All posts by Alison Levine

Yahoo’s Grind TV: Polar Explorer Alison Levine on Finding Adventure and First Ascents

Polar explorer Alison Levine on finding adventure and first ascents

alison levine first ascent

Levine nears the summit of Hall Peak during a first ascent out of Larson Valley in Antarctica. Photo: Courtesy of Levine

Alison Levine caught her breath at the top of Antarctica’s Hall Peak, surveying the frigid Larson Valley from her vantage point more than 7,000 feet above. Walter Hall — the geologist who studied the region back in the ‘60s — may have gotten naming rights, but Levine and her expedition teammates got the view. And that deserved a drink.

“Chris [Haver] lugged a bottle of 50-year-old scotch to the top of the mountain,” Levine laughs. “Typically when you’re on a climb, people are concerned about how much weight is in their pack. Then there’s Haver, with a full bottle of liquor. I don’t even like scotch, but I had to take a swig.”

RELATED: Everest relief climber gifted Adventurer of the Year award

Sipping scotch in the glaring sunlight just a month ago, Levine, Haver and five of their teammates completed their first ascent of Hall Peak, making them the first known people to explore the mountain.

But it’s only the latest descriptor to tack onto Levine’s multi-hyphenated title — making her a first-ascent-grabbing, North-and-South-Pole-skiing, Everest-expedition-leading, best-selling author. “Firsts” are kind of her thing.

alison levine first ascent

Levine is one of only a handful of people to complete the Adventurer Grand Slam by reaching the top of the highest mountain on every continent. She’s skied across the North and South Poles (fewer than 30 people can say the same) and was the first person to complete the 600-mile journey from west Antarctica to the South Pole via the Messner Route.

In 2002, Levine was named captain of the first American Women’s Everest expedition (which stopped short of the summit due to dangerous conditions). She returned to successfully summit Everest in 2010.

RELATED: Explorer attempting to cross the Antarctic solo dies

In short, she’s the type of person who, when a childhood friend asks her to join him on a first ascent to celebrate his 50th birthday, simply doesn’t consider “no” to be one of the options.

“The climb was [Haver’s] brainchild,” Levine says. “I was just one of the lucky ones who was invited to be part of the fun. I’d been to Antarctica twice before. I jumped at the opportunity to go back again, because Antarctica is hands-down the most unique environment I’ve ever experienced.”

alison levine first ascent

Not many people have stepped foot in Antarctica in general, but places like the Larson Valley remains almost completely untouched, surrounded by unclimbed peaks.

“The lack of beta is the main challenge,” says Levine. “You have absolutely no idea what to expect; you can’t do a Google search to get the 411. What really makes this type of challenge different is the total lack of predictability that is associated with anything in Antarctica.”

Should something go wrong out in Larson Valley, help isn’t coming — at least not quickly.

RELATED: Young mountaineer is picking off 8,000-meter peaks and planning an Antarctic expedition

“No one is passing through there like they are when you go to the South Pole,” she explains. “Good communications are critical since you have to stay in touch with the folks back at Union Glacier, which is the main camp where most of the expeditions launch from. You are never really even sure when you can fly home after a climb. The weather has been known to delay flights by weeks, so you have to be prepared with enough gear and supplies just in case.”

alison levine first ascent

In an ever-shrinking world, charted by hashtags and mapped out by travel blogs, Levine is making the case for real adventure — but, she explains, that doesn’t always mean bagging peaks at the bottom of the world.

“My thoughts are that ‘discovery’ doesn’t have to be about a geographic destination,” she says. “It can be about a destination that holds excitement, challenge and opens up a new world for you; and that will be someplace different for everyone.

“I mean, no one should say, ‘Oh, Hall Peak in the Larson Valley … that won’t be fun or interesting because people have already been there.’ Discovery can be about going to places that are new to you, and it can also be about adventures that teach you new things about yourself.”


Forbes: What One Woman Learned From Climbing the Seven Summits


What One Woman Learned From Climbing The World’s 7 Highest Peaks

NOV 25, 2015

By Natalie Burg

Alison Levine knows adventure. The 49-year-old polar explorer, mountaineer and businesswoman has completed the Adventure Grand Slam, an accomplishment that includes climbing to the highest point on every continent and venturing to the North and South Poles. She has faced failure and set records—all while enduring three heart surgeries and a rare condition that makes her more susceptible to frostbite.

