbing as a celebration, right? The opposite, maybe, I'm wondering.
Erik: Because I thought, in that, when I go climbing it's not about cheating death. I'm expressing fun with friends and beauty and just seeing how far I can push myself, but I'm not Dr. Death. That's never been part of the equation. I feel like that's what you're saying.
Timmy: Well, I mean what Mark Twight was often doing was these cutting edge ascents. These things that hasn't been done yet.
Timmy: So, he's going so close to the edge and going into these really objectively hazardous locations and doing the most difficult route known to man at the time.
Erik: Light too, super light.
Timmy: Being that exposed, then is courting and dancing with the Devil a little bit more, right? So, we're talking about a lighter version of that, right? Lighter in the sense that it's not as risky, and lighter that it's not as dark.
Erik: That's still fun though, and fulfilling to you?
Timmy: Oh yeah. Sarah and I were just talking on the phone and she met this team of acrobats at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland where she is. And she's like, they're going to perform in California, Stanford, in October. Let's take them climbing in Yosemite. And I'm like, that sounds awesome to me. I love turning people on to something I love. I think sharing my passion with everybody when I go, especially to Yosemite, is just as important to me as getting out these and doing a cutting edge ascent of something.
Jeff: So, you talked about, in a way, a bit of a pivot from taking chances, and being on the edge, and before we came on the air, you were talking about some of the other work that you're doing professionally. You gave us a case study of your most recent experience and facilitating with corporate groups.
Erik: And leadership development.
Jeff: And leadership. Right? So, as we discussed earlier, you can get way out there on a limb with that, because you're holding on to the consciousness of a group and you're trying to extract the best conversation and dialog you can. And that's scary, and intimidating, and dangerous.
Erik: How do you go from climbing to that? To leading groups and-
Timmy: The sharp end is a British term, and it means the most difficult part of the job, right? So, that sharp end in climbing is leading. So, when you're leading or facilitating a group, you're on the sharp end. You're exposed to failure. You could fall flat, or you may say the wrong thing, or you may just not be able to handle it, be shut down. Right? And so, because you have that exposure, it's really an improvisational thing, because you don't know what people are going to share, but yet you want them to share something that's deep enough to create emotion. Because, through that depth and emotion, then you can get into touch with how you can make a change, right? If you're stand-offish or sharing at a really shallow level, then the changes of you having an experience that's going to be a catalyst and speed up a rate of change isn't going to happen.
Timmy: As far as being on the sharp end, whether you're on stage in front of an audience, or you're facilitating in front of a small group around of fire, or you're on the sharp end by yourself as your partner below holds the rope. There's all consequences for your decisions, so it's really important for you to pay attention to the ones you are and aren't making.
Erik: Are you trying to steer the ship when you're in front of a group, or are you letting it go where it takes itself?
Timmy: Both I think. It's this kind of subtle dance of, you don't want it to get too in the weeds, and you don't want it to go the wrong direction. You have a destination you want to get to, and then you're getting all these data points on the way so you're course correcting. But, ultimately, at the end of this thing it's like 90 minutes, it feels like forever, I'm pretty exhausted.
Erik: Because you're so on.
Timmy: Yeah, you're holding face and then you're basically toggling in between somebody sharing deeply and then trying to share context around that as being important. And then, you have fifteen people, everyone's listening, so you have both an audience that's actively sharing and actively listening.
Jeff: I'll play on Erik's initial tie in with you when he said you're not just a dumb climber. In fact, you're an intellect, and you're sophisticated, and your comedic wit is on top. So, I imagine, what you really, really love an appreciate the cerebral jousting that has to take place in those setting when you're trying to just get the most out of the conversation. You come away wiped out, but probably enjoy it.
Timmy: Yeah, it's not passive. I've never really been into watching movies too much, or I don't really listen to podcasts, sorry guys. But anyway, I love to read because the active aspect of reading requires me to be really present. I can't be multi-tasking or sort of day dreaming or else I'm not going to get the content, which that's why I'm reading, right?
Timmy: And so, the same thing with facilitating, it's not passive. You're absolutely engaged, you're very present, and your mind can't wander. You have to be really paying attention and giving it to the person who's currently sharing and then managing and holding the space, and then trying to get everybody to a place as well. So, there's a lot of nuance and a lot of moving parts but, exactly Jeff, I really it. It suits me really well. I'm from a big family, there was always multi-taking, and a lot of different people to accommodate, so this feels like-
Jeff: Philadelphia, right?
Timmy: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Erik: When you're leading a group, a team, say they come in as a bit of a dysfunctional team [inaudible 00:18:10]. You've got to go dep, right? You're trying to bring the team together so they bring the best thing forward, right? And so, how do you know how deep to go? Because, some of the stuff we've facilitated with No Barriers, especially folks with trauma, they can go so deep you can never bring them back, it's almost destructive.
