You say yes, of course. But what about those other wild opportunities that you’re not so sure about? In this episode, we talk to athletes and adventurers about how accepting an invitation led them to life-changing experiences. Jimmy Chin was an unknown dirtbag climber when Chouinard welcomed him into his California home and then took him surfing at a legendary break. Conrad Anker was an up-and-coming alpinist when he got a chance to represent the U.S. in a competition in Kyrgyzstan. Timmy O’Neill was an emerging mountain athlete when he was asked to join an expedition that would conduct cataract surgeries in a remote area of Ethiopia. What they and our other guests all agree on: they wouldn’t be who they are today if they hadn’t dared to go for it.
Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine this is the Outside Podcast.
Michael: So can you just start at the beginning? Just, just tell me what you were doing and what happened.
Cat Jaffee: Yeah. Okay, so it all kind of starts outside of Havana, Cuba. It's like 10:00AM morning of Christmas Eve, 2015. I'm walking by the side of the road. It's really hot, and I'm carrying a backpack with all of my things. Also, I'm 28 years old.
Michael: I take it that you are, you're alone. This is a completely solo adventure.
Michael: Right. Which is age appropriate for someone in their late twenties.
Cat: Yeah, yeah, pretty much. And everything about this is pretty last minute. Like I'd come over from Mexico the day before, no plans. And all I knew was that I really didn't wanna be in Havana, the city anymore for this holiday. So I'm walking along, not really even sure where I'm going,
And I bump into a young guy who's also wearing a backpack walking on the side of the road. And he's hitchhiking. And so I kind of speed up to him and I ask him like, Hey, where are you going? And he says, I'm headed to this hundred year old festival in the city of Remedios. It's called Parrandas. Wanna come? If there's two of us, we can probably split the cost and afford an actual cab. Quite a novelty. So I shrug and I say, sure. And we flagged down a cab and off we go.
Michael: Right. And because this is Cuba, I'm picturing that you are in like a taxi cab that happens to be a, like a neon turquoise car from the 1950s.
Cat: Yeah, that's pretty accurate. And it's like one of those cars that have kind of the plastic seats. So like there's pools of sweat collecting underneath our legs as we're sitting there.
Michael Roberts: Mmmm hmmm. And you don't know anything about this person that you just met and are now following to this town, which you don't know really where it is, and you really have no idea what's gonna happen when you get there.
Cat: Spot on. That's exactly it. Mike and I never even got his full name.
Michael: Okay, so what happens next?
Cat: Well, we drive for a few hours and eventually come upon the town of Remedios and it's beautiful. Like everything I was hoping for, the opposite of Havana. It's in the center of the country. It's got this classic colonial central square
And there's all of these elaborate floats for the parade lining up outside of the square. And I'm thinking to myself, This is so nice. Like I'm just gonna be here watching a family friendly historic Christmas parade, and then I'll probably check in somewhere and go to sleep at a reasonable hour.
And this is great. This is like an ideal holiday for me. And of course it is the absolute opposite of what happened.
Michael: Okay, before she tells us what happened, I should stop here and introduce our speaker. This is Cat Jaffe. She's an audio producer and the creator of The Daily Rally, one of Outside's other podcasts. Also, there's something you should know about Cat for this story.
Cat: Yeah. Mike, do you know what my biggest fear is?
Michael: I have no idea actually.
Cat: Yeah, explosives. I am viscerally afraid of explosives. Like if we work together in an office, you would very quickly learn that you cannot come up behind me while I'm working and say my name, or ask me a question, or I will jump. I do not do well with loud noises. Fire sudden bursts of light. I have overall the temperament of a highly sensitive Border Collie.
Michael: I think you're giving me a big hint of where this story is going now.
Cat: Yeah, I am. So it turns out that this festival, Parradas is a celebration that's basically made for pyro maniacs. It takes place in something like 18 towns in central and northern Cuba. But like the birthplace is this town Remedios where I am.
Michael: Oh gosh. I mean, this now is clearly gonna get much worse than I thought.
Cat: Yeah. And all those beautiful flotillas, they're like built to shoot off fireworks into the sky and then go up in flames themselves. See, the very abbreviated history of Parada, as told to me is that it's actually like a 200 year old rivalry between these two villages whose sole objective has been to see who can make a louder blast to wake up the other town, so the people will go to Christmas mass.
Michael: You know, I actually kinda love that.