In the meantime, she has also built an impressive business career. She has worked in the health care, technology and finance fields, including a stint at Goldman Sachs and serving as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy finance director in his campaign for governor of California.

Her professional success is due in part to lessons she learned in the face of intense physical and mental challenges in extreme and remote situations. “A lot of the lessons I learned in the mountains helped me in business,” said Levine, author of the New York Times bestseller On the Edge: Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments. “But, on the flip side, a lot of the lessons I learned in business helped me in the mountains.”


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Levine shares four lessons she has learned from her extreme adventures, and explains how she has effectively applied them to her professional life.

1. Fear is good — it’s complacency that will kill you.

The Khumbu Icefall is one of the most dangerous areas on the route to Mount Everest. It’s made up of large towers of ice, which are known to collapse suddenly, and deep crevasses that can open just as quickly. The path is always at risk of shifting below climbers’ feet.

“You’re in constant danger of being crushed,” said Levine. “It is a super, super scary part of the mountain. If you’re not able to act and react quickly, that’s what’s going to kill you.”

Sound like anything you’ve encountered in your career? Levine draws comparisons between the importance of staying alert and responsive on the Khumbu Icefall and in business—and the consequences of complacency.

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“There are so many stories of companies who were out in front and became complacent,” said Levine. “BlackBerry is one of them. They were the leader in the handheld device market for so long, but then came apps and touch screens and things they weren’t able to accommodate.”

Those innovations in the mobile device market became the equivalent of the shifting ice of the Khumbu Icefall for BlackBerry, said Levine, who believes the company should have been more fearful.

“Fear is what prevents me from becoming complacent,” she said. “Fear is actually a useful tool. You have to be able to act and react quickly when you’re in environments that are constantly shifting and changing.”

2. Everyone on the team must be a leader.

Not only is leadership critically important when navigating extreme environments, said Levine, but also everyone on every team needs to be a leader. You may have seen this first-hand if you have ever tried mountain climbing—or if you’ve seen the new movie Everest, which chronicles a real event from 1996.

“Two of the world’s best, most experienced climbers were killed at that time,” said Levine. “One thing that led to people dying was that once the leaders were gone, nobody knew what to do. If you leave leadership to one person, that can be very dangerous.”

In business, as well as in extreme environments, everyone must empower themselves to be leaders—and to support their entire team, said Levine.

“Leadership has nothing to do with title or tenure or how many people report to you,” she said, “Leadership is about realizing that every single member has an equal responsibility to move the team toward a goal.”

3. Networking is everything.

In the mountains, your very survival can depend on your network. It’s not uncommon, she said, for people on the mountain to walk right past someone who is in need of help—dying even, in the extreme conditions—and not even realize it. Without a reason to stop and ask, climbers often assume someone on the side of the trail is just resting.

“One thing that always works in people’s favor is when they happen to know the people who are walking past when they’re struggling,” said Levine. People who know you are likely to stop to see if you need help, and even take on personal risk to assist you: “I tell people to put the effort into networking—you never know when it’s going to pay off.”

Similarly, when you’re challenged in your career or with a professional project, the person who will notice and stop to offer help is more likely to be someone you’ve made a meaningful connection with.

4. Keep adventuring—and be relentless.

For many people, completing the Adventurers Grand Slam while also having a high-powered business career would be enough accomplishments for a lifetime. Not for Levine. She’s preparing for two new adventures: She’s heading to Antarctica for the third time to do a first ascent of an unclimbed peak, and she’s the executive producer of a documentary film about the first Nepali woman to climb Mount Everest.

“I’m probably more excited about [the movie] than I am about anything else in my life,” she said. “It’s such an important story to tell.”

She also feels anxious because film making is uncharted territory for her. Fortunately, the lessons Levine has learned in other uncharted territories will help her deal with anything that comes her way.

“There are times when you’re just going to feel defeated and exhausted, and you may feel like you can’t keep going,” she said. “But what I’ve learned is you don’t have to be the best, strongest, fastest climber to get to the top of the mountain. You just have to be relentless about putting one foot in front of the other.”

A former downtown development professional, Natalie Burg is a freelancer who writes about growth, entrepreneurialism and innovation.