Timmy: I mean, there are people like you guys working at No Barriers, my work with Paradox sports, and my work with people with disability, whether it's physical, or emotional, intellectual, et cetera, this is a bit different. The individuals that I'm working with in this corporate setting, it's more of a business aspect, and more of a deeply personal as it pertains to amputation, paralysis, or traumatic brain injury, et cetera. But, there is an imbalance with these people. They're searching for a well-being and a sense of balance that may be missing from perhaps their work, life, love, play. They're trying to determine basically, a change that they can make personally. I think that's what we're all after is trying to make these changes in our life that bring us to a better place.
Jeff: Can you give us a sense of where Paradox came into your life? And maybe your familial history that sort of led you into that journey?
Timmy: Yeah, Paradox Sports started in 2007 with a guy named DJ Skelton, who was a captain in the US Army. He got in touch with me to help him facilitate an event with the Walter Reed Medical Center back in D.C. So, he called me up and he was like, "I'd like to talk to Mr. O'Neill." He was really official. [crosstalk 00:19:44] I was like, I don't know who that is, wrong number, wrong number. So then, we got along really well, and so Paradox Sports was formed from that one clinic that we hosted. But, backing up from that, it's because I have a brother who's paralyzed from the waist down, my older brother Sean. He sustained an injury jumping off a bridge into water for fun and, as a result of the way he landed, he broke his spine, right at his T-12 where his thoracic meets his lumbar. That was 25+ years ago. Soon after his accident, I climbed Devil's Tower with him. We did the first or early paraplegic ascent of Devil's Tower.
Jeff: What year was that?
Timmy: You know, at least 20 years, 25 years ago.
Erik: He's doing pull-ups right?
Erik: He's doing pull-ups with a kind of pull-up bar that lock onto the rope and then ascender.
Timmy: Yeah, you have an ascender and then we cut off a sledge hammer handle and put it, lashed it to an ascender, and then we took duct tape and newspaper and taped this legs up. We made this crazy seat that we melted and put car cushions in. We were just kind of making it up you know, a necessity being the mother of invention. We wanted to have this experience, and it was because there's climber named Mark Wellman, one of the founders of No Barriers-
Jeff: Been on the podcast.
Timmy: Exactly, and he climbed El Cap and Half Dome as a paraplegic.
Jeff: Had he done that already by the time you and Sean were talking about Devil's Tower?
Timmy: He did. Yeah, exactly. So, I learned of it from him, and you know, standing on the shoulders of giants. Mark set the early precedent of it can be done, so let's do it. And then Sean and I would eventually climb Castleton Tower, The Tombstone on King Creek Road near Moab, and then we eventually went and did El Cap.
Timmy: We would go on to climb El Cap a few times, even climbing in the Ruth Gorge, up in Alaska, doing a wall up there. He would go on to develop whole system where he could rock up to the crag in his wheelchair, jump down to the ground, get his chaps on, and then lead a crack climb by using these pulleys, and he calls them his tentacles, so it's like little Micro Traxion from Petzl, you pull up, you go, and you keep placing cams and-
Jeff: Like French Free in a way? Like pulling and-
Erik: [crosstalk 00:21:55] He's hanging on pieces of gear and-
Timmy: Exactly, and then clipping them and having them-
Erik: Doing pull-ups up the face essentially, right?
Timmy: Yeah, he's using pulleys and ropes, like a three-to-one pulley and then wrenching himself up.
Jeff: And then pulling that piece of gear and-
Timmy: Yes, and then plugging it above, and then he eases his way up to the anchor, sets up a rappel, rappel's down, cleans the gear, and then can put you on top rope and then give you instructions on how to do your footwork. Even though his legs don't work, he doesn't do footwork.
Jeff: I mean that's taking it beyond Mark Wellman style. Mark basically, not taking away from anything, but he's doing pull-ups up the rope. Sean's using the rock.
Timmy: Well just, he went for a progression around being able to lead, so he could actually go and be the fist person, and set ropes for me now.
Erik: Right, which is contributing to being on the sharp end as well.
Timmy: Yeah, definitely. And then, I think by being an example of somebody who is pushing that edge and then creating an evolution in sit-climbing, which is what he calls it, then he provides the impetus inspiration for somebody else to come and do the next innovation, right?
Erik: So that was probably part of your motivation for bring interested in Paradox Sports and trying to push that forward, right?
Timmy: Yeah, because of Sean I got into understanding adaptive climbing. And then because we did El Cap, and did these climbs, people were like, hey, I want to do El Cap, and I have paralysis. Or, my friend recently was paralyzed. Or, I'm dealing with this issue and I want help with skills, or personnel, or fundraising, or just trying to understand how you even start it. So, that's the way that DJ got in touch with me, because he knew that I was doing this work and he was going to host this clinic. And he himself is missing an eye, the palate of his mouth, mobility in an arm and a leg, so he himself is a climber who's dealing with adaptation.
