A Climb for Greater Accessibility

Athlete and advocate Quinn Brett wants to improve all-abilities access in outdoor spaces nationwide. Now, she’s spearheading a new role with the U.S. Department of the Interior to help bridge the gap.

On a breezy October day, professional big-wall climber Quinn Brett clipped the climbing rope for protection at the bottom of the Boot Flake, an exposed pitch about halfway up the iconic Nose route on El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park. Brett and her climbing partner Josie McKee moved fast and light up the 3,000-foot monolith; Brett set a speed record on the Nose in 2012 and they’d each climbed it many times. Brett led this pitch, switching hand over hand, smearing feet against granite. She stopped placing protective gear and switched to free climbing: The rope increasingly dangled unclasped beneath its knot on her harness.

Near the top of the Boot Flake, she reached for protective gear to place in the rock wall—and slipped. She fell more than 100 feet past McKee and slammed into a ledge below. McKee, a veteran with Yosemite Search and Rescue, called for help, and a helicopter airlifted Brett off the wall. She survived the fall with numerous injuries—the most serious was a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed her from the waist down.

More than three years after the 2017 accident, Brett’s identity has been shaken. “I am no longer the self-reliant helper, freedom-oriented person that I loved. I am not as fit. I am not the token of health I was striving to uphold,” she says.

But Brett, 40, is still at it, biking, doing yoga, skiing, paddling, swimming and exploring nature all while teaching others how to enjoy movement and the outdoors, too. She has redesigned how she adventures, but her desire and goals—to play outside—remain the same. Spending time in nature has proved vital in her mental and physical recovery.

Quinn Brett rides her ReActive Adaptations bike in Rocky Mountain National Park

Quinn Brett soaks up views of the Roaring River, which parallels Lawn Lake Trail, while riding her ReActive Adaptations off-road mobility device in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photo Credit: Jimmy McAllan)

As Brett explored the outdoors around her home in Estes Park, Colorado, with her off-road mobility device—a three-wheeled cycle that she pedals using her hands rather than feet—she discovered that the trails were often too narrow for her device or featured a side slope that was too aggressive to pass. This inspired her to get more involved in expanding all-inclusive access on public lands. She also has a deeper, broader understanding of the barriers to outdoor access and the importance of access for all.

“My perspective has opened up,” she says. Prior to her accident, for example, Brett used to disdain passing horses or e-bikes on a multi-use trail. “I don’t love horses, but they are allowed on certain trails just like an e-bike or my e-handcycle. I don’t need to go on [every] trail, but there are certain summits and places I’m not capable of going now,” she adds.

For four years prior to her accident, Brett worked as a climbing ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park leading technical search and rescues. In 2018, Brett began exploring a new role within the National Park Service (NPS). Bob Ratcliffe, division chief for the NPS Conservation and Outdoor Recreation Division Programs, approached her about working on two issues for the agency: improving backcountry access nationwide for recreationists with disabilities and updating climbing standards across public lands.

After two years of development and securing funding, Brett is now serving as the first-ever NPS Wilderness and Accessibility Coordinator within the U.S. Department of Interior. Since beginning the role in July, she’s brought a new perspective—as a professional climber, rescue specialist and athlete—to help shape all-inclusive access in national parks, as well as backcountry and wilderness areas.

Brett’s expertise in the outdoors, her professional training and enjoyment for adventure recreation “can really help us understand how to improve trails and how to make those trails more accessible,” Ratcliffe says. In addition to her past experience on the NPS Technical Search and Rescue team, she continues to teach courses on emergency medical care for remote environments. She’s also an advocate for public lands and conservation and has testified on Capitol Hill about the importance of protecting outdoor places.

Previous NPS efforts to improve accessibility have focused on well-developed areas within easier reach, such as visitor centers and established campgrounds. Brett will help improve accessibility for those who want to venture farther out into backcountry areas such as trails in wilderness areas, primitive campsites or remote river boat launches.

“An accessible built, frontcountry environment is critical and needed,” Ratcliffe says. But “people with disabilities don’t go to national parks to just go to the parking lot. How can we enhance mobility issues and accessible issues in regards to all types of infirmities and accessibilities?”

‘One universal trail in all national parks’

One in four adults in the United States has a disability including vision, auditory, mobility and cognition, as of 2016, according to the CDC. And, for the first time in history, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that those 65 years and older will outnumber those below age 18, by 2030, which means the demand for accessibility in the outdoors could grow.

Brett would like to see more trails, outdoor recreation structures and other park areas comply with accessibility standards—particularly in remote locations and up summits. She also wants to see designs that accommodate all types of abilities: physical, visual, cognitive and auditory.

“My ultimate pipe dream is to make one universal trail in all national parks,” Brett says, referring to a trail that is designed to be used by people of all ages, sizes and abilities. She envisions those trailheads would have a map that meets national accessibility standards, which is usable for people with cognitive, visual, auditory and physical disabilities. The map would include an audio feature that would be solar-powered.

Several crucial laws support accessibility in the outdoors. The 1968 Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) requires buildings or facilities that are built or altered with federal funds or leased by federal agencies to be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. In 2013, the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities, expanded those ABA guidelines with the Outdoor Developed Areas standards, which encompass all outdoor areas including camping and picnic facilities, viewing areas, trails and beach access routes developed by federal agencies. Now, anytime a trail, campground, picnic facility, viewing area or beach access route is constructed or altered on federally managed land, accessibility standards must be followed. As an example, trails that meet accessibility standards should be at least 3 feet wide, minimally sloped with a firm and stable surface.

An ADA boardwalk at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin

At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, this accessible boardwalk on Sand Island will extend 2.3 miles from the dock at East Bay to the Lighthouse.