This article is not an endorsement or advice, and was written to promote awareness and is for educational purposes only

New York Times’ Women in the World: Meet Alison Levine

Life in the death zone: Alison Levine says “Everest” is  real

Having summited the highest peak on each of the planet’s seven continents, this intrepid woman can vouch for the legendary mountain’s ferocity.

World-class mountaineer and polar explorer Alison Levine. (Eric Philips)
World-class mountaineer and polar explorer Alison Levine. (Eric Philips)

On her second climb up Mount Everest, caught in a vicious midnight snowstorm in the region just below the summit, known as the Death Zone, Alison Levine felt her corneas starting to freeze. She had removed her goggles, which had fogged, and though she knew Chewang Nima Sherpa was just a few feet behind her, she was battling against the profound negative effects of altitude, fatigue and – Everest’s specialty – intimidation.

“We started out at night and it was snowing, and it really did not ever let up, so all I could see was white,” Levine, 49, recalled, in a far-ranging interview earlier this month. “They call it the Death Zone for a good reason. At 26,000 feet, the human body is literally starting to die.”

But Levine and her eyeballs did not die, and at 8am on May 24, 2010, she stood, elated, at the highest point on Earth, 29,029 feet above sea level. Elated, in part, because she had just joined the tiny fraction of humanity that has summited the highest peak on each of the planet’s seven continents and skied to both poles – a feat known as the Adventure Grand Slam.

Mount Everest is in the news again lately, this time as the focus of a new movie – named Everest, of all things – that portrays a disastrous 1996 attempt by a group of climbers to reach the summit in blizzard conditions. Eight people died. When she first heard about the movie, Levine said, she assumed it would be awful. “I thought it was going to be some cheesy adrenaline-junkie movie,” she said. After attending the Hollywood premiere of the film along with the director, Baltasar Kormakur, Levine told me it authentically captured the mountain’s ferocity and the emotional ambiguity over who, if anyone, was to blame for the fatal consequences.

“The cinematography and the special effects are nothing like I’ve ever seen – anywhere,” she said. “All of the footage looked like it was on Everest,” though the Dolomites in Italy were used for some scenes. “It’s just such a realistic portrayal of what life is like climbing up into the Death Zone.”

Beck Weathers, a member of that 1996 Everest expedition, whose book about the episode formed the basis of the movie, told Levine that the storms his group faced on the mountain had been even more severe than those the movie portrayed, she said. “Here is one instance,” she told me, “where Hollywood was less dramatic than reality.”

I first met Levine in 2009; we were introduced by a mutual friend who recognized our shared interest in outdoor adventure, and to be extra clear about what that means: she is a world-class mountaineer and polar explorer, and I am not. Since her Everest summit, Levine has built a wildly lucrative career as a public speaker and leadership expert out of her physical accomplishments. And she’s managed to do all of that by overcoming two serious illnesses that would keep most people from climbing no more than a long flight of stairs.

Levine was born with a potentially fatal heart condition, Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, that sent her to emergency rooms more than a dozen times, until a 1996 surgery corrected the abnormality. She still suffers from Raynaud’s Disease, a disorder of the blood vessels that, in cold weather, puts her in fingers and toes at extreme risk of frostbite.

Levine says she also manages a third debilitating physical condition: she is so short and slight – at five-feet-four-inches tall and 112 pounds – that her stature creates a size and speed disadvantage on expeditions that often include men of Viking proportions.

In 2014, Levine published, On the Edge: Leadership Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments, a business book that translated her extreme adventure experiences into bite-sized corporate leadership lessons. Those lessons also extend to the military: from 2009 to 2013, she was an adjunct faculty member at West Point, where she taught courses on leading teams in extreme environments.

For each of the last several years, Levine has earned her living by giving more than 100 polished multimedia presentations, which she calls “speeches,” that spoon-fed leadership insights to corporate groups around the country. She now grosses over $1 million a year for appearances that her audiences seem to love. She is, she says, her speaker bureau’s most requested booking.

All this paints an almost ridiculously impressive portrait of a tenacious, tough woman of extraordinary ambition and talent. But it doesn’t reveal how she got that way or explain the complex personality that quietly resides behind the mirrored polar goggles and neoprene face mask.