Jeff: He was hurt in Iraq?
Timmy: In the Second Fallujah War, yeah he took some really bad fire, right? And, so he was delivering it and as a result of coming together, I was like, "Dude, you should do something." And he's like, "No, dude, you should do something." And then, so we're like, "Okay, dude, we should do something," That became Paradox Sports.
Jeff: It's all about human-powered sports like climbing with folks with disabilities.
Timmy: Yeah, mostly Paradox Sports is around facilitating outdoor experiences, in particular climbing, with individuals with varied disabilities.
Erik: But, now they've moved in to some really cool stuff, like they go to rock gyms all over the country and educate the staff and so forth about adaptive climbing, right? So, they're really opening doors beyond just taking people on adventure trips.
Timmy: Yeah, when I was the executive director for a couple of years, I went through the process of working with Dougald MacDonald, actually, and Pete Davis, and Sarah Leone and we basically created a manual around adaptive climbing. So we went and interviewed all these people about techniques, and how they got into it, and the do's and don'ts.
Timmy: And then, we put the manual out with the hopes of helping people create adaptive climbing clubs. And then, also doing trainings around adaptive climbing for climbing gyms, which are really popular now. I mean, they're all over the country. YMCA's, grade schools, high schools, fitness clubs, and stand alone climbing gyms are proliferating. So, the need to have basically a no barrier for entry, right? So, it's like they're able to come in and have a set up. Whether it's the equipment, or volunteers, or a monthly adaptive climbing night. So, Paradox Sports is facilitating that through training programs.
Jeff: Was there resistance at first with the mainstream climbing world in terms of rock gyms? Like, you know, para's showing up at the rock gym they're pretty freaked out?
Timmy: Yeah, I think there's this misunderstanding. So often we're taught don't look, don't stare, that's not polite to look at someone who is different. Right? You don't want to bring awareness to them, make them feel bad perhaps. But, in reality, what we know is we just want to feel normal, right? And so, having that conversation, or understanding what impediments there may be so that you can overcome them. I think gyms, maybe they were a little reluctant, but then it's also the conversation, okay, if we're all the same and we're all normal, then does there need to be these special nights, or discounted rates. It opens up a conversation which needs to happen around how to accept difference, but also help create platforms that get people into the gyms, right?
Jeff: Obviously a little nebulous, but how has that work with your brother and with all the individuals at Paradox, how has that shaped where you are individually objectively for you?
Timmy: I mean, it's actually helped me with my humility, because a lot of times climbers, we can be pretty arrogant right? It's the ego. You're going for that epic summit, that first ascent. Renowned, right? You're this person who accomplished something that no one's done before.
Jeff: It's a selfish pursuit by its nature because you're going to do something for you when you go out and climb, right?
Timmy: Which is important to do things for ourselves and create a platform of wellness where you're feeding yourself, so you can then help others. But if you only help yourself, then it becomes kind of shallow. As we know, a lot of meaning is created by somebody else recognizing you for being exceptional, or helpful, or kind, or whatever it may be. That we matter because we engage with other people.
Timmy: Yeah. So, that validation happens with me and it has happened and continues to happen by this life of service. And my brother Sean's injury provided a catalyst for me to be more of service to him in understanding his paralysis, but ultimately understanding that I can't cure it. That I actually can't relieve it, but I can join it, I can work with it, I can understand it. It took me a long time, actually, to come to terms with that.
Erik: And just to bring some fun connections in, you and I have climbed a lot together and so, you've become an amazing climbing guide for the blind too. We've climbed all over the world together and I always joke and tell you it's like one of the fastest climbers in the world climbing with one of the slowest climbers in the world, so we meet in the middle.
Timmy: Well, it helps me work on my patience.
Timmy: I mean, for real. Climbing with Wayne Willoughby.
Erik: Tell us about Wayne.
Timmy: We climbed Astro Dog in-
Erik: He has polio.
Timmy: In the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. He contracted polio as an infant, passing through Tennessee on a road trip with his parents as this baby, right? And, he now is dealing with post-polio syndrome, which is really indiscriminate pain, and nausea. He is so fragile, that he does a fist bump, he won't handshake because you could break bones in his hand. He doesn't hug because you can actually break him by hugging him too hard. So he's so fragile, but he's this really interesting paradox of fragility and tenacity. Because he's climbed El Cap like 30 times. He's like The Diamond half a dozen times at least. He's in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison where I was with him. And he still climbs, he's in his 60's.
Timmy: So, we went to climb Astro Dog in a day, and with the Black, you have to rappel in, so you're committed.
Erik: This is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Erik: Really intimidating, narrow, deep canyon.
Timmy: Yeah, where we went with Mike [Rumbal 00:29:23] to go and climb Astro Dog, no not Astro Dog, what did we climb? Scenic Cruise?
