The Rock Climber

Before Hugh Herr was known for creating some of the world’s most advanced prosthetic limbs, he was known as the kid on his way to becoming one of the best rock climbers in the world.

By age 8, “Hugh had scaled a face of the 11,627-foot Mount Temple in southern Alberta,” Eric Adelson wrote in Boston Magazine. Later, he began climbing without a rope, ascending tough climbing routes, some of which no adult had ever done before, according to Adelson. By the time he was a teenager, Herr was one of the top rock climbers on the East Coast, according to Rock and Ice Magazine.

In January 1982, after having ascended a difficult technical ice route in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Herr, then 17, and a fellow climber Jeff Batzer, age 20, were caught in a blizzard and became disoriented, ultimately descending into the Great Gulf where they passed three nights in −29 °C degree temperatures. By the time they were rescued, the climbers had suffered severe frostbite. Both of Herr’s legs had to be amputated below the knees; his companion lost his lower left leg, the toes on his right foot, and the fingers on his right hand.

Walk, not climb, they said.

He was given crude plaster of Paris legs and eventually acrylic ones.  “They were far more rudimentary than I had hoped they would be,” Herr told REEL Entrepreneurs. “I basically said, ‘This is it? Are you kidding me?'”

“My goal prior to the accident was to be the best mountain climber in the world. I had no interest in even going to college,” Herr told REEL Entrepreneurs.

After the success with his artificial climbing limbs, Herr decided to attend college where he enrolled in math and science courses. He was on a mission, he told Rosenberg, “to advance technology not only for myself, but for everyone.”

In college Herr had his “intellectual birth,” falling in love with physics, he told Boston Magazine. He eventually began working with a local prosthesist in effort to improve how prosthetic legs attached to their wearers, Adelson wrote.

Herr went on to get his Master’s in mechanical engineering from MIT, a PhD in biophysics from Harvard, and then a postdoc back at MIT.

While a postdoctoral fellow at MIT in biomedical devices, he began working on advanced leg prostheses and orthoses, devices that emulate the functionality of the human leg. Using specialized prostheses that he designed, he created prosthetic feet with high toe stiffness that made it possible to stand on small rock edges the width of a coin, and titanium-spiked feet that assisted him in ascending steep ice walls. He used these prostheses to alter his height to avoid awkward body positions and to grab the hand and foot holds previously out of reach. His height could range from five to eight feet.

As a result of using the prostheses, Herr climbed at a more advanced level than he had before the accident, making him the first person with a major amputation to perform in a sport on par with elite-level, able-bodied persons.

Today, Herr is the director of biomechatronics at MIT, where he established the Center For Extreme Bionics, which concentrates on lower body prosthetics like knees, ankles, and hips.

What are the mountains (rocks) we face?  How determined are we, as leaders, to dig in and find real solutions and then take action?

In a different form of “rock climbing”, we received this note from Mac Nagaswami, owner of the company that wrapped our cars, on a recent visit to the Bear B-Dubs.


Happy new year and hope all has been well!  Thought I’d shoot you over this nice team pic of some of our employees who wanted to go rock climbing in the backyard of your corporate facility in Bear. Finished the workout session with some “protein and…liquid wheat protein”. It was a great time. The food was great too. I’m now a spicy garlic sauce fan.

Hope all is well.  Mac

Passion.  Dream.  Believe.  Never Stop.

Lead The Way!