Never Say Grounded

updated 10/07/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/07/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HIGH HERR DIGS WHITE CHALK OUT OF a pouch on his hip and coats both hands as he peers up a sheer, 250-foot wall of rock in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon State Park. Then, suddenly, he leaps, grabs an outcropping above his head and, biceps straining, hauls his body upward. In minutes he is spidering up the face, his movements as graceful as a dancer's. Only the noonday sun glinting off the aluminum extensions attached to his tiny wooden feet remind you of the difference between Hugh Herr and other expert climbers: Herr has no lower legs.

It has been nine years now since the legs were amputated six inches below the knee after a near-fatal outing in New Hampshire's White Mountains. "My doctor said I definitely would not be able to climb," says Hugh, 26, but within three weeks of returning to his Lancaster, Pa., home from rehab, Herr snapped on a pair of artificial limbs and did what he had been told was impossible. "I felt wobbly, like a doe on ice, but elated," he says.

Herr's career as a bionic climber began with a fateful miscalculation during a winter climb on Mount Washington, which is notorious for its risky weather. On Jan. 23, 1982, Herr, then 17, and Jeff Batzer, 20, a friend from Lancaster, began an ice climb up a gully. At the top of the gully, snow began falling. Instead of going back down, they tried for the summit, a few hundred feet away. Within minutes they were caught in a whiteout. Attempting to return to the gully, they wandered into an another ravine. But 70-mph winds, contributing to a windchill of 40 below, made turning back impossible. As they bushwhacked into a nearly impenetrable wilderness, they swam in chest-deep snow and broke through ice covering a brook. "I felt incredible fear," says Herr.

At night, Herr and Batzer dug out a shelter under a boulder, laid down a bed of spruce boughs, removed their frozen clothing and hugged each other to share body heat. The next day, as they stumbled onward, Herr hallucinated bridges or trails he was sure led to safety. After shivering through a second night, they set off again. But by then they had succumbed to hypothermia and frostbite. "I would walk about five paces," says Herr, "and fall over."

By the following day they had given up trying to survive and began to welcome the idea of death. "It was like, the sooner the better," says Herr. But the two were discovered that afternoon—just three miles from civilization—by a woman who was snowshoeing in the area and saw footprints going in circles. Tragically, a rescuer, Albert Dow, 28, had already died in an avalanche while searching for the climbers. Herr and Batzer both wept when they were told a day after the rescue.

For weeks a specialist at Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia sought to save Heir's legs. As gangrene set in, medics cleaned infected areas of his ankles right down to the bone. "I got to the point where I thought, 'Let's get rid of these things, because they're not even a part of me anymore,' " Herr recalls. On March 10, 1982, his lower legs were finally amputated. "Once it was done, I immediately felt human again," he says. (Batzer, now married and a student at Lancaster Bible College, lost a thumb, parts of four fingers, five toes and his left foot.)

Herr's rehabilitation was, if anything, an even greater ordeal. "The first time I tried to walk," says Herr, "I stood for maybe one second and then sat down again. It was just incredible pain, a pathetic start, but I knew I was healing and that I would have to try again." He had a powerful motivation. "While I was in the hospital, I desperately wanted to climb again," says Herr. As he watched a technician assemble his artificial legs, Herr insisted on feet that would fit his size-8 climbing boots.

The youngest of five children who had grown up on a 130-acre farm outside Lancaster, Hugh Herr had spent his summers out West. He hiked and climbed with his father, John, a chemist and builder, his mother, Martha, president of the local literacy council, and his two brothers and two sisters. At 11, Hugh was leading climbs himself, and seven years later was cited in Outside magazine as one of the top climbers in the East.

Since his accident, Herr has been trying to improve on nature's foot design, with an eye toward climbing. He engineered one artificial foot with a bladelike front for cracks and another type for ice. "I cut off the heel because climbers don't need it," he says. He experimented with extensions too—even in class at Pennsylvania's Millersville University. "One day I came in at 5'6"," says Herr. "The second day I was 5'7" and the next day 5'9". People said, 'Hugh, what's going on?' I said, 'Well, college is a growing experience.' "

A mediocre student before losing his legs, Herr graduated summa cum laude from Millersville in 1990 and last month entered Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he plans to study mechanical engineering. He has received a patent as coinventor of an artificial-limb socket with an inflatable bladder, which can be adjusted as an amputee's stump swells and shrinks during the day. He is also working on a "smart shoe," designed with a partner in Boulder, Colo., to store and return a runner's expended energy. He is the subject of a just-published biography, Second Ascent, by mountaineer and magazine editor Alison Osius. Best of all, there's a girl he's serious about, Lee Blithe, 25, a Lancaster reporter he met when she interviewed him a year and a half ago.

These days Herr can drive, dance—do just about anything. But he is bent on testing his only remaining limitation: running. "I have this nasty habit," he says. "If I'm scared, that's what I want to go for. The whole game is controlling your fear." He wants to run a marathon. "There's this attitude," says Herr, "that if one should lose a leg or whatever, he should accept it. That's grotesque. The correct attitude is, If there's a problem, let's solve it."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
VICKIE BANE in Boulder

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