Erik: Scenic Cruise.
Timmy: Yeah Scenic Cruise. So, across the other side. We were looking at the Scenic Cruise. So we rapped down there with Wayne, and Wayne's ascending the rope. A lot of people were like, hey that's not climbing. Of course, what is climbing? It's an individual pursuit and so it requires an individual definition, right?
Timmy: And so, Wayne is climbing, he's absolutely a climber and he's climbing down there. He's ascending the rope and he's taking so long, each jug, each pull up he has to rest in between. He's like ugh, ugh. Then zip, pull up. And then ugh, ugh. I fall asleep, I'm having this dream that somebody from another planet has visited me and they come down and we're climbing together but we're having this difficult time communicating and then I realize that I just have to let go completely. And I wake back up, and Wayne is virtually in the same place before I fell asleep. So, we spent all this time climbing this wall and I'll never forget, we're getting to the top, and he's now dealing with really bad stomach issues. He's like regurgitating, it's like phosphorescent bile on the side the wall. It's amazing how much he's suffering. But he'll look over, wipe his mouth off, and be like, "Thank you so much, Timmy. This is the coolest thing I've ever done. I'm having such a good time. This is amazing."
Timmy: Yet for me, he's in a lot of distress. He has all these pads all over his body, two different size shoes, knee pads, ankle pads, shoulder pads. He's completely padded up because he has to have this filter between him, and the wall, and the experience or else he could break. So people are like, why would you do that? Why would you go put yourself there? And for him, it's a place that he feels a great mobility. Right? He feels this great liberty in being there even though he's tethered and has all these pads on. Right?
Timmy: So, hanging with somebody like Wayne allows me to, it's like learning a new language that through that process you become intellectually sharper, and then you understand your own language better.
Erik: What did you learn about, because Paradox is basically bringing people together, this movement to doing something new and big together. What do you learn about building that movement and that process along the way?
Timmy: Well, that's interesting, as a high level athlete, I love movement. I'm known for going fast and accomplishing big things in the fastest known time. But, I just love that process of move, move, move at a high level. But, when I'm working with people of varying abilities, it's not about that anymore. It's certainly not about me tooting my own horn, or trying to set context around what I've done, but it allows me to understand movement. And then, what it really is about is trying to celebrate each person individually, but also recognizing how each person fits into the group overall. That's a really delicate thing to do, because if you have people that are from across the spectrum, somebody that's crawling, someone that's running. They're not going to be arriving at the same time so how do you integrate them to both feel as if they're on the same trip.
Jeff: Their experiences are very different, but they're traveling the same path.
Timmy: As they're going to the same destination, exactly, Jeff. So, that is something I've learned that's really helped me with this facilitating that I'm doing now is how you integrate varying degrees of ability into the same conversation. And then, failures have taught me. Working with Paradox Sports, I was the executive director, but I was not listening to my board necessarily. I saw what had to be done and then I would do it, but yet I had people at the table. So, I learned a huge humbling lesson that if somebody's invited to the table, you have to listen to them and even if it might not be an idea that you believe in, it has to be tendered and it may even need to be tried.
Jeff: That's some grown-man shit right there.
Timmy: I know. It's adulting harder than ever. It was, it was a huge lesson for me. Erik was a part of my life when I was dealing with Paradox Sports and then I joined the board of directors after terming out as the executive director. It changed me forever, right? In good ways, but at a price.
Jeff: What was the price?
Timmy: The price is being humbled, right? When you're humbled and when you're slapped down, it's painful, man.
Jeff: Yeah, it hurts.
Timmy: It definitely hurts. I was like, God I worked so hard. It is successful and it is for a great thing, but along the way, I've just got to make sure I'm slowing down.
Erik: I literally have a really good family friend, her son Yuyu is an arm amputee, and she learned about Paradox, and she went out to Shelf Road. He joined this team and it gave him confidence, he's climbing on his climbing team. He has a little bell at the top of the climbing wall and he rings that bell and he feels like he's climbed the tallest mountain in the world. He's a part of something, it's changed his life, he's confident, it's way beyond climbing.
Timmy: I agree with you that it's about integrating somebody's capacity, right? So if you're stuck and like, oh I can't do it or you're defining whether it's something you're born with congenitally or something that happens to you later in life, you're going to have to be dealing with this adaptive process. If you can have people that have dealt with it already and they're creating a platform that's inclusive, and you have volunteers and skilled individuals who can help bring you in, then the world is a better place.
Jeff: So your path also includes, what I would consider, not really climbing related philanthropy and humanitarian work, I'm sure that the relationship was forged from that way, but tell us about the work you've done with Geoff.
