TO THE TOP
The Climber Taking Vets Up El Capitan
After the worst events of his life, Timmy O’Neill decided to pay it forward.
By the time Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson had finally clawed and scraped their way to the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park last week, the eyes of the world were on them. But while the public’s interest is just recently being piqued, the sport itself has had a stalwart, courageous, and compassionate following for decades.
And among those following it all along, Timmy O’Neill is a legend. As a professional climber, he’s set world speed climbing records, gnarled his way through first ascents, and, according to his bio, lived in a cave for two months. While impressive, none of the physical accomplishments earned him legend status—it’s his personality, and, as an offshoot of that, his heart.
To say that you’ve likely never met a more positive and uplifting person sounds like a cliché, but, in this case, it’s the most accurate depiction. Not just passive positivity, either. This guy is motivated with it—he wants to make absolutely sure that the energy of everyone around him is charged in the best way possible, and he’s constantly working his ass off to make the world that much brighter of a place.
As a world-class dirtbag athlete, O’Neill could be living a relatively comfortable life, traveling the world and having adventures without a care in the world. But that’s not his style. Instead, he founded nonprofit Paradox Sports and devoted his life to helping those with disabilities live fuller ones by bringing them into the great outdoors and challenging them to rise above whatever limitations they may feel they have.
How did you get involved in working with people with disabilities?
As a result of my brother Sean becoming paralyzed. He jumped off a bridge into the water and it was so high—a hundred feet—so ballsy, and his trajectory was off when he hit the water. He broke his spine and became a T12 paraplegic, which is right at your belly button.
And with crisis comes opportunity. He became a climber as a result of not being able to use his legs. Within the first year we went and climbed Devil’s Tower, he became the first paraplegic to get to the top. And I figured the way to understand his paralysis was to integrate it into my climbing life.
We went on to climb El Capitan three times together, and we climbed in Alaska. People started hearing about it and getting in touch, saying, “my brother” or “my friend,” or “myself,” and “can you help me?”
So I started climbing with other leading athletes who were either congenitally—meaning since they were born—or they had some kind of disease or accident that caused them to need to reconfigure. They needed to create their new normal.
Then a guy named D.J. Skelton got in touch.
At the time he was the most injured soldier to return to combat. He’s all about post-traumatic growth. Like, “This is me. Now what?” So, in 2007 we met in D.C. to work with the Walter Reed Medical Center, we did a climbing clinic with heavily injured folks. Poly-traumatic. Bilateral amputation, bilateral blindness. Heavy.
And it just so happened that less than a week before that, I was climbing an ice climb in Utah, and my partner fell the entire length of a pitch and exploded on the ledge I was standing on. So I was able to identify.
He died. His head came open. He was horribly destroyed.
I was not going to go. I was destroyed. But I decided to go anyway, and when I met D.J. he was like “We’re your people now. We are survivors.”
By the end of that night, I was like, “Hey man, you’re special.” And he goes “Hey, you’re special.” And I’m like, “All right. Cool. Mutually beneficial special people.” Then we formed Paradox Sports.
And then that’s seven years ago. I became executive director two years ago, to take it from the club form and build it into a business.
So what has that transformed into?
We do 12 programs in eight states, and it’s growing. We work in ice climbing, rock climbing—both outdoors and indoors. We do wilderness trips, backpacking, and whitewater and stand-up paddling trips. I raised the money to write a 165-page manual on how to adaptive climb for climbers, meaning people dealing with disability, and for instructors. That means people who want to instruct, and how to create adaptive climbing clubs. We just received a $25,000 grant from The North Face this year to create adaptive climbing clubs nationwide.
We deal with the whole family. If mom’s injured, the kids are coming to the climbing club. If the kid’s injured, his brother’s coming, and mom’s coming. It’s a communal and family approach. That’s a big part of our product—our educational curriculum. We wrote the book. We wrote lesson plans.
We’re also starting chapters of Paradox Sports. We have one in Connecticut now. And the third and final pillar for Paradox Sports is creating our story and sharing it.
We have a beautiful video we made about a paraplegic person, my brother, climbing Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, Colorado. It’s a beautiful film—beautifully written—and it tells a very compelling story.
The entire thing with Paradox Sports is recognizing vulnerability, then acting to relieve it. I’m not going to look away. I’m going to look deep, and then say, “How can I help?”
How do you select the candidates for something like that?
It depends on the trip. For example, the Grand Teton—it’s 13,775 feet. It’s a huge peak. It’s not easy, and not only do you have the altitude, but it requires rock climbing skills. That’s a different process for example than floating down the river, where it doesn’t necessarily need as much mobility or cognition for problem solving. And then there’s the issue of looking deeper into dealing with drug and alcohol dependency.
You up to need to have a stringent process of risk assessment before putting people into remote, high-pressure scenarios.
But what’s interesting is that those are the scenarios the veterans love the most: Remote, high-pressure scenarios, because they mimic war.
It’s life and death when you’re on the side of the mountain, because you can make a bad decision and die. It’s unlikely, of course, and you’re guided, but nonetheless it feels very close, that decision, the life-death ratio.
There must be a spiritual energy to being on that edge, too. It draws you out of preconceptions you have about yourself, whatever psychological bullshit and negativity you’ve built up falls away because there’s no place for it.
Exactly. There’s no place for it. It becomes about that next move, that next paddle stroke. And let’s face it, wilderness, as far as a transcendental aspect of the spiritual or intuitive or imaginative aspects, wilderness really provides a much closer or proximal ability to go there than being in a coffee shop in downtown Brooklyn or whatever.
What would be the ultimate trip for you?
The Grand Canyon. My ultimate would be to do a veteran and civilian immersion into the Grand Canyon.
For the full length? Isn’t that like 21 days?
Yeah, because that place is just prime machine crucible. You have the rock strata, and just how exposed you are—meaning how far away from convention and comfort and convenience. It’s my favorite trip. I love it.
Click here for more information on Paradox Sports, including their upcoming Ice Ouray events in New Hampshire and Colorado.