Best Foot Forward

Hugh Herr was a teenage mountain-climbing phenom when a blizzard took his legs. Now the MIT professor has used science to get them back, building artificial limbs so advanced, they force us to rethink what "able-bodied" means.

The pair ended up that night on the Great Gulf, the wide-open north face, nowhere near warmth, nowhere near their well-trod gully, cold, wet, and without proper provisions. “I didn’t verbalize it,” Herr says. “It didn’t need to be said.” He thought they were going to die.

They kept on until, exhausted, they found a cove and a respite from the wind, and slept for a few hours. The next morning they started out again, but soon Herr couldn’t stand for more than a step without falling. He began hallucinating. Was that log over there a bridge to safety? Was it even a log? Eventually, the pair found another cove, laid down some branches, and held each other for warmth. Near dusk, the two took off their leather boots, which were wet and frozen. Then they took off their warm and mostly dry gloves and put them over their feet, which Batzer covered with his parka. Herr, for the first time that day, felt intensely cold.

By Monday, the third day on the mountain, the boys stopped clutching each other and simply huddled. They spoke about home, and their parents. Batzer tried one more foray into the endless white, looking for a road, a sign, a hiker, anything. He came back hours later. Then they each knew: It was time to let go. The sooner, Herr thought, the better.

Meanwhile, a rescue party had formed Saturday evening. One of the men who set out to find Batzer and Herr, a 28-year-old volunteer named Albert Dow, was caught in an avalanche. The onrush of snow threw him against a tree. Dow died instantly.

By Tuesday afternoon, Batzer and Herr were hours from their own deaths. Batzer could barely crawl. Herr could hardly mumble. At some point, Batzer saw a blondish-haired woman peering through the trees. Suddenly she was standing over them. “Are you the guys from Odell’s Gully?” she asked. Herr couldn’t respond but Batzer said, “Yes, we are.” The lady was a snowshoer named Melissa “Cam” Bradshaw. She wasn’t a part of the search party but had found some strange tracks and followed them to this cove. She handed Batzer a flannel shirt and some water. She thought first of helping them to the closest road, but decided against it, not least because Herr couldn’t move. She was five hours from the nearest base camp.


Herr and Batzer were airlifted that night by military helicopter to a hospital in Littleton, New Hampshire. Herr’s legs were severely frostbitten, and gangrene threatened to creep into the rest of his body. He had little circulation to his feet, and, during the course of his lengthy hospitalization, seven surgeries couldn’t repair the blood flow to them. By then he had seen a photo of Dow in the paper, and learned Dow had been planning his wedding. Herr sobbed and raged against his recklessness. He’d learn again about the consequences of his actions when he was transported to a Philadelphia hospital after two weeks in Littleton. Vascular experts there tried to save his feet, but they couldn’t. During the second week of March, doctors amputated just below the knees.

“I woke up from the surgery,” Herr says, “and my legs were covered in a sheet. I was angry that they amputated so high. It was very traumatic. I cried every other hour for months. Every day for two years. But I never felt sorry for myself. I learned that from Albert Dow. I never felt self-pity.” He still has not spoken to anyone in the Dow family because, he says, “I don’t have the right.”

Herr was fitted with legs made of plaster of Paris—basically white molds with straps that attached above the knees. He looked at them in his hospital bed and thought not about walking again, but climbing. That was his goal: to climb again, to feel normal again. He was later fitted with a pair of acrylic legs, and one day, several months after the surgery, he took his legs and some tools and headed for the mountains near Lancaster. He made rock cliffs his first lab, chiseling and whittling his limbs right there in the woods and on the rock face as he went. He noticed his body got colder and achier as he climbed but his legs did not. He was able to move faster and higher than before, in part because the amputations had left him 14 pounds lighter. And up there on the mountain that day, Herr made a leap that changed his life and may someday change yours: Why can’t fake limbs outperform real ones?

photograph by dennis kleiman


If you’ve ever seen a prosthetic leg, you know that Herr’s idea was ludicrous. The human body has thousands of years of a head start on man-made limbs. Our hips, knees, calves, ankles, and feet know how to work in concert to harness and apply force at exactly the right time, without our having to think about it at all. When we walk, our center of mass stays at nearly the same level—almost as if we’re moving along on top of a wheel—thanks to the way the weight of our body and force of our movements are evenly distributed throughout our legs. That not only allows us to do other things while we walk, like talk on a cell phone and hold a cup of coffee, but it also protects our legs from rapid degeneration. Each part of our leg propels us, and each part softens the blow.

By contrast, prosthetic limbs have never worked in unison with the body. Their history is simple and uninspiring. The first record of a substitute appendage dates back to ancient Egypt, where more than 3,000 years ago a prosthetic toe was made of wood and leather. Roughly 900 years later, in Greece, Herodotus wrote of a soldier who cut off his foot to escape the stocks—a form of primitive torture and imprisonment—and afterward replaced it with a wooden stump. The next real advance came in the early 16th century, when a French surgeon named Ambroise Paré invented artificial hands with hinges. And not until the early 1800s was a prosthetic created that could move when its owner contracted his or her muscles.

Today most amputees walk with a bit of a hitch. They cannot navigate an incline without serious difficulty, and they deal with the constant impact of the artificial leg on the real knee or leg stump. Amputees often need several surgeries to keep repairing the corroded skin, bone, and nerves. Nearly three-quarters of leg amputees develop debilitating back pain. Yes, prosthetics have advanced over the past two decades from wood to fiber to polymers, but they still can’t “know” what the mind knows any more than a baseball bat can identify a curveball. Every step is a compromise rather than a collaboration. Hugh Herr has worked to change that.


After the rescue on Mount Washington, Jeff Batzer underwent his own amputations, losing his left lower leg, all the toes on his right foot, and the fingers on his right hand. He stopped climbing, and joined the clergy. He is now director of pastoral care at the Lancaster Evangelical Free Church. In other words, he saw the power and fury of nature and further embraced the guiding light of scripture. Not so with Herr. He saw the same fury and combated it with his own. “I think Jeff would say the accident gave him a deepening of his religious faith,” Herr says. “I would not say that. I got a great deepening of the human faith.”

Because nature had taken his legs, Herr would now work to best nature. The 17-year-old had an appreciation for construction, developed through years on the farm with his dad and hours more in the high school machine shop. Building and testing every prosthetic model he dreamed up, he became his own guinea pig, as unafraid of pain and failure as he was unbothered by the countless falls he took as a climber.

Sometimes one leg would end up longer than the other, which was, Herr says, “not fun for my hips.” He didn’t care. Herr was now a young man, rocking back and forth, fixating on one idea for hours and hours, whether out on a rock face or in his bed. He could get feedback in a way no other would-be prosthetics innovator could, and any sores opened in the process felt like progress. Herr’s legs went from plaster of Paris to acrylic resin laminate with rubber feet to fiberglass legs with wooden feet. He scaled rocks with legs that looked like golf putters, to narrow his feet without sacrificing stability. Herr soon climbed as well and then better without real legs as he did with them. The media came calling: Outside magazine, the television show Real People, the National Enquirer. A former editor of Climbing magazine wrote a book about him. Herr was becoming famous.