Timmy: Oh with Tabin, yeah. Climbing has been the door for everything in my life. I became a climber when I was 19 and I've never looked back. It's always been, this is what I want to be doing the rest of my life. Because, it's about the ability to crux mentality, always problem solving. And not shying from the crux, but going to determine it. Like, there's the crux, okay I'm excited. And then, decided discomfort, that you're electing to be uncomfortable through the process of, it could rain on you, you're hungry, you're thirsty. So, those qualities work really well for volunteer work, especially for volunteer work especially as it pertains to going to the developing world to help cure preventable blindness.
Timmy: For example, the most recent one I did was in South Sudan. I've been working with Cure Blindness for 10 years. We went to South Sudan in February. And they just got out of five years of civil war, and they had protracted twenty years of war of independence from Sudan before that. So, the services, they just don't exist. They're barely curing the hunger issues, like starvation. We worked with this amazing woman named Jill Seamen, she has the South Sudan Medical Relief. It's this mission. And she works out of Bethel, Alaska as a physician and she's been working there forever. She deals with these really strange diseases that only exist in this region, right? We worked with her this last February in doing about 600 surgeries.
Erik: And, these are surgeries to bring the sight back to people.
Timmy: Yeah, it's cataracts surgeries.
Erik: Yeah so, Geoff, not Jeff, but Geoff Tabin is a famous eye surgeon and he's connected with a broader organization and they created these lenses that you can produce for like ten bucks in places around the world.
Timmy: In Katmandu. Right, at the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology. So, the backstory is Dr. Sanduk Ruit, who's Nepali, becomes this eye surgeon. He works with Fred Hollows who was an ophthalmologist in Australia, and the Fred Hollows Foundation is a huge non-profit around helping to cure preventable blindness and help cure world blindness out of Australia. And then, Tabin came in to that trifecta and out of that was born the Himalayan Cataract Project.
Timmy: They haven't solved it completely, but they've made huge steps and strides in curing preventable blindness in Nepal. So, they're able to take that system that they developed in this small incision cataract surgery that Ruit developed, and the lens factory that's in Katmandu. The barrier was this exorbitantly expensive lens that wasn't available and so, they made it now for pennies. And they take the high volume system with low cost, and really great results and then deliver that in places in Africa.
Erik: People hike from miles and miles around, right? They hike their grandmother, their cousin in, right?
Timmy: Yes, yeah.
Erik: And you prep them, right? Tell us about what that feeling is, the reaction is, when people get their sight back maybe after 20 years of blindness.
Timmy: Yeah, you have individuals, cataract is a disease of the aging, right? So, it happens to people later in life. And, eventually, you loose your sight completely, it'll become diminished, and you'll have the area that you're able to see basically decrease until you can't see at all. A lot of people we were dealing with, have been blind either in one eye or both eyes. And like you said, it could be for years at this point. And, they hear about it through the radio, they hear about it through a medical officer, we use a loudspeaker, they hear about it through word of mouth that there's going to be this clinic and so, there's pre-work that happens and screening in where people go out and they screen in the villages to see if people are candidates. And then, those individuals come, sometimes like you're saying, for days walking or for longer even taking these bus trips to finally get to us.
Timmy: Then they get screened and if they are a candidate then they go through the process. Basically, they're prepped for surgery, which is what I do. Do this sort of secondary screening. And then, they go through and they get the anesthesia, [inaudible 00:39:42] block to keep the eye immobile. And then the surgery in the best surgeons hands could take just a few minutes. Then, a patch goes over it the next morning. We peel the patches, we check the visual acuity, see if there's any post-op complications and then they go home with drops and the ability to see.
Erik: I've seen these videos, or listened to them, where it's like, talk about the emotions.
Jeff: Yeah, they're getting reborn.
Erik: These videos are... people should check them out.
Timmy: I mean, where you get a chance to... you're working with sometimes a thousand people ar getting the surgery, so every morning you're peeling the patches from two hundred patients. So you will get, a lot of times they're stunned. Like, what, I can see. This is amazing. Oh, you're a white doctor. Oh cool. A lot of times, you'll have somebody that will stand up and they'll start sharing this excitement, this exuberance. Praising us, and praising God, and being very thankful. A lot of them, what they want is they want to be able to see their food, see their children, and see their church. It's actually really simple. A lot of them are like, I'm going to start my business again, or, I'm rich again all of a sudden because they perceive blindness as this poverty.
Erik: Well, in a third world country it is, right?
Timmy: In Nepal, they have that saying that a blind person is a mouth without hands, because you can't work to feed, right? So, now they have this richness again where they're going to be able to have gainful employment, and create meaning, and care for their grandchildren, or even great grandchildren. Not only are you setting them free, but you're setting their caregivers and their family free. So, you wind up creating the gross national product and gross national happiness of that particular family and that village it increases greatly.
Erik: I don't want to fluff it up for people, right, because you describe to me offline how hard it is being in Ethiopia, lack of sewage, talk a little bit about that. I don't want to gross people out too much. But, people should know that this is not for the fainthearted.
