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Hugh Herr rock climbing for WSIC TV

Posted Jul 25 2011 9:20pm

The climb known as High Exposure in Mohonk Preserve an hour south of Albany on the cliffs called The Gunks was awesome. The weather was perfect. The group of 4 guides from Mt Skills Climbing were utterly fantastic. They were in charge of safety and getting camera guys into perfect positions; and at times coaching yours truly. Hugh Herr is an awesome climber–legendary actually–and took the lead. As he went he put anchors in place for his safety and then mine as I then followed him up. Once he got to a ledge he would anchor himself and then we would switch roles. I would stop belaying him and he would belay me. As I passed each anchor I was to remove it and add it to my belt. Once I reached Hugh I would anchor myself to again belay him and off he would go again.


The first section was not too bad. Pretty physical but not super challenging. The second section was hard, steep and technical. I developed a unique technique that used my stump, had me slither up as I pressed against the rock for friction and allowed me to make really good progress fast. They were all impressed and frankly surprised at how well I did that difficult section.


But the third and final section was my downfall. Hugh had to squeeze through a narrow slot out onto a promontory that protruded straight out from the cliff 200 feet above the ground. He then had to stand on this outcropping and reach up a sheer vertical wall to find a handhold and pull up to get his next foot perch. Right then one of his legs popped off and fell straight down 200 feet towards our ground crew who dashed for cover in a panic as we all yelled either “rock” or “leg” to warn them. Miraculously the leg did not break. Since he has been climbing with two prosthetic legs as of age 18, this had never happened to him. Hugh clipped himself securely into several places in the rock face and rested in his harness hanging 200 ft up in mid air while we got a rope down to raise his leg back up. Once he had his leg he just put it back on and continued on up the pure vertical face to the summit.

Now it was my turn. Even getting through the narrow slot was really hard and I tried many approaches so that I would be able to get my foot on the tip of the promontory and still have a way to reach way up to a first good hand hold. I was already tired from the 200 vertical feet we had already climbed. Since my technique was not clean and smooth like the really experienced experts I was inefficient — just like an inexperienced skier would be — and that meant lot’s of wasted energy was expended. I also think there was only so far my swimming arms could take me — no new physical activity is “free” and requires doing it a lot to train that new unique set of muscles. All of this plus I was really way beyond my ability on this final section. The end result was that I just ran out of gas and had to settle for a good go on just the first two sections. I would need to really improve my skills and climbing strength and go back and try this section another day. I sagged into my harness and lowered back down to the ledge I had started from and would rappel down to the cliff base from here. I was disappointed and I was concerned my team would all feel I let them down but there was no indication of that.

In the end the point of the show was made in dramatic fashion. The skill and technique of Hugh with his two specially made prosthetic legs was demonstrated gracefully and emphatically. He really is beautiful as he climbs. He is slow, careful, studied, calculating, unhesitant, and deliberate. But above all he is smooth and clean and to watch him is to watch poetry in motion as he makes vertical climbing look as easy as walking on level ground. Maybe the real reason Hugh the MIT professor was driven to create robotic powered ankles was because that was the only way walking was in fact as smooth and as comfortable for him as climbing vertical rock faces had become. Meanwhile, I demonstrated the true spirit of what I mean by Who Says I Can’t as I, someone who has never climbed anything more challenging than piles of boulders, was game to try and to learn and to adapt to this challenge. I exceeded the expert’s expectations and made a decent showing for myself especially for a first timer. Oh and for a one-legger too. Future audiences will hopefully get much inspiration from both the extreme prowess Hugh has achieved in his chosen sport as well as from my willingness to give it a try. And as is always my hope, maybe our audience will feel more motivated to face their next challenge head on with a Who Says I Can’t attitude.



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