Cat: Yeah, so except like it means that all of these statues, not only do they go up in flames, but the townspeople then take to the roofs and are shooting off fireworks and tiny rockets and all kinds of like explosive, bright light things. Meanwhile, the people, including myself, are in this massive crowd in the square, sort of standing vulnerably below a web of electrical wires and cords that are just like strong throughout, and all of it is just fizzing with sparks and flying debris and bright lights, uh,
Michael: And you are freaking out.
Cat: Totally freaking out because in addition to the unrelenting pops and cracks of explosives, the big, bright lights, the shower of fire bits. Everything smells like burnt hair. And I feel more or less trapped in this little town square. And so my sensory system is in overdrive.
And so I'm kind of just doing whatever I can, which is like cowering against this wall, going through bouts of crying and cold sweats, and that's when this tiny like. 80-something-year-old Cuban woman grabs my arm and she starts dragging me into the center of the square underneath all of the explosions. And she's got this kind of strength that I did not know was possible for someone of the stature.
And then she starts pounding her chest with these big. Strong thumps. Like I thought that she was gonna punch her heart out, and she starts yelling. S o s. Amor, Amor amor, which translates as This is love, love, love.
Michael: Cat, this is so intense.
Cat: It's so intense, and it's also the last thing I could remember. That is basically where my night ends because I. Next I faint, which is amazing because I've never fainted before or since,
But that whole experience just was too much for me and I was done. There was no fight, there was no flight. There was just faint.
Michael: Okay, so that's not the end of Cat's story, but before we get to what happens next to her, let me explain why she's telling us about her Cuba adventure. You see, back in May, I was hanging out with Cat and Telluride at the Mountainfilm Festival. And I start telling her that I've done this long interview with Jimmy Chin, the climber and Oscar-winning filmmaker, and that he had told me this fun story about being. Well, back in his early days before he was famous and was still a dirtbag climber, and he had gotten this invitation from Yvonne Chouinard to come stay at his house in southern California.
Chouinard, of course, is the founder of Patagonia and young Jimmy. Well, he took him up on it. And as I'm telling this to Cat, we start talking about all the invitations that we get in our lives.
Cat: Yeah, and like how invitations are kind of the ultimate diversions. You know, we're going along in our lives on this track, let's call it a train track, and then. This thing happens. We get a phone call or a text or we bump into someone that says, Hey, do you wanna come with me to this thing? And in a world where we're saying no a lot to, you know, keep the train on the track, this time, for whatever reason, we say yes and then all of a sudden our train switches tracks.
Michael: And we don't know where the new track leads us. So I thought, what if we interviewed a number of people about the invitations they said yes to, the ones that led them to something memorable.
Cat: So that's what we did at Mountainfilm. We were surrounded by fascinating people, so we pulled them into our makeshift studio and I asked them to tell us about their greatest invitations. And we got some pretty wild stories that take us from Kyrgyzstan to Ethiopia to the Himalaya.
Michael: But wait, before we get to those, let's do Jimmy Chin first since this all started with him.
So this is more than 20 years ago. And Jimmy is at an event in Canada with climber Rick Ridgeway, who he'd gotten close to at an expedition in Tibet. And Rick introduces Jimmy to Yvonne Chouinard and Yvonne's wife, Melinda.
Jimmy Chin: And Melinda kind of. Took me under her wing because she basically knew that I had done this really intense expedition with Rick.
And Rick said he's, he's one of us. And I remember they, they looked at me and they were like, okay, if Rick says that he's part of the family, then he's part of the family. And I spent some time with Yvonne and Melinda, which was kind of blowing my mind because, you know, hanging out with Yvonne Chouinard when you're like 28 and still sorting through a lot of stuff, was a lot.
And he invited me to come visit him, you know, and he said, Hey, you know, if you’re ever driving down the 101 and you're coming through Ventura, let me know. Come hang out. Well, we'll go surfing. And I was definitely the type of climbing bum that when someone invited me over, I actually often showed up as some of my friends can attest to.
Michael: I should say at this point in his life, Jimmy didn't really have a stable home. He spent a lot of time on the road in an old Subaru driving between climbing spots and doing a lot of camping. Also Ventura, California is the coastal city where Patagonia is based and where Yvonne and Melinda live, highway one goes right through it.
Jimmy: And so I was driving down the 101 and I called Yvonne, and he actually picked up the phone and I said, uh, Hey Yvonne, it's Jimmy. And I remember him saying, Jimmy Jimmy Who? And I was like, ah, Jimmy Chin, Rick Ridgeway's friend.
