VIDEO: Climber Hugh Herr | Real People | George Schlatter * 2024
VIDEO: Climber Hugh Herr | Real People | George Schlatter * 2024

Hugh Herr was an elite mountain climber

Specifically in the realm of rock climbing, when he was in his teens. Then during his 17th year, suffered a mountain climbing accident and from frostbite to his lower legs.

After several months of work, his medical team abandoned the effort to save his biological lower extremities and proceeded to amputate both legs just below the knees. Since then, he has used the prosthetics to walk, run and climb. The first limbs he was provided with were very crude. They lacked technological sophistication, had no sensing, synthetic computation, or muscle-tendon actuation.

Basically, the synthetic limbs he was provided with were passive and inert, with no ability to emulate biological function. Hugh Herr was surprised and said to himself, there has to be a better way. For which he has dedicated time, life in redesigning synthetic parts of the body. As a young man, I envision a future where, even for conditions as dire as amputation, science and technology could allow a return to full physicality and even enhancement.


Hugh Herr, and the advantages of the prostheses on which he had worked

Shock absorbers
Originally, walking caused discomfort to the area below Herr’s knees, where his legs had been amputated and afterward attached to artificial rigs. “His prosthetic guy, inspired by shock absorbers he had seen in Vietnam, put in cushions for added comfort,” said Piore. “They’re made out of soft, flexible polyurethane membranes.”

Racecar technology
Carbon-fiber tops made from the same lightweight material as Formula 1 race-car chassis connect Herr to the socket of his prosthetic leg. “It is like slipping [your hand] inside a mitten,” said Dr. Charles Carignan, CEO of BionX, the company founded by Herr, which produces his legs. “A pin clicks into the socket that holds it [onto the leg].”

Walking tall
One advantage of being a double-amputee: no limit to your height. As Herr told a TED Talk audience, “I can be as short as 5 feet or as tall as I like.” Piore said that Herr analyzed horses’ gaits “to see how they . . . [gallop] in the air and keep from breaking their legs on the way down.” This influenced the degrees of stiffness in his own legs and the naturalness of the stride.

Take charge
Plastic-and-metal ankles hold the high-tech guts of the prosthesis, plus the lithium battery that must be recharged after eight or so hours of walking.

Missile-grade control
Sensors in the ankle continually analyze Herr’s walk. “They’re the same kinds of micro-processors used in guided missiles,” said Piore. Carignan added, “The sensors measure force-of-heel strike, torque and angle of step [to] determine how much power needs to be delivered from a motor that drives the propulsion.”

A foot for every need
The carbon fiber “feet” Herr wears day to day have treaded rubber bottoms, like on an athletic sandal. For this photo, said Carignan, “he added a rubber cosmesis which looks like a molded foot with toes. It . . . allows shoes to fit properly.” Herr opts for very small feet that fit into tiny crevices when rock-climbing; for scaling icy surfaces, he switches to spiked bottoms.

Hugh Herr never ended love for climbing

Hugh recovered and persevered in his love of climbing, and after the incident, began developing rudimentary prostheses to enable him to climb even harder than before the amputation. His prosthetic modifications allowed him to adjust his height from 5 to 8 feet, depending on the wall! Hugh went on to send and set incredibly hard routes like Vandals in the Gunks, the first 5.13 on the US East Coast.

Before Hugh was even born, there was a climber named Jim Gorin who paved the way as the first amputee rock climber. Jim lost his leg at the age of 6 due to a bone disease, but that didn’t hold him back. He not only became a prolific climber in the 1940s and 50s, but became the chairman of the rock climbing section of the Southern California Sierra Club chapter. He even met his wife at one of the meetings.

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