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Interview: Timmy O’Neill

Published: The Scotsman (Critique) 12 September 2009

FOR once in his life, the hyperactive American climber and comedian Timmy O’Neill isn’t in the mood for cracking jokes. “Something really traumatic happened to me recently so I’m in a bit of a strange mood,” he says over the phone from Washington DC. “I was climbing on Tuesday and my climbing partner Chris Hunnicutt fell to his death. We were ice climbing outside of Salt Lake City and he took this tremendous fall and died instantly from massive head trauma. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before, even though I’ve climbed for so long, so it’s really put me in a contemplative, introspective not-funny-guy-typical mood.

“But I’m still totally game to do this interview,” he continues, making an effort to sound chirpy. “The important thing that I take from this event is that life isn’t over. It’s over for Chris who died, but for me it kind of radiates with even more importance to live everything”.

O’Neill isn’t just saying that because it sounds good. A mere three days after his friend’s fatal accident, he has travelled to the US capital to lead a climbing workshop with a group of disabled Iraq War veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Most people would have cancelled the appointment – taken a few days out to be alone with their thoughts – but for O’Neill, life is a finite resource and time’s a-wastin’. He describes his experience with the Iraq vets as “a wonderful four hours… really cathartic.”

“I really didn’t want to cancel this because I knew that I would be able to glean some insight and wisdom from these people,” he says. “I met this one kid called Paul – he’d lost one leg at the knee and his other leg’s totally f****d. Anyway, we really connected because he lost a very close friend in the accident that befell him and I’d just lost this person in a seemingly senseless, violent way. Hopefully today was as powerful a healing experience for him as it was for me.”

O’Neill doesn’t have any plans to cancel his two scheduled appearances at this month’s Fort William Mountain Festival either. On the contrary, he seems delighted at the prospect of visiting Scotland for the first time. “Psyched,” in fact. He’s even bringing his climbing gear so he can have a go at some of the more challenging routes up Ben Nevis.

This year, in addition to the usual programme of extreme sports film screenings, Fort William’s annual “celebration of mountain culture” promises an enticing mixture of music, exhibitions, talks and workshops. Highlights include a performance from Gaelic singer Lorne Gillies on 21 February and a display of photographs by Frank Hurley, bearing witness to Shackleton’s legendary Endurance expedition.

There’s even a theatre section, headed up by O’Neill. On 28 February, the polymath will perform an untitled two-man play with his “partner in crime”, playwright Jeb Berrier. Kitted out in high altitude climbing gear, O’Neill’s character, Everest hard man Dr. Steven “Death Zone” Clark, has an array of bizarre mountaineering souvenirs to share with the audience. Then, on 1 March, O’Neill will give one of his now-famous climbing talks / film screenings / stand-up comedy shows. These happenings, which have proved hugely popular at North American mountain film festivals such as Banff, Alberta and Taos, New Mexico defy easy categorisation, but O’Neill wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I like for my shows to be a melange of different feelings,” he says. “I want them to be hilarious – I want to injure people through laughter – but I also want them to be emotionally significant. I want people to be motivated to do something different with their lives.” To date, all O’Neill’s stand-up has been related to his career as a climber, but he has ambitions to make the leap into “pure” stand-up.

“I would love to be a true blue stand-up comic,” he says, “y’know, where I didn’t have images and it wasn’t to do with climbing. Another thing that I would like to do as a ‘first ascent’ would be to play a music gig in front of an audience. I play drums in a power trio. We play really hard rock ’n’ roll – not death metal, but it’s definitely bone crunching, blood-curdling man rock – and my dream is to be a rock ’n’ roll musician. Talk about how much tail a guy can get – that’s where it’s at! I mean, who do rock climbers get? A bunch of dirty hippy chicks. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great ’n’ all, but I’m over it man. I’ve gotten the clap too many times.”

And from there, the jokes start flowing thick and fast. None of them is repeatable in a family newspaper, unfortunately, but that’s not really the point. The point is that O’Neill is back in the comedy saddle, “living everything” once again.

Various venues, Fort William, 16 February until 3 March. For programme details, visit www.mountainfestival.co.uk

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