Quadriplegic Hiker Realizes His Dream

The Associated Press
Tuesday, August 8, 2006; 8:11 AM

ON THE KLEIN MATTERHORN, Switzerland -- A Japanese quadriplegic on Monday partly realized his dream of ascending one of Switzerland's highest mountains, thanks to a friend who carried him up with the help of a high-tech robot suit.

Seiji Uchida, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since a traffic accident more than two decades ago, failed to reach the summit of the 13,741-foot Breithorn mountain. Riding piggyback on a friend who was aided by a motorized exoskeleton, the 43-year-old said, however, that simply getting to within 500 yards of the mountaintop was a triumph.

"Today, at the top, I had the same feeling as when I saw the pictures of the Breithorn for the first time _ I was overwhelmed," a breathless Uchida said after his return to a base station on the Klein Matterhorn.

Uchida told The Associated Press through a translator that he was grateful he "had the chance to realize my dreams of climbing it, thanks to the suit."

Uchida and his friend, Takeshi Matsumoto, took a cable car up the Klein Matterhorn, before a three-hour hike toward the Breithorn. They said they covered about two miles before having to turn back with an hour of the steepest stretch remaining because they otherwise would have been too late for the cable car back down the mountain.

"Now my dream is to take on other challenges, other mountains," Uchida said.

Matsumoto carried Uchida with the help of a kind of wearable robot known as HAL, or "Hybrid Assistive Limb," which gave him extra strength.

Uchida's attempts on Saturday and Sunday were called off because of bad weather.

HAL was developed by Tsukuba University engineering professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, who created it to help an operator perform tasks a normal human would not be strong enough for, according to the Web page of Sankai's venture company Cyberdyne.

Using HAL, someone who could normally lift 220 pounds at a leg-press machine could lift 396 pounds, according to Cyberdyne.

Sankai called the adventure a great result for the robot, which took 14 years to develop.

"We have shown that such a robot can be used in the snow," he said. "The most important thing is that we try to support handicapped persons' dreams. We got some great data, and now we're going to build a better version."

The Breithorn is located close to the Italian border. The mountain is considered one of the easiest Alpine peaks to climb.

© 2006 The Associated Press