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Why Nordic Skiing Proved To Be The Perfect Next Sport For Three Former Rock Climbers

By Alex Abrams | Nov. 19, 2020, 10:15 a.m. (ET)

Erin Martin (right), Heather Galeotalanza (left) and Quinn Brett each transitioned to Para Nordic skiing in recent years.


Erin Martin’s father started taking her rock climbing around South Dakota when she was around 9 years old. 

It was a way for them to enjoy the outdoors and have some fun together. 

Martin continued rock climbing as an adult. She liked getting away and going on an expedition. 

In 2013, Martin sustained a spinal cord injury when she slipped and fell while rock climbing. Six years later, she decided to try Para Nordic skiing for the first time and found that it was similar in some ways to her old hobby. 

“For me, they both feel kind of adventurous,” Martin said. “I think that rock climbing is definitely an adventure on an entirely different level. Dangling, being on a rock 60 feet in the air definitely feels a little bit more intensive and risky.  

“But they both require a certain presence of mind and focus and awareness of your body and what you’re doing in the moment to be successful or to race well or to perform well.” 

Over the past few years, Heather Galeotalanza and Quinn Brett have also brought their backgrounds as rock climbers to Para Nordic skiing. All three athletes have taken up sit skiing as a way to push their bodies to their limits since sustaining spinal cord injuries during climbing accidents. 

Each said she appreciates the thrill that comes with getting into a bucket seat attached to skis, called a sit ski, and using ski poles to propel herself across the snow. It takes a certain mentality to participate in both rock climbing and Nordic skiing. 

“I think in both you really have to concentrate on what you’re doing,” said Galeotalanza, who like Martin is hoping to qualify for the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games as a Nordic skier. Brett is newer to the sport and is hoping to start competing this season. “You don’t really have the ability to get distracted because you need to think about either your next move or next position you want to be in.  

“You always have to be thinking ahead a little bit.” 

Galeotalanza started rock climbing at age 18 while attending the University of Maine. She went with friends from her dorm to the climbing gym on campus, and she picked the sport back up a few years later after moving to Seattle. 

Brett, meanwhile, was an accomplished climber and a technical rescuer for the National Park Service before her 2017 accident while speed climbing up El Capitan in the Yosemite National Park. 

Rock climbing suited Brett’s intense personality.  

“For me, I loved both the physical and mental aspect of it, like problem-solving and full-body exertion,” Brett said. “But I also mostly loved covering ground, like moving across terrain.”

Brett is still quickly covering a lot of ground, except now it’s on a sit ski.  

She said Nordic skiing has helped her return to “the mountain realm” that she used to frequent as a climber. The sport has also challenged her in a way that she was accustomed to before her accident. 

“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 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.” 

While sit skiing and rock climbing are both technical sports, the arm motions that athletes use in the two sports differ. However, body control is required in both. 

Martin said she loved the trial and error that she often had to do while rock climbing. When she couldn’t get around a certain rock formation, she would have to change the way she moved her body until something worked, such as rotating her hips a certain way. 

“And I think Nordic skiing is similar in that you try a corner a bunch of times, and you’re not getting it quite right,” Martin said. “And then all of a sudden, you lean your body back and to the inside instead of forward and to the inside, and it completely changes the feel of the turn.” 

Martin said there was a certain freedom she felt while rock climbing after a stressful week. She couldn’t think about anything except for her next step. 

“I found that Nordic skiing has a similar (aspect),” Martin said. “(It) sort of forces you to be in your body and in the moment at the same way.” 

Alex Abrams

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USParaNordicSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.