Indian Creek Beat Box is the without a doubt the all-time best intro to a climbing film. Beat boxing while miming climbing an ever-widening splitter crack, it’s hilarious and impressive — two words that describe Timmy O’Neill overall.
Timmy’s has climbed The Nose in Yosemite in a record breaking 3hr 24min. He has a first ascent of Tonta Suerte, West Face of Fitzroy, Patagonia; first alpine ascent of Torre Egger, Patagonia; and numerous other climbing achievements. But most importantly he has fun — whether it’s climbing, log riding, creek surfing, sporting sails (skateboarding with sails), table sliding (“there’s this crazy long table in the lobby at the Fairmont Springs in Banff…”), or messing around on the occasional building.
Timmy’s energy and hilarity is inspiring and infectious. During his recent trip to Vancouver to speak at the International Mountain Film Festival, I had the honour of showing Timmy around the city. In addition to scoping out some great buildering routes, we snuck into the Vancouver Art Gallery where Timmy inserted himself into one of the art installations, much to the bemusement of bystanders and disapproval of security.
I heard you had some problems getting here?
Yup, a little doggy came over and sat beside me in the Calgary airport, and then it was off to the interrogation room. “We know you’re a drug user. This dog never gives false positives. Where’s the drugs?”
I didn’t have any drugs, so they stripped searched me. They made me take my clothes off one piece at a time, real seductive like. When I got down to the boxers, they motioned for me to life them up. I couldn’t help but add a sound effect,”creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek.” “What was that for?” “It’s a sound effect, come on, this is bizarre. I mean who hides drugs under their balls?” Those who smoke pot alone that’s who.
It’s the first time I’ve been naked in a room with two men and not had to pay for it.
Did they apologize?
Just a hug, a little nibble on the ear, and a “that’s the best I’ve ever had.” No apologies. All in the name of protection. From what? Drugs? Come on, I’m entering CANADA.
Besides getting naked in airports, what have you been up to lately?
I just returned from a five week trip to West Africa, working with Geoff Tabin from www.cureblindness.org He’s a leading ophthalmologist who is changing the way eye care is delivered in the developing world.
How did that come about?
I met Geoff a long time ago in Burlington, Vermont. He’s an interesting guy. He invented bungee jumping. He’s been on David Letterman. We climbed together a few times together and then we took off to Africa. He performed eye surgery and I helped out where I could. The beautiful thing is that in Africa you don’t need a medical license to practice medicine. People would come to me “Dr. Tim, can you help me?” “Of course Dr. Tim can help you!” I got to carry a cooler full of eyeballs through the airport, that was pretty cool.
We climbed this thing called Zuma Rock in Nigeria, and got fined $700 for it. Basically a bribe. We also climbed the Hand of Fatima in Mali. It’s a group of the tallest sandstone towers in the world.
Then I took off to see a music festival in Timbuktu for a week. That was fucking insane. It’s called Festival Au Desert. They have all this local wild Saharan Tuareg music and tonnes of badass Malian music. That’s where the blues started.
Music is where it’s at. I do a lot of presentations, internet videos, things like that, but yeah: live music is amazing. I organize a “Battle of the Bands” event twice a year, where we have a whole bunch of musicians out and just improvise. We should do something like that in Vancouver.
Tell me about your company, Paradox Sports.
My brother Sean was paralyzed from the waist down due to a bridge jumping accident. 100 ft. He hit the water wrong. Since then, I’ve worked with him to climb the west face of Salathé on El Cap, and some other faces in Alaska. There’s a film about it, Brothers Wild. Anyway, I met a captain from the US Army, DJ Skelton, who was injured at the beginning of the Iraq war. Together we started Paradox Sports. Our mission is to help people with disabilities through the adaptive process with climbing, kayaking, back country skiing, all kinds of outdoor sports.
I help Paradox with fund raising, and also fun raising. I’m heading down to do Gimps On Ice in Ouray, Colorado. That’s where they have the artificial ice park. I think this will be the fourth time we’ve done it. It’s a really cool event. It brings together a really interesting group of people who are either dealing with a loss of a limb, some congenital deformity, or any type of disability really.
You had a pretty serious shoulder injury. How’s that recovering?
I don’t think you ever fully recover once you’ve had your body sliced open. I injured it over a serious of years through different falls, but it went out on the Steck-Salathé route in Yosemite, leading up through the Narrows [an extremely awkward sandbagged 5.10 squeeze chimney].
I still kayak a ton, back-country ski a lot, playing drums with my band The Dust Storm hurts it the most. Repetitive madness.
Is Urban Ape a syndicated TV show yet or what?
It’s out, but it’s only international right now. It’s only in the developing world. That’s actually what I was doing in Nigeria – trying to work out some deals with Nigerian State TV.
Your buildering exploits are pretty high profile. Any legal ramifications?
Never. I’ve never been busted. I’ve been caught, but have always managed to talk my way out of it. “I’m a professional climber.” “What?” “Yeah I’m training. This is my training period.” Then they usually just say, “Get the fuck out of here. What are you a fucking idiot?”
But I’ve never been caught climbing a gigantic dangerous thing. I was recently buildering in New York, and I would’ve definitely been arrested climbing the Brooklyn Bridge. Both towers, up the cables. Then I went north to the Manhattan bridge, went up the cables, then the Williamsburg bridge, up the cables. All riding a little kid’s mountain bike from bridge to bridge that I borrowed from a friend. If I was caught, I would’ve had the book thrown at me for sure.
But I’m always doing it. Even at 41 years of age, I can’t stop. I love to interact with the urban environment.
What got you in to buildering?
I was buildering long before I started rock climbing. I started at the Philadelphia cemetery. Me and my brothers, it was an ensemble of little dirtbags/semi-arsonists/B&E experts smoking bad weed and drinking our parent’s liquor. We’d make fires and climb tombstones. I’m still doing that, nothing has changed. I climbed the “unclimbable tombstone.” I climbed it, and it became the climbable tombstone. Nobody else could do it.
The Patagonia video of you promoting underwear recycling in Japan is crazy. Did you board the plane in your costume?
I changed in the little bathroom. I come out of the bathroom, the stewardess turns, looks at me for half a second, then, in classic Japanese deference, politely turns away. The guy I sat beside, he wasn’t having it. No comment. Total Japanese deference. The only people who acknowledged me were the people I was filming with — they were cracking up.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how serious is the global underwear crisis?
It’s a steady 5. Riding that streak right down the middle.
Bert vs. Ernie. Two men enter, one man leaves.
Bert is dead. Bert does not leave. Exsanguinated. Ernie is the sleeper dude.