Science 8 min read

Prosthetics Better Than Human Limbs: Double Amputee Summits Mt. Everest

Mount Everest | Daniel Prudek |

Mount Everest | Daniel Prudek |

For most of us, climbing Mt. Everest seems impossible. What about climbing Mt. Everest without any legs? That seems ludicrous. But last Monday, that’s exactly what Xia Boyu did.

Mt. Everest’s peak lies 29,029 feet above equatorial sea level. Mountaineers who undertake this expedition set themselves up to climb in extreme temperatures that range between -80 degrees Fahrenheit to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

288 people have lost their lives attempting to summit this mountain. Common causes of death include: falls, avalanches, dehydration, freezing, and altitude sickness.

The average expedition takes about 40 days. As you would expect, climbing the world’s highest mountain is no easy feat.

However, this week, double-amputee Xia Boyu conquered the mountain.

For Xia, this attempt, his fifth, proved to be the charm after attempts that spanned over 43 years. On Monday he followed in New Zealand’s Mark Inglis’ footsteps and became the second double amputee to reach the summit.

The Power of Human Determination Reaches new Heights

In 1976, Xia’s first attempt to climb Mount Everest was interrupted by harsh weather conditions. During the descent, the 26-year-old gave up his sleeping bag to a fellow climber who had fallen ill.

That night he suffered from frostbite in his feet, which consequently had to be amputated.

The determined climber didn’t give up on his goal. Instead, he relearned how to climb smaller mountains with prosthetic limbs.

Unfortunately, Xia was hit by another life-changing hardship when he found out that he had contracted lymphoma in 1996. This time, he lost both of his legs from the knee down.

Despite this challenge, he set his sites on Everest’s summit once again in 2014. However, after an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides, the climbing season was cut short.

His next attempt was also interrupted due to a violent earthquake and avalanche that killed 22 people in 2015.

Most people would have given up after frostbite, deadly avalances, and earthquakes–but Xia kept going.

The following year, just 22 meters from the summit, victory was in sight. But, difficult weather conditions prevented him from achieving his goal once again.

After a battle of forty years and five attempts, at 7:30 am on Monday, Xia reached the top.

Xia Boyu’s Uphill Battle with Disability and Discrimination

Xia didn’t let his disability prevent him from climbing to achieve his dream. However, a discriminatory law which banned double amputees and blind people from taking on Mount Everest almost did.

The Nepalese tourism ministry held that the new restriction would reduce the number of deaths on the mountain. The ruling was met with much anger and disappointment in the narrow-mindedness of the Nepalese government.

The ruling left it up to the government to judge climbers based on false assumptions about their capabilities. At the time of the ruling, 29 people with disabilities had attempted to climb Mount Everest. 15 of the 29 successfully reached the summit. Two of the climbers with disabilities tragically died during their brave attempt, while 288 non-disabled but equally brave climbers also lost their lives on the mountain.

The then-U.S.-ambassador to Nepal Alaina B. Teplitz criticized the ban tweeting that “Ability not perceived ‘disability’ must guide rules on who can trek Everest”.

Before the Nepal supreme court, the discriminatory order was finally dissolved in March of this year. This left Xia free to charge into battle with the summit once again.

Prosthetic Limbs are Miles Ahead

Although determination had a lot to do with Xia’s amazing achievement, it may not have been possible without his prosthetic limbs.

Believe it or not, historians think prosthetics first appeared 3,000 years ago. In Egypt, archaeologists discovered a carved wooden toe that was attached to a piece of leather.

Someone needed to replace their toe? Of course, prosthetics have come leaps and bounds since then.

Full on controllable limb replacements will soon be a thing. Although primarily made from metal and plastic, they can appear lifelike thanks to tactile skin-like materials.

Read More: 6 Ways Technology Closes the Ableism gap

Here are three ways prosthetics are developing:

1. Sensory Feedback

Undoubtedly, prosthetics have the potential to improve quality of life.