Levine was raised in Phoenix, and her parents became her two greatest influences. Her father, Jack, now 81, was a young FBI agent in 1962 when he became among the first within the bureau to publicly condemn J. Edgar Hoover for his brazen malefactions. It didn’t take long before “he was railroaded out of the FBI,” Levine said of her father. “Hoover blocked my dad from the Arizona bar. My dad sued the state bar, and he won.”

Her mother, Corinne, is a former president of Planned Parenthood of Arizona who went on to start a small business that sold china, crystal and high-end bed linens.

“I get my street smarts from my mom,” Levine said, “but my sense of determination from my dad. What I learned from him is you go to the mat for the things you believe in. And you absolutely go down swinging.”

When I asked her to describe the biggest turning points in her life, Levine mentioned only one related to her physical adventures: The realization that she was, due to her small size, the slowest member of the 2008 South Pole ski expedition, and how her teammates responded with grace instead of acrimony. “It really changed the way I approach challenges, teamwork, decision making,” she said. “I used to think if there’s someone who is weak, you just need to cut them loose.”

Another moment came during Levine’s first trip to Uganda in 2005 to climb the Rwenzori mountains, when she learned that women were not allowed to serve as porters or to even make the ascent. “Nobody knew the reason that women weren’t allowed on the mountain,” she said, “it was just tradition that they weren’t.” She kept asking why until, finally, local elders relented. “That was a huge light bulb moment for me,” she said. “I could be an architect of change, simply by asking the right questions.”

The experience led Levine to create the Climb High Foundation, which trains Ugandan women to work as trekking guides and porters.

The other big life lesson came when she was 17, after doctors diagnosed her congenital heart defect. “I learned that when people tell you, ‘You can do anything you want,’” she said, “that’s pretty much bullshit.”

Alison Levine is nothing if not a persistent opportunist. During a shift as a restaurant hostess in Tuscon, during her undergraduate years at the University of Arizona, she turned a chance meeting of local Mattel executives into a marketing internship at the company. After the Army rejected her attempt to enlist (she was too old, having turned 42 a few months earlier) Levine called a general she had met at a conference, who asked her to teach at West Point. As a low-level analyst at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, she turned the task of introducing Arnold Schwarzenegger to a conference room full of investment bankers into a job as the deputy finance director of his successful 2003 campaign for governor.

“When they said, ‘Arnold Schwarzengger is going to be in San Francisco and has a couple of hours to kill,’”Levine told me in an email message, “that’s when I started thinking about what happens in his movies (since each one is a couple of hours in duration) and memorized the body counts of each of them.”

Wit and tenacious charm play a significant role in Levine’s success; she leverages an abundance of both with precision. But to borrow a phrase from Donna Summer, she works hard for the money. In hotel rooms, where she sleeps more often than not each month, thanks to a nearly nonstop speaking schedule, she improvises workout routines with “a gazillion pushups and lunges and wall sits.” On airplanes, Levine says she spends all her time answering every one of the hundreds of emails she receives each day, mostly from people who have recently seen her speak.

“I just try everyday to be a clutch player and come through for people and overdeliver what I am supposed to deliver,” she said. “I have a chapter in my book where I talk about my mantra, Count On Me. If I tell you I am going to do something, I do it.”

But unrestrained accountability has a dangerous tipping point, and Levine admits she’s started to reach it in her personal life. While she’s showing up for clients and expedition teammates, she’s not showing up for her friends and family members; important events involving people she cares about routinely happen without her.

“That’s what probably hurts me the most,” she said. “I miss weddings. I miss funerals. I missed my goddaughter’s high school graduation in Phoenix, because I had a speech booked that day.” She later added, “What I aspire to be, I’m not that person.”

What excites Levine the most nowadays is a documentary film she is executive producing about Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepalese woman to climb Mt. Everest, in 1993, on her third attempt, before she died on the descent. “It’s amazing to me that no one has ever told this woman’s story,” she said.

But she can stay out of the extreme outdoors only so long. In January, Levine plans to return to Antarctica, disappear behind her mirrored polar goggles and neoprene face mask, and join yet another expedition team of which she’ll likely be the smallest member. The goal this time, she said, is to complete a coveted first ascent of a yet-unnamed mountain range.

