INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Step by step: That’s how people defeat depression. It’s also how Joe Lawson climbs mountains.

For the 36-year-old Lawson, the two are intertwined.

His father, Virgil A. Lawson, committed suicide in 1986 when Joe was 16. The following year, the younger Lawson climbed his first mountain during a school trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas, igniting a lifelong passion.

Now, he’s funneling that passion into Expedition Hope, his quest to scale the seven summits – the tallest mountain on each continent – to focus awareness on depression.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this … why not do this for a good cause?”‘ Lawson said in a phone interview this week from Punta Arenas, Chile, en route to his next challenge, in Antarctica.

His first attempt – on Alaska’s Mount McKinley in May 2005 – failed when he fell into a hidden crevasse and injured his knee. But Lawson resumed his quest and has since climbed two of the peaks – Mount Kosciuszko in Australia and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

On Friday, he arrived at Patriot Hills, Antarctica, where he will attempt to scale Vinson Massif.

“It’s so beautiful here,” Lawson said Friday morning on a Web site chronicling his journey. “It’s the clearest I’ve ever seen. … Amazing!”

When he reaches the 16,067-foot summit, he’ll take out a photo of an 8-year-old Joe with his father and bury it in the snow, as he has done on the other two peaks. Then, he’ll say a few words in memory of his dad.

Lawson’s parents had divorced and his father had moved to California by the time Lawson was in high school. But Virgil Lawson still phoned Joe and his siblings once or twice a week. One week, his father’s phone calls turned bleak. He told his children he had lost all hope and intended to commit suicide. He was calling to say goodbye.

“He called and said ‘I love you, and I’m going to kill myself,”‘ Lawson recalled.

The teenage Joe didn’t know how to respond.

“I told him I had homework to do, talk to Mom, and I hung up on him,” he said. “That was our last conversation.”

Lawson said he didn’t understand at the time that depression was an illness that could be treated. Many still don’t understand, or, like Lawson’s father, feel too isolated and ashamed to ask for help, he said.

As Lawson grew older, so did his passion for adventure.

He became active in adventure racing, including Eco-Challenge races in Argentina and Morocco, and was race coordinator for The Wild Onion in Indianapolis in 2002. In 2003, he founded a company devoted to producing adventure races.

But the mountains kept calling.

He began thinking about scaling the seven summits – perhaps the most arduous feat in the sport. A couple of years ago, he decided to use the quest to help people who, like his father did, feel trapped by depression.

Lawson, a project coordinator for a general contractor, called Indianapolis-based drug maker Eli Lilly & Co., which makes antidepressants Prozac and Cymbalta, in search of a financial sponsor. Lilly agreed.

Lawson’s quest fit with Lilly’s efforts to bring attention and treatment to those suffering depression, said Wael Hashad, who heads the company’s Cymbalta section.

“A lot of patients are ashamed of bringing those symptoms (to a doctor),” Hashad said. “They feel it’s a sign of weakness. … (But) this is a true illness.”

Lawson also has support of his wife, Raena Latina, whom he married Oct. 7.

“As soon as I met him a couple of years ago, I knew what his passion was,” said Latina, who chronicles Lawson’s adventures on the Expedition Hope Web site. “How can you deny somebody his passion?”

Lawson sees a powerful parallel between depression and mountain climbing. Both are long, hard struggles that must be conquered one step at a time, he says: “The summit is always reachable, no matter how hard or how difficult.”



On The Net:

Expedition Hope: http://www.expeditionhope.org/


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.