And he is like, Oh, hey, how are you doing? I'm like, Oh, I'm, I'm just driving down the 101 passing through Ventura. And he's like, You mean you're here? I'm like, Yeah. And he's like, Well, come on over.
And I went to the office, hung out with him. He gave me the keys to his house. He was like, you can just stay at the house.
I ended up staying for about ten days. I remember, because I was just a climbing bum and I didn't really have any place to go. And I figured I'd just hang out and I got to spend a bunch of time with Yvonne. I learned, he's an incredible cook. He cooked dinner every night.
We hung out. There were a few nights when it was just me and him, and then he was like, let's go surfing up at the, up at The Ranch.
Michael: The Ranch is this legendary break not far from Ventura. These days it's really hard to access due to private property issues, but 20 years ago it wasn't that big a deal, especially if you were local.
Jimmy: And so we went up, packed up his, you know, Toyota Corolla or whatever it was, you know, kind of a beater car. And I remember driving down the beach and it looked really big. And I said that to him. I said, man, it looks pretty big out there. And he goes, it always looks big from the beach. I hadn't surfed much at that point. We all know that if it looks big from the beach, it looks a lot bigger when you're in the water.
And, uh, I paddled out with him, got completely annihilated. I had long hair at the time. I'd come up bobbing between sets with hair all over my face. and I remember him saying, you need a haircut, and laughing at me as I just got annihilated.
Those were, those are some good memories, um, that are very much kind of imprinted in my head.
Cat: Wow. It would have been so easy for Jimmy to just not take Yvonne's invitation seriously.
Michael: Yeah. Right. And then you fast forward through the years and Jimmy stayed in touch with him and that had a lot to do with Jimmy and his wife, Chai Vasarhelyi making their latest film Wild Life, which is all about the conservationists Doug and Christine Tompkins, who as it happens, were really close friends with Yvonne and Melinda.
Cat: Hmm. All right. Well, this next invitation story also happens to be about a friend of Jimmy's, the climber Conrad Anker.
Conrad Anker: Thirty years ago, in July of 1993, I was invited to the Khan Tengri invitational speed climbing competition. This took place in Kyrgyzstan, the newly independent nation of the former Soviet Union, So this was not a bunch of climbers racing up a manufactured wall like we saw maybe at the Tokyo Olympics.
This is a 3000 meter ascent up, a glaciated peak starting at, uh, 4,000 meters in the summits at 7,000 meters. So basically going from 14 to 23,000 feet, and. That was, um, what, what we did. And so we ran up and down the mountain.
It was just this wonderful opportunity. Someone just said, Hey, we need two climbers to represent the United States in this international speed climbing competition you're one of the two. Would you like to go?
Cat: And how long did it take you to respond?
Conrad: Oh, I was like, yeah, I'm going, of course Rick Wyatt, who's like legendary skier and Jackson Hole, mountain guide and all that. He was a fellow that put my name for it. It's like, well, Rick nominated me. I've gotta go now.
Cat: Did you ever have any moment of uncertainty after accepting that invitation?
Conrad: Well, yeah, it was, um, I get into Moscow and I'm like, okay, I've got 17 hours on my next flight. So I get all my stuff, lay out the newspaper, get my airport bivvy all squared away. I'm ready to get the domestic flight. And then I'm like, oh, they're like, that's at the domestic airport, which is on the other side of town. And it became like, oh, I was gonna miss the flight and everything. I remember hopping in a cab of some sort.
And like, we just drove through town rapidly and then we pulled up into the airport. I got out and I got, you know, it was like, oh, there's the airport and here's your late passenger. And they were like, they welcomed me onto the flight.
Cat: Conrad would spend about a month in Kyrgyzstan. And the other climber there representing the US was his close friend Alex Lowe, considered by many at the time to be America's most talented alpinist.
I dunno if you know this Mike, but I've traveled to Kyrgyzstan myself in 2021 to ride bikes. It's a beautiful country in Central Asia. The official language is Russian, and even now, there's still a great deal of Russian influence. So, as Conrad is telling me the story, I'm thinking that an athletic competition that pits elite Americans against former citizens of the Soviet Union would be tense, but it didn't play out that way at all.
Conrad: Alex Lowe and I did this. So he took first place. I took second place. And it was a great adventure. Climbers, even though we're from different nations, that the commonality of climbing was pretty, was pretty nice.
And to have had that international exchange in. Kyrgyzstan and to, to meet the locals, their bread and their fresh yogurt. that brought us together. And that was, it reaffirmed that all of us, when we speak the language of belay, it's like we are friends.
