The speed climber took a 140-foot fall that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She talks about highs and lows and the fight to adapt to a new life.
October 11, 2017, Yosemite Valley, California. Speed climber Quinn Brett is midway up El Capitan’s famed 2,900-foot Nose route, karate-chopping her way up a hand-width crack known as the Boot Flake, moving faster than ever. To climb super-fast, she’s not placing gear. Her partner, Josie McKee, tied to the other end of the rope, is far below and climbing up behind Texas Flake. Then things go wrong. Brett slips and starts falling. With no gear to protect her, nothing to stop her, she slams into the bare rock of the Texas Flake 140 feet below.
She lived through the “unsurvivable fall,” but not without serious injury: a burst fracture of her twelfth thoracic vertebrae, leaving her paralyzed from the navel down; a concussion that took away her sense of smell; four broken ribs; a broken scapula; a punctured lung; and a bruised liver. She had to have her T10 to L4 vertebrae fused.
Before her climbing accident, Brett, originally from New Hope, Minnesota, was a summer climbing ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), a sponsored athlete and a frequent expedition climber. She did triathlons. She was a climbing and adventure guide. For fun she did handstands on mountaintops. Today, nine months after her fall, she’s readjusting to her new life Estes Park, the place she’s called home for 16 years.
How are you coping?
Some days are better than others. Nerve pain is a bitch. I have it every other day quite strong, then the odd days are a tiny bit mellower. But essentially, I persistently feel like a fridge is crushing my legs and that they are on fire!
So, as you can imagine, on the days of stronger pain, I am not as pleasant or as present to be around. Blame is inappropriate trait for anyone to have, to blame themselves or to blame others. I struggle with people’s perceptions of me now, of my mistake. I struggle with finding myself attractive, so how could anyone else? I am forced to sit with many integral pieces of Quinn, to see if that truly is who I am.
Before your accident you were a big wall free climber and alpinist. What was the attraction to speed climbing?
I’m a person who likes to move. My parents would attest to that. Even when I waited tables at Ed’s Cantina [in Estes Park], I liked memorizing people’s orders—like 12 of them at once—and cutting corners to go faster, playing games with myself. Speed climbing attracted me in that way. I also enjoyed running fast and light up Longs Peak and doing fifth-class ridges.
How long did you work as a Climbing Ranger in RMNP and what were your duties?
For five years, starting in 2013. For the job, you had to be able to climb 5.10, A1, M3, be an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician qualification) and have some rescue experience. Every week, my duties were to roam around the park waiting for a rescue call, talking with visitors and do preventative rescue talks, such as warning people against walking out into storms.
What’s it like being back in Estes Park?
I’m selling my house. I bought a place here with my folks that is more accessible. It’s not my old lovely home; it’s more condo-ish. It works with my lifestyle.
Tell us about your recent work with Rocky Mountain Conservancy.
I’m the communications manager, which is a new role for the company, but they’ve been around for many years. I do public outreach and social media. Not a lot of people know what we do—I’m hoping to change that—but we have a huge role with Rocky Mountain National Park.
You’re trying adaptive climbing. What’s it like?
It was good. It was a little disheartening at first. The reason I was drawn to climbing was the gracefulness of movement. But now it’s not graceful or beautiful at all. But it it’s also fun to belay people and watch them be beautiful as they move over the rock.
In a recent Instagram post where you took a selfie while in tears. And a recent post on your blog says you’re “coping with a new body that I am slightly ashamed of.” What made you want to share this vulnerable side with the rest of the world?
That’s a hard one. I have a teaching degree, and that’s one of the reasons why I started Dovetail Mountain Adventures (dovetailmountainadventures.com) yoga and climbing where I’ve helped people be more open and communicative. I’m always trying to infect people with something positive.
I’ve blogged before, but today I share more because I have more sitting time than adventure time. I’m just sharing the sentiment I’m going through. I’m not putting this on anyone else. It’s how I feel. It comes from that I don’t accept myself.
Flying with my friend and local pilot Bronson MacDonald tomorrow. Getting out more and enjoying camping. I’ve gone car camping once. Over 4th of July weekend, some girlfriends and I will go camping again. Then to Buena Vista to go rafting.