Quinn Brett, an advocate for public lands and differently-abled access, is assisted by a wheelchair after a life-altering climbing accident. Here’s how the athlete maintains wellness, adventures, and strives to help others.
At an elevation of 13,000 feet, Quinn Brett silently sits on a stand-up paddleboard in the middle of Chasm Lake, staring up in reverence at the outstanding face of the Diamond, a sheer 900-foot high aspect on Longs Peak, in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). The crystal-clear alpine water exquisitely reflects the orange-hued, black-and-white granite and Brett’s teal paddle. For the first time, she feels a unique sense of solace after her accident.
“Having space on the lake, being in the wilderness solo, and having alone time for meaningful words and thoughts with Longs Peak, is really lovely,” says Brett, a 17-year local of Estes Park, Colorado; accomplished expedition climber; and National Park Service Climbing Ranger at RMNP.
In 2017, Brett took a 140-foot fall that fractured her twelfth thoracic vertebrae, paralyzing her from the navel down. She was climbing the Nose, a 2,900-foot technical route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California. Brett gracefully and speedily led the ascent, above her rope partner, Josie McKee, up the Boot Flake crack, when she slipped and swung into the Texas Flake, below.
Today, Brett, 38, is eager to formulate a new position with the U.S. Department of the Interior to fully utilize her expertise of technical search and rescue, climbing, accessibility and advocacy and policy work.
“It’d be cool to have one trail that I feel confident going on solo.”Quinn Brett
“Brett understands wilderness management, national park culture and has an eye toward how the National Park Service can be more inclusive, open and accommodating for accessibility issues beyond what’s required by law,” says Bob Ratcliffe, division chief for the National Park Service’s Conservation and Outdoor Recreation programs, who is helping Brett develop her new position.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 sets national standards for accessibility, but there are no requirements related to outdoor spaces, such as campgrounds with raised tent platforms, wheelchair-compatible picnic tables or special-purpose docks and boat ramps. Before Brett’s life-altering fall, she worked on a project to upgrade two restrooms to be wheelchair accessible at Chasm Lake Trail junction and the Boulder Field, along the aforementioned Longs Peak hike. The approach, however, isn’t wheelchair-friendly. For her recent visit to Chasm Lake, Brett rode a horse for several miles to the junction—a difficult ascent, due to her lack of lower-body muscle control—and then friends piggybacked her another three-fourths-mile to the pool.
“Many people who are quadriplegic or paraplegic are so because of paragliding, diving or climbing accidents, Many of us are athletic, outdoorsy people who appreciate spending time in wilderness.”Quinn Brett
Today, Brett enjoys venturing off-trail via a ReActive Adaptations three-wheeled, all-terrain handcycle. The bike is 40 inches wide, which overreaches most national park trails. “I most miss high-level cardio activity,” she says.
“I’m creating a list of trails in RMNP that need work. They’re so narrow and aren’t made for [adaptive recreationists] yet,” Brett says. “It’d be cool to have one trail that I feel confident going on solo.” To increase national park accessibility, trail crews could strategically make a portion of existing routes adaptive by widening trails, lowering water bar heights and moderating overall inclines and pitches. Brett explains that such changes would help people of all abilities, prevent erosion and increase trail longevity.
“I was well known as a rock climber, but I mostly loved running and moving across the mountains. I’m trying to find that now,”Quinn Brett
Close to 17,700 cases of spinal cord injury (SCI) occur each year in the U.S., excluding fatalities at the locations of occurrences, reports the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Vehicle crashes and falls are the two leading causes of incidents, followed by violence, such as gunshot wounds, and then sports and recreation.
“As our baby boomers get older, they’re staying active, which is great for their health. But they’re often skiing or biking, and when they have accidents and fall, it can be really impactful,” says Candy Tefertiller, director of physical therapy at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado. The healthcare facility specializes in neuro-rehabilitation, as well as SCI and brain injury research. The SCI severity and amount of tissue damage in the spinal cord determine the outcome and recovery, Tefertiller explains.
Nationwide, the average person to experience SCI is 43 years old. Recovery is typically partial, but less than 1% of people with SCI experience a complete neurological recovery by the time of hospital discharge.
“Wheelchairs bind you to a linear space,” says Brett. To escape this restriction, Brett practices yoga. “Getting on the floor, you have more room and can lay on your belly, which is really helpful. I use what muscles are available to me and still try to find balance in poses.”
Brett has 18 years of yoga experience and a master’s degree in educational psychology. In 2011, she founded Dovetail Mountain Adventures, an outdoor retreat company that leads yoga-climb workshops with an emphasis in mental processes. In addition to yoga and biking, Brett swims every other day, which moves her hips beyond the sitting position and allows her to tap into a low-level cardio workout. In the winter, she nordic skis at Devil’s Thumb Ranch and YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch.
Regardless of her activity, Brett’s mental and wellness journey over the past year and a half has been a rollercoaster.
“I take it moment by moment,” Brett says. “There are times when I play outside and feel joyful. And there are sweeping moments of, ‘How did I end up here? How will I do this for the remaining years?’ The space between those thoughts becomes bigger, but they still come on strong.” Brett doesn’t rock climb very much anymore, as the movement isn’t the grace she fell in love with.
One hurdle that wears her down, emotionally and physically, is incessant nerve discomfort. Paralysis removes muscle function and sensation, and for Brett, the entire area from her underwear line to her feet also constantly burns.
“You can see me smiling, but I have an electric buzzer on my entire lower half, like when your arm falls asleep—but it’s 7-out-of-10 pain every day, all day,” says Brett. Many individuals with SCI experience pain, which varies in location, type, duration and severity, according to University of Washington research. The most common type of chronic pain among the SCI population is the hardest to treat: neuropathic, which is caused by abnormal signals from damaged nerves. During exercise or high-levels of mental engagement, like when Brett teaches Wilderness First Responder courses for Remote Medical Training, she’s distracted from the affliction but it never actually recedes.
Right now, the most pressing piece of Brett’s advocacy work is SCI research.
“In Colorado, it’s ironic and unfortunate that many people with traumatic brain injury or SCI is because of mountain biking or skiing,” Brett says. “Why don’t 1% of outdoor and ski industry sales go toward solving this problem?”
People can support the cause by donating to research organizations, such as Unite 2 Fight Paralysis and The Reeve Foundation. Though, the most crucial difference one can make is to call their state legislatures and ask them to support a bill (Brett is scaffolding one, at print) that secures long-term state funding for SCI research. Craig Hospital’s research is currently funded on a five-year federal cycle, for which they’ll reapply in 2021.
“A SCI cure would help further treatments for other conditions, too, like multiple sclerosis and stroke. Colorado has one of the most well-known SCI rehabs in the world but no [permanent, state-allocated] funding for research,” says Brett, who was a Craig Hospital patient.
To date, bills have been passed or introduced in nearly 20 states, which ensures close to $12 million in legislative funding will go toward SCI research through the end of 2019, reports Unite 2 Fight Paralysis.
“I was well known as a rock climber, but I mostly loved running and moving across the mountains. I’m trying to find that now,” Brett says.
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