But there’s a nationwide backlog of existing trails and structures that don’t meet accessibility standards, especially recreation sites in the backcountry.

“Currently, trails labeled ‘accessible’ must abide by the Outdoor Developed Area standards. As a byproduct, the trails are located in more developed areas, not necessarily offering an effortful recreation, wilderness or solitude experience,” Brett says. “Realistically, achieving accessibility standards for all or most backcountry trails would not work, as the terrain is variable, unpredictable, and it would ruin the character of the desired experience.” Her long-term goal is to educate trail managers on incremental changes to backcountry trails that would increase opportunities for the wide spectrum of outdoor enthusiasts with disabilities. In the near term, a more feasible renovation would be to install thorough objective trailhead information that would educate recreationists about the diverse existence of users, permissible mobility devices, and help give all users more confidence in choosing their trail.

A 2015 NPS report noted that “parks are not fully accessible” and that “many programs, facilities and services fall short.” Many visitor centers lacked accessible restrooms, water fountains and entrances. Paths—connecting parking lots, sidewalks, buildings and interpretive programs—as well as recreational areas were not accessible, either, according to the report. Countless national park programs and websites didn’t have brochures or other materials such as audio or visual elements or available information to support people with disabilities.

One large obstacle is funding, the report says, noting that it would cost more than $120 million to make buildings, trails and campgrounds more accessible. To help implement the report’s strategy, the NPS launched a five-year plan to improve access in national parks. “The five-year plan was not intended to make the NPS fully accessible in five years (an impossible task) but rather to have new systems in place over five years,” says Jeremy Buzzell, chief of the Servicewide Housing and Accessibility Program Support in the NPS Park Facility Management Division. There’s been some progress. For instance, nine outdoor accessibility projects at various NPS units were funded—including improvements to the decks and interpretive exhibits of the 1886 Balclutha ship at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park—and more than 150 park websites now feature a link to accessibility information for visitors planning a trip.

A New Frontier: Backcountry Accessibility

New technology and equipment, like e-bikes, Segways and all-terrain wheelchairs, are helping improve access to the outdoors, helping individuals along a spectrum of physical or cognitive conditions to venture outside on dirt and paved trails for longer periods of time or at all. But these advancements introduce new challenges for the public to understand existing federal policies or the shaping of new ones related to outdoor access.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) allows for wheelchair access in federally designated wilderness areas. But the current definition of a wheelchair does not include equipment such as golf cars, Segways or e-bikes.

“Unique opportunities and technology innovations now exist to expand access, awareness, management practices and universal design considerations to make more adventure and remote experiences available to people with disabilities. Quinn has a unique set of skills, passion and experience to guide that work,” says Ratcliffe.

Brett ventures into a variety of backcountry terrain using a handcycle, such as on a recent challenging trip to the Boulder Field below the north face of Longs Peak, the most popular 14,000-foot peak in Colorado—an area that does not feature a technically accessible trail. She wrote about the experience on Instagram. Her friends help her navigate trail obstacles—moving boulders, crossing streams, lifting her back tire over too-high steps, spotting her when the trail’s camber was precipitous. One of her dreams is to see every National Park Service site (there are more than 400) with a trail where she can use her handcycle and have the opportunity to safely do so independently or in solitude, she says.

Quinn Brett powers through the Boulder Field on her ReActive Adaptations bike near Longs Peak

Quinn Brett travels through the Boulder Field on her off-road mobility device near Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park with a group of friends, August 2020. (Photo Credit: Jimmy McAllan)

Backcountry wilderness experiences are lacking for adaptive adventurists, she has written in social media posts. “Currently a packed gravel trail or pavement at the popular-tourist dense center of national parks is usually our sanctioned movement ‘experience’,” she wrote on Instagram. “Trail re-work, coupled with awareness of community ability and desire, are the biggest restrictors,” she says. In her new role, she says, she wants to work on creating opportunities for others to have wilderness experiences using off-road mobility devices.

Among her responsibilities and outlined goals, Brett will develop and implement wilderness management policy and promote accessibility in NPS units and programs nationwide, especially in the backcountry. (A majority of NPS land is wilderness or managed for wilderness character from backcountry rivers to hiking trails.) She’s serving as a liaison for accessibility across various interest groups and tracking trends and opportunities in accessibility technology. And she’ll help to enhance access for all mobilities by establishing new training programs for park superintendents and providing technical assistance for parks working to improve their accessible recreation sites. Additionally, she’ll work on climbing policy, such as developing a wilderness management policy for bolt placement and maintenance.

A Database for Accessible Trails

In preparing for her new role, Brett reached out to pioneers who have shaped accessibility in the outdoors to learn from them. That included Mike Passo, executive director of American Trails and former executive director of the Professional TrailBuilders Association, who also has paraplegia from a spinal cord injury.

The greatest obstacle with accessible trails today, according to Passo, is the absence of a cohesive database across local, state and federal public lands for recreationists to learn about accessible options across the country.

“There are opportunities for a whole variety of people with disabilities, visible or invisible, to get outside. But they don’t know how to find those areas and trails and don’t know where they are, therefore the barrier to access is too great,” he says.

Brett recognizes this deficiency, too. She says a few accessible trail databases exist, like The UNPavement, Adaptive Trails and TrailLink. However, these efforts are scattered. “On a national level, we need a database for categorizing these trails and how they work for us, and that’s my goal within the NPS,” explains Brett.

Brett’s sights are set high. “National parks have a mission to make experiences accessible for all,” she says. “We can do better. We don’t need moving sidewalks, but machines exist now to help us get farther into the backcountry. Let’s get out of old-age thinking. We have new-age tools and new ideas. Let’s go.”

Learn more about Quinn Brett and her mission @quinndalina.

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