Cat: At that time, you know, like the, the Iron Curtain had recently dropped, like things were so fresh and new. How did it feel to be from the United States in a place that a lot of people from the US didn't go?
Conrad: The climber people, we were friends we're just like, Hey, good to see you, even though we'd just met each other. So we were, we were with commonality.
But the other side of it was, um, it was still a fair amount of, uh, economic hardship and growing up we were. It was the Cold War and I was born in 62, so it was very real. And, the Communist scare and the Red Menace and all that was, we're, we're taught to see that. And which is unfortunate because there are people like us,
And so the less that, um, we have stereotypes of our people on this planet, our fellow people, the more that we are taking them as who they are and not judging them and, and, and being courteous. Be good. Be kind, be happy. Hold fast. All storms pass. You're on belay.
Michael: We'll be right back.
Cat: So Mike, there are some interesting things I've learned about invitations talking to people.
Michael: Okay. For example?
Cat: Well, it's not always the first invitation that gets you on the new track. For instance, I spoke to Anna Wilder Burns. She's this filmmaker who grew up in Maine.
Anna Wilder Burns: I'm an East Coast girl at heart, a little bit, uh, blunt and Yeah, I just, I have that kind of East coast salt,
Cat: She was a competitive gymnast for most of her early life.
Anna: never really had time to do anything else.
Cat: After college, Anna moved to the South Bay area of Los Angeles where she got into photography and filmmaking, and then one day she gets this text from a friend connecting her to a woman named Morgan. It was invitation to go surfing, which Anna had never done before.
Anna: Invitation number one was through a mutual friend connecting me with this girl who lived close to me and surfed every day. So I met her the first day we went out surfing. I probably didn't catch a single wave.
Whatever, awkward first time friendships, Hope to see you again soon, like all that kind of stuff. And then day two, get a text from, from Morgan, like, I'm going down, like, do you wanna come? And I remember like sitting in my bed and I'm like really not a morning person.
So, I was like laying in bed. It was kind of cold. I was like, eh, like, I don't know, like, I kinda just wanna like stay here and like, I don't know, like, I'm a little bit like socially anxious, so like, It's like a big thing for me to go like meet a new person, like do a new thing. It's so, yeah, it's just like dragging myself out.
But for some reason I was like, no, rip the bandaid off. Go.
Cat: Anna made the point that accepting that first invitation was actually no big deal. She didn't really know what she was getting into, and trying something just once doesn't usually lead to anything. But when you accept that second or third invite, that's when your life can really change.
Anna: Cause I think sometimes it's really easy to go the first time. It's like, oh, this new exciting thing. Like let's go like try surfing and then we're gonna move on. But I think going down the second day and saying yes to going again, it created some sort of desire to go down again and then keep going down. And surfing with them led me to my third and fourth and now probably my like 700th. And now I surf almost every day.
Cat: Anna made a film about her South Bay surfing community called to be Frank, and it centers on Frank Payne. He's a 73-year-old local legend and the cornerstone of this whole community of surfers that has become like a family to her.
Anna: we call it the Sruf Familia. it was originally the surf familia, but then an article was written about one of our members and they misspelled surf to sruf. And so now we took that and ran with it. But it is a incredibly colorful and diverse community. that surf the Hermosa Beach Pier almost every morning. Our youngest is 11, our oldest is 78. We have people from El Salvador and Mexico and, uh, so many different races and genders represented in walks of life. It's just a really fun and needed community. And it taught me a lot about friendship in that friendship doesn't have boundaries around like your age and your gender. If you're like a young woman, you don't just have to have like a group of girlfriends that like goes and does happy hour and you, you can be best friends with a 73-year-old man.
Michael: That is a very sweet story. So different than getting, you know, invited to a festival in Cuba that causes you to panic and then faint.
Cat: Just wait. We'll get back to what happened to me in a little bit, but first you have to hear from Timmy O'Neill.
Timmy O'Neill: I've always said about invitations. I work really hard to be invited and then once I go, I work even harder to make sure I get invited back.
Cat: Timmy is a world class climber and also someone really committed to having a positive social impact. Like Anna, he believes that the second invitation, or maybe the third, is the one that can change things. But unlike Anna, Timmy can take a while to say yes.
Timmy: I got an invitation to go and participate in an intervention in Ethiopia, where the Himalaya Cataract Project was doing a high-volume cataract surgeries where you're essentially relieving blindness with a relatively simple, fast and successful surgery. And because I did that, I wound up doing a deep dive for 10 years in sub-Saharan Africa around relieving, you know, preventable blindness.
