Quinn Brett Is Gonna Be Loud
When it comes to advocating for adaptive athletes, the climber and National Park Service employee will never hold back
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Quinn Brett told her story to producer Paddy O’Connell for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Right before I took that cam out, I remember saying to myself, I shouldn’t have done that. I fell twice the rope length, and hit the big cliff of El Capitan.
And then at some point I came to consciousness and I said, I can’t feel my legs.
I work for the National Park Service, and I’m an athlete. I was a professional rock climber, and now I am a disabled athlete. Primarily, hand cycling, water sports, and the Worm. I’m still really good at the Worm.
I spend my time trying to be outside as much as possible. I can move all day, every day, pretty excessively, maybe annoyingly. You spend time outside and then you earn the ice cream or the IPA. In high school I discovered rock climbing and I wanted to learn more about it, and really dove into it. After college, I moved here to Estes Park, Colorado, and met an amazing amount of people who were into rock climbing, and they mentored me upwards into the sport.
The mental aspect is huge. How to overcome fears, how to stay calm. El Capitan is one of the quintessential iconic features of Yosemite National Park. It is a 3000-foot tall cliff, and the Nose is a rock climb in the center. It’s like a little prow feature.
In October 2017, my girlfriends Josie, Libby and I climbed a route on El Capitan in a day, setting a speed record for females. My headspace was a little off. My personal romantic relationship wasn’t doing so hot, and we got news that a good friend, Hayden Kennedy, and his partner had died in an avalanche. It struck all of our hearts, and climbing is something that we also fall back on, perhaps to distract ourselves from hardship, and so we decided we would still go climbing.
I am leading with placing gear, to a feature called the Boot Flake. That’s about 1500 feet up, but maybe 100 feet below the Boot Flake is another feature called the Texas Flake. It’s a big piece of rock that sticks out separately away from the main cliff of El Capitan. So I was on top of Texas Flake, and set sail on granite slab and clipped all of these bolts. The space between my gear was getting further and further apart. I was maybe 20 or 30 or 40 feet up from that last bolt. I had a cam in the crack, but I took the cam out for some reason, which is unusual for my protocol. I usually have two cams in, and in my rushedness or distracted brain, I took the cam out.
I reached across to my right hip to grab another piece of gear, and at that exact time, my foot or my hands or both slipped out of the rock. I just remember granite whooshing before my eyes as I fell.
I hit that Texas Flake with my back and my shoulder. I was just laying in the rubble, and my climbing partner Josie immediately initiated a rescue. My T-12 vertebrae shattered outwardly and inwardly into my spinal cord. I think I had four or five broken ribs. I had some internal bleeding, a punctured lung. My right scapula looks like a sledgehammer hit it. Fourteen staples in the back of my head. I had a pretty big swelling on the front of my head, like a hematoma. And paralysis, because of the shattered bone pieces in my spinal cord.
I vaguely remember people coming in and out of my ICU room. I was in the ICU for five days before my surgery, and I heard them say I was paralyzed. I remember laying in my bed and pointing at my toes and trying to wiggle them, and obviously nothing responded. It’s just fuckery. You have hope and you’re sad and you don’t get it, and you’re on drugs and you’re overwhelmed and you’re in pain. Of course I was in denial and of course I was mad and sad. I still have a lot of blame for myself, and disappointment and frustration. Where is that time travel machine? If I could only go back for that one second…what the fuck was I doing.
I would rotate through friends, because with the bandwidth for friendships, the amount of listening that I needed, needed to be rotated and spread across different friends. It felt like it was too much if I were to go to one or three of them, I needed 10 of them to listen and console me and be there.
Use your community. You’re not alone as much as we feel like we are at times, because we are in our heads and we feel like nobody’s experienced this trauma or this grief, but somebody out there has. Talk to them. There’s somebody out there who maybe hasn’t experienced the exact same thing, but can share and corroborate on what you’re feeling.
I still struggle with it. I have a lot of shame still, being in public in my wheelchair. I get embarrassed about things like the amount of eyeballs I get when I hand cycle around Lake Estes. Or people being like, “You go girl.” You don’t even know the shit that I was doing before; my heart rate is not even 100 right now. But I clearly still have that internal dialogue, and I talk to myself every day on the hand cycle. I’m like, What good does this do? Is it going to keep me inside? No. Get over yourself. Get outside. What is more important, being sulking inside and sitting on the couch and eating that ice cream, or going to fucking earn the ice cream? Why not try? That’s the human I’ve always been.
After I was injured in 2017, I returned to the National Park Service in a unique role. I’ve been educating on the type of mobility devices out there, opening doors for us to explore and be recreationally more adaptive on our trails in national parks. Also trying to measure our national park trails so we have more specific information, so the user can decide which trail works better for them rather than just being funneled to the one labeled accessible trail in our parks.
I’m gonna be an advocate louder than I can be for people with disabilities recreating in our national parks and in our public lands, and fo spinal cord research. Let’s amp it up, man. We got places to go, things to do.
Quinn Brett is an athlete, writer, public speaker advocate, and National Park Service employee. Her journey is documented in the film An Accidental Life. You can follow her adventures at quinnbrett.com and on Instagram @quinndalina.