Timmy: No, definitely not. And we get people all the time like, I want to help, I want to help. And, it's cool because it is really rewarding exchange to be volunteering over there and to deliver sight back is pretty amazing, but there's only so much volunteer space to have. And then, you have to raise your funds to get your ticket, and then in-cost country is covered by HCP, by Cure Blindness. But for example, when we're in South Sudan, where we're staying at Jill's compound, the rat-bat-snake house. That was the kitchen, that was where we hang out. So, there were bats all inside, and I mean lots of bats. Hundreds of bats. They hung plastic over where the tables are, so the bat's can't roost and there can't be bat poop everyone, but, they're roosting everywhere else. And then there's snakes that are crawling in and slithering around, then there's rats running around, right?
Timmy: And of course, it's open latrine, it's pit toilets. You're camping, right.
Jeff: Sounds very glorious.
Erik: Oh yeah, everyone's going to be signing up.
Timmy: And everyone cannot wait. Basically it's like the anti-spa. The place where you go to age. Then there's even food security issues. There's a company called Good-to-Go, we got in touch with them and they do dehydrated meals and they wound up sending us a bunch of food because we weren't sure how much food we would have, right? We didn't want to go there and then be a burden on the system, that they're having difficulties feeding the individuals... so, the town that we went, Old Fangak, is usually 5,000 people. Now, it's 65,000 people from internally displaced, and external international refugees coming from all the war that's there and all the sort of chaos.
Jeff: So it's stressed already.
Timmy: Super stressed, dude. So we come in, and this is that classic thing, there's so much joy, there's so much happiness, the smiles are gigantic, everybody wants to play, people are so curious. There's a lot of fear, there can be, around what's going to happen. It's war torn, are we going to be taken advantage of, are we going to become a political pawn, are we going to suffer from dysentery or dengue fever, malaria? Which all potentially could happen, right? And that's the scarcity model, that's scanning the world for the negative. So when we go there, that's going to be really hard because you're going to be exhausted simply from doing that, how are you going to do your job. Either we're neutral or scanning it for positivity. Generally, nothing happens. It's all positive and there's no problems, no one gets sick for the most part, and this incredible work happens.
Timmy: And then you get to meet the staff, the local staff is so fun because they're not used to the volume. In South Sudan, there's three ophthalmologists. They work out of the capital, Juba, and they don't have the consumables to work so there's no surgery happening in the country, right? So we go there and we do 600 surgeries, then we went to the capital and we did another high volume campaign. So, you're able to basically not only help people and provide a cure, but you provide the equipment and long-lasting services around training. HCP's model is, yes, to come in and cure blindness, but also to leave a legacy of infrastructure and training.
Erik: So, you're doing this outreach, you're doing leadership development, you're climbing at a high level, you kayak, and we didn't have time to talk about you guiding me down the Grand Canyon on a kayak.
Jeff: Well, let's just mention it real quick.
Erik: All right.
Jeff: We've got a minute, get after it.
Erik: You were a part of my kayaking expedition down the Grand Canyon, you were one of my amazing guides. You described it as playing a video game where it's virtual reality and you're guiding this person down the river who isn't exactly doing what you want him to do, and at the same time, you're about to get squashed by waves, so you have to pay attention to your own little doppelganger along the way.
Jeff: You're like, mom, I need a new controller, this one's not working. The guy's not going where I'm telling him. [crosstalk 00:45:58]
Timmy: Yeah the joysticks, sometimes it's not a joystick, sometimes it's a sorrow-stick, when we lead you into the gaping mall or some giant hole. But yeah, it was a really cool process of working with you and-
Erik: And Lonnie Bedwell.
Timmy: And working with Lonnie of course.
Erik: He's a blind veteran who is an amazing kayaker who was a part of that experience.
Timmy: Yeah, meeting Lonnie was incredible.
Jeff: Did you meet him on that trip?
Timmy: I met Lonnie on the banks of... So, we went down in 2013, on the Grand Canyon for an exploratory. Erik, myself, and several others, Harlan, et cetera. And then we went down in 2014 on our trip, and Lonnie came down on that trip. So, the cool thing about hanging with you, Erik, is that you work with these change agents. People that are working at a high level with what a lot of people would call severe setbacks, right? But they're still not only living, they're thriving. And I'm really fascinated with that as a way forward. How do you take those lessons, how do you take those catalysts once again that speed up that rate of change and use them yourself.
Timmy: So, on the Grand Canyon, that's a place I've been a bunch. I've been down there now 20 times paddling. I've done four trips working with visual impairment and paddling down there.
Erik: Yeah, because you also guided a whole group of folks-
Timmy: Last fall.
Erik: Yeah last fall. We had a bunch of blind paddlers.