Cat: So what was the invitation like?
Timmy: I was doing a talk in Burlington, Vermont at the University of Vermont and the then chair of the ophthalmology department, Dr. Jeff Tabin, was in the audience. And following my show, he came down with a copy of his book that he gave me and said, Hey, Dave Chappelle was here last week and you're way funnier than him. And I need somebody like you who could be funny and who's a climber at your level who could be a problem solver and help at one of these campaigns.
And there are these really cool towers nearby that there's some first descents waiting. So he would offer. Again and again until I finally took him up on the invitation and it changed my life.
Cat: How many times did he offer? Like how long did it take you to say Yes?
Timmy: There was the initial offer, when I did the show and then there was probably a subsequent email and then a phone call, and then I was actually a Telluride Mountain film and I went climbing with him. And George Lowe, who's like the grandfather of American alpine climbing, you know, in the United States and North America. Really? And we went climbing on the Ophir Wall, and Jeff's like, so are you coming? Or what? And I'm like, I'm in, I'm coming.
Cat: So how many cataract camps, eye camps did you go to?
Timmy: At least one, if not three, sometimes 1, 2, 3, a year. And we were going all over the place, right? Like we, when I went to Nigeria, we did a cataract campaign north of the Capitol, Abuja, and then we wound up taking a flight to Burkina Faso, to the Capitol, Ouagadougou, and then drove overland to Mali, to the hand of Fatima, and it was amazing.
During the course of that 10 years, it gave me this opportunity to meet so many of these caregivers and then also thousands upon thousands of individuals who I'm sure still remember the day that we got to hang out as we prepped them for surgery and then peeled the patches the next day.
Michael: That's a pretty incredible series of experiences for Timmy. I mean, I can definitely see how it changed his life
Cat: Yeah, well wait till you hear this next big piece. So the reason that Dr. Tabin had invited Timmy on that first trip was because Timmy had all these logistical and problem solving skills from his years of climbing around the world. But he was also an athlete, so Tabin knew he could handle the extreme environments where they were conducting these surgeries.
And as you might suspect, while they were traveling, they would try to find opportunities to do some climbing.
Timmy: And not only would we go there and do these really effective, deep dives, exhausting, you know, cataract campaigns, we'd often go and do an adventure before or after. So I wound up going to Madagascar before going on a trip to Ethiopia to do the eye campaigns.
And one of the people that wound up going on the Madagascar trip to do a first ascent is now my wife and the mother of my child.
Michael: Wow. Okay, so, uh, lemme try this here. I think the moral of the story is, Accept that imitation to support a team of traveling surgeons, because you might meet your life partner,
Cat: Sure that's one moral, uh, I think it also could be open to big challenges because going for it might turn out well.
Michael: Hey, Cat, speaking of how things turned out, what did happen in Cuba after you fainted in the middle of that square?
Cat: Right. Okay. So. The next morning I wake up in the living room of someone's house from the town. I'm on the couch. I have a pillow under my head. There's a blanket over my body and my backpack with like my phone, my wallet, my passport, my camera, everything I owned and brought with me to Cuba. It's right there on the floor leaning next to me, and there's a full glass of water for when I wake up, but no one was home. The door to the house was open, and I'm calling around and everything is just quiet.
Michael: So what that means is that people you never met carried you and all your stuff into someone's house, and then, you know, they set out a glass of water and just very kindly let you rest.
Michael: Huh. So what does all of this mean to you? All these very different invitation stories.
Cat: I think I'm learning that every invitation is a chance to experience something important or beautiful or just fun. And you can't always say yes, but if you do, you might end up surfing with a legend like Yvonne Chenard or making friends with climbers in a distant country. And if you're really lucky, you might find a community of people that treats you like family or meet someone who actually becomes family.
Point is, there are huge upsides to being ready to dance with the unknown. And because people might actually be pretty good, the world over odds are that if it comes down to it, the strangers will take care of you and you'll be okay when you say yes.
Michael: This episode was produced and scripted by Cat Jaffee and me, Michael Roberts. Thank you Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Anna Wilder Burns, and Timmy O'Neill for accepting our invitations to share your stories.
Music and mixing by Robbie Carver.
The Outside Podcast is made possible by Outside+ subscribers. We invite you to learn more about all the benefits of a subscription and subscribe now at outsideonline.com/podplus
Oh, and I should say this more often, but: If you like the show, please give us a positive review wherever you listen. We appreciate it.
Follow the Outside Podcast
Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.