Brett had been an accomplished rock climber and NPS technical rescuer before a 2017 injury.
Quinn Brett tries to get outdoors as much as possible, but her version of fun isn’t a leisurely stroll around the block. She’d rather be quickly covering a lot of ground, whether it was rock climbing before her accident or cycling and Para Nordic skiing now. She wants to push her body to the point where her lungs burn.
In June, Brett rode an average of 100 miles per week on her specialized bicycle. If she could, she’d go skiing four days a week around her home in Estes Park, Colorado.
“I love that I’m getting my heart rate up, and you have to get in the space where you’re like it sucks, but you’re still going to keep going forward,” Brett said of her newfound interest in Para Nordic skiing.
Brett was an accomplished rock climber and a technical rescuer for the National Park Service until Oct. 11, 2017. That day she needed help from technical rescuers after she fell 120 feet while speed climbing up the world-famous El Capitan in the Yosemite National Park.
Three years later, Brett has found new ways of pushing her body to its limit, even after sustaining a T11 spinal cord injury during her accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Brett, who turns 40 on Nov. 22, has taken up Para Nordic skiing. She straps herself into a bucket seat attached to skis, called a sit ski. She then uses ski poles that she holds to propel herself across the snow.
“Rock climbing is a very full-body sport. You have to hike to the cliff, so you’re using your legs and your arms,” Brett said. “I feel like that’s something I miss the most from my injury, is running uphill and the burning of my lungs and trying hard with my lungs.
“And so maybe that’s why (rock climbing) translates (to Para Nordic skiing) because Nordic skiing is like one of the only sports I’ve done since my injury that actually pushes my lungs or the cardiovascular system in the same way that it used to.”
Brett doesn’t remember what happened right before her fall. As she put it, one moment she was on El Capitan and the next moment she had fallen off it, striking a rock ledge. She couldn’t feel her legs.
“I guess what I’m known for is moving across terrain quickly,” Brett said. “My girlfriend, my climbing partner at the time, she and I were ascending El Capitan, using speed tactics, so using the most efficient way, and I didn’t have a lot of climbing gear in. And a foot must have slipped, and I don’t know, I took a fall.”
In December of 2018, a little more than a year after her accident, Brett received a message on Instagram from BethAnn Chamberlain, the U.S. Paralympics Nordic development coach.
Chamberlain had read a story about Brett and messaged her out of the blue to ask if she would be interested in trying out Nordic skiing in a sit ski.
“Knowing just a little bit about her background in climbing and what seemed to me like endurance sport and a love for being outdoors, it seemed like getting in a Nordic sit ski was a great fit,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain said she knew Brett lived in Colorado, where U.S. Para Nordic Skiing holds its Ski Spectacular every December in Breckenridge. Chamberlain invited Brett to it.
Brett said she thought it sounded like fun. She responded to Chamberlain’s message, headed to Breckenridge and tried sit skiing for the first time.
“It provided a little bit of that physical and mental challenge that I’d been missing, so I think I took to it,” Brett said. “But it definitely was difficult.”
Brett planned to compete in Para Nordic skiing for the first time last winter. However, she dislocated her elbow while downhill skiing the day before she was scheduled to race in Salt Lake City. With only one good arm, Brett had to drop out of the competition. She said the injury put an end to her downhill skiing, but she hopes to compete in Para Nordic skiing whenever races resume amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Brett has returned to work with the National Park Service, and in her new role she looks for ways to make backcountry experiences more accessible for people with impairments.
That includes widening trails for individuals like herself. Brett, after all, considers herself someone who prefers to go “off the beaten path.”
“I think outside the box,” Brett said, “like let’s try this.”