Timmy: Five individuals dealing with blindness on the grand canyon. Each of the paddlers had three sighted paddlers. So like you did, you had somebody in front, someone in the back, and then somebody yet in the back. So you have a head guide, and then a secondary guide, and then this tertiary oh-shit guide who's like, oh God, everything fell apart, we've got to do a rescue. And it's chaos, but it would be easier to say no to those trips, right? But then, I wouldn't be able to have this return on investment of going down there and exposing myself to working with an individual who's blind. It's slower, it's more cumbersome, it's more difficult, there's a greater chance of something going wrong. But again, that sounds way more interesting. You know?
Timmy: Again, it's not passive, it's absolutely engaged. And you're working on trying to problem solve constantly. And then you get this really cool thing where working with you or Lonnie, whomever, there's no light perception. You don't see any of it and the irony is we're going to the most beautiful places on the planet usually. Whether it's the Dolomites, or going down the Grand Canyon, soon to be going over to Ama Dablam in Nepal, right? Which is considered to be one of the most beautiful peaks in the world. My point in saying this is, I get to explain it to you. I get to work with you on trying to understand what it looks like and what it feels like.
Timmy: Then in return, I get to consider what life is like to not be able to see. Classically not be able to judge it by the cover, but judge it by the content, and judge it by the character. In order to do that, that is on purpose, that's not by accident for me. I think the exchange works really well, and it's an uncommon exchange, dude, it's like reading a really interesting book in real time.
Erik: So, what was scarier, climbing some really hard route and being out on lead or, guiding Lonnie Bedwell down the Zambezi River with crocodiles and rapids that were bigger than the Grand Canyon. By the way, after the Grand Canyon, you went to Zambezi and guided him down the really big, scary route.
Timmy: Yes. This was a crazy trip. Lonnie got the call from Eric Jackson who's this legendary world class paddler and his children Emily and Dane are also world champions. Eric, I didn't know this had rubella as a child. He has some pretty severe hearing impairment. So, we had the deaf, leading the blind, followed by me the dumb. So the three of us are like these three mice going down this huge river. Victoria Falls dumps in, and you start the river just below. Their numbered, the rapids, one through twenty-five. And there are real class-five. Real severe, bad consequences you can't be in that place and Lonnie went in that place twice.
Jeff: He swam?
Timmy: No, that's the thing about Lonnie, he doesn't swim. He doesn't come out of his boat. He holds in forever. There was this Scottish guy there filming, he was one of the filmers, Davey. He's like, Lonnie Bedwell, he's incredible. I would have swam for sure. We shot a film and in the film, I think you hear me like, "Come on Lonnie, get out, get out!" But the thing is, if he would have left his boat, he may not have left the eddy, because his boat got partially submerged. It got pushed out and he remained with the boat.
Erik: He's just got an amazing head space, right?
Timmy: He's just is imperturbable, dude. He's unflappable. He doesn't sweat it. He's all good, he's like no big deal. He wants to go in the biggest, gnarliest, most rowdiest, bone breaking holes on the river.
Erik: I would say, I want to avoid that hole. He's like, "Bring me right through the middle of that hole!"
Timmy: I want the meat. You're a vegetarian of kayaking, he was like a carnivore, dude.
Jeff: I took that dude up Kilimanjaro.
Timmy: Oh that's right, exactly.
Jeff: It's fairly benign, but I'll tell you, that dude laughed his ass off all the way up to the point where every person that was within earshot had to laugh as a result of being with him. At 19,000 feet, just you know, everybody's miserable. And Lonnie's like, "Heh, heh, heh." Dancing, cackling.
Timmy: Was he dancing?
Timmy: He's a big dancer.
Jeff: He had some Goretex overalls on or something.
Timmy: He does have the hillbilly overalls. Did he bring them on Kilimanjaro? He did right?
Jeff: Yeah, oh yeah. He's a character of life.
Erik: We gave him a PFD, a life vest, when I was training down in Charlotte and he didn't have a place to put it in the suitcase, so he wore it on the plane. He wore it on the plane and the lady, he's talking to a lady next to him in the next seat, and he's like, "You know, just in case we have a water landing."
Timmy: Lonnie B, dude.
Erik: Do you compare yourself to Lonnie in terms of, I've been you nervous, but I've never seen you panic. Do you share a little bit of Lonnie?
Timmy: As far as being comfortable with risky situations? I guess I've been doing it for so long, I grew up kayaking. As a little kid I was running class five, right? So, just being in those scenarios and realizing that the consequences and feeling comfortable in them, it feels great. Being on the side of a cliff, whether it's without a rope or with a rope, I feel very comfortable. That's not because I'm feeling so comfortable that my guard is down, or that I'm turning off fear. I'm more tuning into it. I feel that over the course of decades now of both climbing and kayaking, I just have a really comfortable feeling around the risk associated with it and the reward.
Erik: You talked about adaptation a lot. You surround yourself with people who are adapting. Do you apply that to your life? It sounds like you do, like where are you going in your life?