However, without touch, amputee relationships with the tactile world can be limited. With limited control over prosthetic limbs, just holding a cup of coffee can become a frustrating challenge that requires a person’s undivided attention.

Aadeel Akhtar
“Aadeel Akhtar – MD/PhD Candidate, Neuroscience, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; NIH National Research Service Award MD/PhD Fellow; CEO, Co-Founder, PSYONIC. With prosthetics developed by PSYONIC. At the PSYONIC lab at EnterpriseWorks at the UI Research Park.”

Prosthetics that can receive sensory feedback are quickly becoming a reality. Scientists at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Italy and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland have experimented with adding sensors to mechanical tendons in the fingers of a prosthetic hand.

When the prosthetic comes in contact with an object, pressure is put on the tendons. This causes the sensors to generate electrical signals. These signals then pass through a computer which relays them through wires into the wearer’s skin. The electrode them comes in contact with the person’s sensory nerves, that used to connect to their hand.

This form of sensory feedback improved the patient’s ability to control the prosthetic hand to the point that he could pick a stem off a cherry.

2. Thought-Controlled Prosthetics

Another difference between real limbs and prosthetics could soon be history thanks to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Scientists created a thought-controlled prosthetic leg that can move in response to nerve signals in the patient’s body.

The researcher developed pattern recognition which allows the prosthetics to “learn” how to interpret these signals in real time. The robotic sensors can detect speed changes, orientation, and weight. They feed this information back to a computer chip so that the leg can respond to changes in surface, for example.

Researchers took this technology a step further to allow the limb to respond to the user’s intent. Motor nerves which would have originally controlled ankle movements were rerouted into thigh muscles. So the brain recognizes the prosthetic limb as its own.

Image Courtesy of Natural Geographic

Read More: Human Brain Recognizes Prosthetic Limbs as Real Limbs

3. Solar Panelled Tactile Skin

A team of engineers at the University of Glasgow recently developed an artificial skin with sensors that can be used in prosthetics.

The skin was created using a material called graphene. This makes it flexible and tactile. The skin is also solar powered and could provide haptic feedback to amputees.

This invention has the potential to improve the mobility of prosthetics and restore amputees sense of touch.

Will Prosthetic Limbs run the World?

Hugh Herr is a disability activist and mountaineer. After he had to have both legs amputated, he became the proud owner of two bionic legs. Now Herr’s ultimate goal is to eliminate disability.

Along with his team, Herr developed prosthetic legs that use a microprocessor to mimic the way the spinal cord controls muscles and tendons in the human leg. With the help of these intelligent prosthetics, he was able to return to climbing.

He then continued to develop a device to augment his prosthetics. He upgraded his legs by adding a bladed device that can wedge itself into smaller crevices than a human foot could and made his prostheses longer than his natural legs- which is ideal for climbing.

His prosthetics increased his ability to climb frozen routes up mountains and their increased length meant he could reach holds that able-bodied climbers couldn’t.

Within a year, Herr became a better climber than he had been before the amputation and completed climbs that no one had been able to before. His competitors recognized this and some even–jokingly–threatened to cut off their own legs. In many ways, Herr’s biomechatronic limbs were better than any biological ones.

Read More: Researchers can now Inject Nanobots Into Your Veins

Afterall, once prosthetics do surpass the original limbs that they replace, what will stop people for voluntarily opting for augmentation?

This may seem far-fetched, but just look at how popular cosmetic surgery has gotten lately. People routinely inject silicone into their lips purely for superficial reasons. What’s to stop them biohacking their body and upgrading their legs? What if it meant they could be a better athlete, or, just simply walk faster? 

I’m not saying that Xia Boyu’s great achievement was because of his prosthetic limbs at all. However, his story is very inspiring.

In the case of Herr, his goal to eliminate disability is a noble one. And, of course, prosthetic development will have a positive impact on the lives of many.

Would you consider biohacking your body with prosthetic limbs? 

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