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The Movement and Beauty of Climbing

March 28, 2018

Elite, experienced climbers Quinn Brett and Josie McKee were speed climbing El Capitan in Yosemite October 2017 when Quinn slipped in "no-fall" territory.

The pair, who had collectively climbed The Nose 17 times and broken several Yosemite speed records together, were used to cutting corners for the sake of speed. But as Quinn neared the top of the flake (a large piece of rock separated from the wall, creating a crack), with her rope clipped to a single bolt far below, she removed a cam (a piece of rock climbing equipment) from the crack, which was the only gear connecting her to the rock at that moment. “Even though I climbed using standard speed methods, I remember thinking, ‘I shouldn't do this,’” said Quinn. And then she free-fell 100 feet.

Josie immediately notified Yosemite Search and Rescue, and a helicopter rescue was performed within three hours of the accident. Quinn sustained a spinal cord injury and spent five weeks in the hospital. She found out about Craig Hospital through friends of family and chose Craig because of its expertise in spinal cord injury rehab and focus on athletes.

Now, after a month as an inpatient at Craig and another month in outpatient therapy, she has good days and bad days. “People have been saying spinal cord injuries are like snowflakes because every case is different," Quinn said. “Maybe I'll get something back or maybe I won't, who knows?”

Quinn now gets around in a wheelchair and is determined to explore what she calls her “new normal.” In a twist of fate, she is once again involved with an adaptive climbing organization, Paradox Sports, she volunteered with for six years before her injury.

She first got involved with Paradox through a friend and went on a fundraising trip to Yosemite Valley in 2011. Soon she began volunteering several days a week as a belayer (the person on the ground who secures the climber) for adaptive climbers at Boulder Rock Club.

She says that her previous involvement with adaptive sports has helped with her rehab. The Paradox community has supported Quinn by reaching out, sharing their stories and answering her questions. “There are tools out there to use, and there are people who are crushing it and having a good time,” Quinn said. “They are still able to play outside and have a sense of adventure with whatever disability they may have. It has been so good for me to know for those hard days.”

When asked what it means to go from being a mentor to now being on the other side, Quinn said, “Yes, I’m now an adaptive athlete! But I try to do the same thing, like hanging out as much as I can to gain tools and resources from others who have gone through something similar and are adaptive climbers.”

In addition to her connections with Paradox, the open peer community at Craig has also impacted her rehabilitation. Quinn has found that talking with peers about their experiences, including those who are further along in their rehab, has been extremely helpful. “Having this injury means you have to ask questions – personal questions – and getting those honest answers is awesome,” she said. “Having that dialogue is helpful. The peer culture at Craig is very open.”

One of her goals is to get back to climbing, not only for the mental aspect but also for the movement it brings. “For sure rock climbing has changed; the movement is very different now,” Quinn said. “I miss dancing on the rock. Maybe I’ll find a delicate, beautiful way to do it. I think being outside will help me to find the beauty in it. That's why I started rock climbing in the first place.”

She may not see herself as a mentor yet, but she says that it’s her own ego that is struggling. “The purpose of climbing for me was the adventure, of standing on top of mountains and being in back country as far away from people and buildings as possible. Finding that avenue again in whatever realm I can, that’s what I need for my heart,” Quinn said. “I will be a climber for the rest of my life, but I may not necessarily be climbing for the rest of my life.”