Reaching the Apex

A passion for climbing becomes a remedy for depression.

The 60-year-old man has no doubt he will reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro later this month, even with his metal hip.

The money people pledge to support his 19,340-foot climb up Tanzania's most outstanding feature will give him the strength he needs to make it to the top, says Ray Umashankar.

The pledges and donations fund a scholarship awarded to a worthy pair of University of Arizona students each year. Selection criteria is determined by the friends of his late son Naren, who suffered from depression and committed suicide at age 17 in 1991.

The idea of the climb was born when three of Naren's childhood friends--Sudeep Mishra, Neil Singh and Sandeep Deshmukh--phoned to tell Umashankar they intended to start an endowment to mark the 10th anniversary of Naren's death.

"Since I like to be in the mountains and had always wanted to climb Kilimanjaro, I decided to raise funds this way," Umashankar said. He has also climbed up the Grand Canyon, hiked up the Great Wall of China and climbed to the base camp at Mount Everest. Instead of lapsing into depression himself, Umashankar, an assistant dean at the University of Arizona's College of Engineering and Mines, decided to turn the tragedy into a quest to help others by shedding light on the disease of depression.

"People have two choices," he said. "Either they drown themselves in whatever they are up to, or they decide to fight with everything they got and seek all the help they can get." Umashankar said people who suffer from depression must become passionate in everything they do. "You must have reasons to go on. Get involved in causes. Become passionate in whatever you do. Find a reason to get up and go to work in the morning."

Umashankar is no stranger to depression. His first son, Rani, died following a series of heart surgeries. Then he lost Naren, a promising young intern at Massachusetts General Hospital--an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

Umashankar takes anti-depression medication. "The medication works," he says. "You have a chemical imbalance and it takes the edge off. It is important to accept that you have depression and seek help. I sense there is still a stigma about depression. You just have to fight it."

He leaves the house at 4 a.m. and heads to the Catalinas for training with a 35-pound pack. "I am on a mission. I don't care if people pass me. I go slow and I make it." He got his metal hip following a bicycle accident in 1993.

Another thing that keeps him going is helping students realize their dream. He sees them as people who are just like his son. "I find myself listening to the dreams of young people--dreams that my son had. Helping them realize their dreams is very satisfying." Umashankar says the most important thing is to never give up. "People have to be absolutely passionate about what they believe in. If they stick with it, there is always a way out."

One of the things Umashankar helps students with is learning persistance. He does not answer a student's first e-mail to him because he wants to see how interested they are in having a piece of his time. "The point is persistance. If you are seeking a job, rejection letters must make you more persistant, not rejected. The guy who fails quits after the ninth door is slammed in his face. The guy who succeeds knocks on the 10th door."

The Mount Kilimanjaro Climb, in support of the Naren Umashankar Memorial Scholarship Fund, is being administered by the Scholarship Development Office of the University of Arizona Foundation. Umashankar says people who pledge a penny for every foot he climbs will end up paying $180 to the fund. "A penny for every two feet comes out to $84 and it's tax deductible," he said.

Born in Pudokottai, southern India, Umashankar grew up in Bombay and arrived in the United States with $4 in his pocket. As a poor student at New York Univesity, he was so broke he had to sell his blood. He was with a white guy, who got $5, and a black guy, who got $7. They were going to pay $5 to Umashankar, who said: "I'm brownish! I should get $6." He later discovered the payment was based on the rarity of one's blood type, he remembers with a laugh.

He arrived in Tucson in 1980 with a job at the University of Arizona as an electrical engineer. He and his wife, Dr. Sushila Umashankar, also a faculty member, have a daughter Nita, 20, who performs traditional Indian dances. Prior to an August 17 solo performance, Nita insisted that the $8,000 she raised go to the scholarship fund in the name of her late brother. "I could not have made it without the support of my wife and daughter," her father says.

The goal for the Kilimanjaro climb is $100,000. Kilimanjaro towers over the Great Rift Valley, the possible birthplace of humankind and the location of Louis Leakey's Olduvai Gorge. Umashankar has chosen the Machame Route, a 62.5-mile hike during which he will gain 13,200 feet in altitude over the course of five days. He will start the final trek to the summit at midnight on September 23 in order to arrive for what he has heard will be the best view in the world.

Umashankar hopes to be an inspiration to help depressed people seek help and make it. "I could have blamed the whole world for my misfortunes, like the death of my son. Instead, I am turning it around by saying here are students in need and giving them a helping hand. I am doing my part. I hope people will support me and give to my son's memorial scholarship fund."

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