Jeff: You're about to adapt a lot, you're getting married.
Timmy: I know right? Getting married and having kids.
Jeff: That's the ultimate adaptation right there.
Timmy: What am I doing? It'll be a huge change, but I feel like that I'm at a great place for it, because, I think I'm naturally sort of slowing down from the pace that was extra human. It was like over the top.
Jeff: Turbo Timmy.
Timmy: Turbo Timmy's now slowing down a little bit to be like more average right in there, but it's sweet spot. It feels good. And, it doesn't mean that I'm not going to be adventuring, it just means I'll be adventuring in a different way.
Jeff: I have to anecdotally say, the first time I ever met you was in 2001, and I didn't know you and we were in Banff, right after we got back from Everest. We were all sitting out on this grassy knoll, and I think there were giving, maybe Michael Brown has shown some preliminary Farther Than the Eye Can See.
Erik: Some film, yeah, one of our films.
Jeff: You were getting an award or something and they were like, "Timmy O'Neill", and I'm just sitting in the grass and you kind of pranced over and you intentionally tripped and fell... like intentionally, but there was 200 people watching, and you fell down and you got back up, and you smiled, you your hands on your hips, went over took the mic. I'm like, who is this dude man? From that moment on, you were implanted in my mind as being a guy who blends in being an intellect, a jester, a hard-charger. You've got all these things, and humanitarian.
Erik: I invented physical comedy.
Timmy: I'm a mime, actually. You can't see my mime stuff because it's non-verbal. Silent miming.
Erik: And you also MC, and you're a comedian. You MC's our No Barrier's Summits in the past.
Timmy: I did in 2015.
Erik: [inaudible 00:55:04] because you and I were climbing. You go like, oh, lets talk about some blind jokes I can make and I gave you a blind joke, and you told it, and it was so politically incorrect.
Jeff: Did it hit?
Timmy: I killed it. It was amazing.
Erik: Let's end with that joke, come on.
Timmy: Yeah, so.
Erik: Let's tell that and piss everyone off.
Timmy: There's this guy with, he's got his seeing eye dog, and he goes into the supermarket and he takes the dog by the tail and he starts spinning the dog around. Somebody comes over and goes, hey dude, what are you doing to your dog? That's not cool. And he goes, oh sorry, I was just taking a look around.
Erik: Damn, see I love that.
Jeff: See that hits. That totally hits.
Erik: I don't think they, it wasn't against blindness, I think they didn't like the fact that you were picking a dog up by the tail.
Timmy: No one likes anybody that abuses a pet, come on.
Jeff: You can dog the blind people all you want, but just don't mess with the-
Timmy: Don't actually mess any animals. [crosstalk 00:55:58]
Erik: [inaudible 00:55:58] with uncomfortable, some people laughing, some people murmuring. I thought, I screwed Timmy over because I gave you that blind joke.
Jeff: Were you the only person that laughed?
Erik: I was cracking up.
Timmy: He laughed loudly too, I was like, "Thank you, Erik, for that laughter. The only one laughing, Erik gave me that joke by the way. Moving on..."
Jeff: Comedians have got to take chances.
Timmy: You really do, it's about living on the edge, dude. If you're not living on the edge are you taking up too much space? I don't know.
Jeff: That's a perfect way to wrap it up T.O.
Erik: Thanks, buddy.
Timmy: Thank you guys.
Jeff: Fantastic. Erik, as expected, as advertised, the legendary Timmy O'Neill. That's the kind of dude it's impossible to not smile when you're sitting with him and be inspired at the same time. What'd you pull away from that one?
Erik: Well, a lot of people we interview are, I don't want to say single-dimensioned, but we talk about one thing. Like our guest who turned his addictive behavior into running, or our guest who invented an incredible wheelchair. But Timmy is so eclectic and multifaceted. I think there's just a cool example there of kind of being a little bit of a Renaissance man in the modern world and devoting yourself to lots of things, and always surrounding yourself with people who you look up to, and respect, and teach you things, and help you to adapt in your own life. Seems to me like Timmy is kind of using these friends, these people that he's surrounded himself with as some lessons for himself for how to live and how to adapt, and I think that's really smart.
Jeff: Yeah, habitual learner, right? He's hungry for expanding his horizons, his personal horizons and he's willing to use the sharp end analogy a lot. He's willing to be in uncomfortable situations emotionally, physically, and allow himself to learn from those events as well as the people that he shares those events with. And, I mean, that's the kind of dude you want to hang out with, man. That's the kind of guy that'll teach you, that's the kind of guy you walk away with some life lessons.
Erik: Yeah, I'm glad there are folks like Timmy in the world because a lot of people's lives are better because of him.
Erik: Thanks, everyone. No Barriers.
Jeff: See you next time.
Erik: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, which is called guidance, the production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Shafer, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cotman, graphics by Sam Davis, and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.