“I place value on what I can learn from these experiences and environments — like how to get psychology to pick up where physiology stops,” she said. “It’s empowering to learn that everything you need to get by in life can be carried on your back,” she added. “Once you figure all of that stuff out, not much can rattle you.”

Paul von Zielbauer is a literary explorer based in Los Angeles. He spent 11 years as a reporter for The New York Times before launching Roadmonkey.

US News & World Reports: From Mt. Everest to the Corner Office

From Mount Everest to the Corner Office

What the business world can learn from a mountaineer.

Mount Everest.

Mount Everest.

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Extreme environments, where a decision can mean the difference between life and death, hold lessons for corporate boardrooms, battlefields and even the White House, says mountaineer Alison Levine, a lecturer on leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In “On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership,” Levine applies the knowledge she gained from climbing the highest peak on every continent, skiing the North and South Poles and her two decades in the business world. She recently spoke with U.S. News about how failure and apparent weaknesses can contribute to success. Excerpts:

How does your experience as a mountaineer translate to the business world?

There are so many lessons. For example, in order to succeed, you have to be able to take action based on the situation at the time, rather than on some plan. Plans are outdated as soon as they’re finished when you’re in environments that change very rapidly. In the business world, everything moves at such a frenetic pace with technology and innovation. What works today isn’t going to work tomorrow, so you’ve got to be able to think quickly and take action based upon what’s going on around you.

Another lesson that helped me stay alive in the mountains is that complacency will kill you. The Khumbu Icefall is one of the most dangerous areas on [Mount Everest]. It’s basically 2,000 vertical feet of these huge, moving ice chunks. The sun comes up and as everything starts to melt, these huge ice chunks start to shift around, so you are in constant danger of being crushed. You have to move through the Khumbu Icefall very quickly. If you aren’t able to move, that’s what puts you at risk. The business world is the same way. At the rate everything is changing you’ve got to be able to take action and take action quickly.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider’s guide to politics and policy.]

What is the most important characteristic of an effective leader?

Competence. It doesn’t matter how funny or charismatic you are. [What] it comes down to is competence.

How can leaders inspire the people they are leading?

Empower everyone to think and act like a leader. For example, on my South Pole expedition, the designated team leader had everybody take turns being in a leadership role every day. Every day someone new took responsibility for route finding, for figuring out how many miles we were going to ski, when we were going to stop for breaks, where we were going to set up camp. Had anything happened to [the team leader], the rest of the team would have been able to carry on with the mission.

Should companies encourage more creative risk-taking?

In general, I don’t think we’re a very failure-tolerant society. We’ve got to give people that freedom to fail and encourage them to take risks. Instead of looking at failure as a setback, we need to look at failure as paving the way for future success. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first guys to summit Mount Everest, everybody knows their names because they were the first to get there. But there were dozens of climbers that tried and failed before those two set out. While [Hillary and Norgay] deserve really a lot of credit for getting to the top of the mountain, you also have to give credit to the people who paved the way for them to get there. We really need to change our view on failure and give people the freedom to fail [or else we’ll] stifle progress and innovation and prevent people from taking risks.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

You have some unorthodox advice in your book. For example, how does adjusting to innate weaknesses help leaders?

There are going to be weaknesses that you cannot overcome. My size is something I will never overcome. On my South Pole expedition I was the shortest, smallest person on the team. And no matter how hard I trained, the laws of physics dictate that somebody who is 6’4”, 230 pounds is going to be able to haul a 150-pound sled a lot more quickly and efficiently than I can. While I couldn’t overcome my weakness, I could compensate for it. I found a way that I could contribute more to the team; it was a way in which my size was an advantage. At the end of [every] day, after skiing for 15 hours, you have to build a snow barricade around your tent to protect it from the elements. And you [have to] build this snow barricade with a very short snow shovel. The taller guys were really wrenching their backs trying to bend over, so I became the person that shoveled the snow barricade around people’s tents. What you have to do is use creativity, tenacity and determination to compensate [for any disadvantages].

What could President Obama and other political leaders learn from your book?

That it’s important to unite people on your team and create that sense of camaraderie rather than blaming certain people for failure. No CEO would ever say, ‘Well, if it weren’t for manufacturing screwing up, we would have had a great quarter.’ You have to focus on pulling everyone together when things don’t go right.

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is the associate opinion editor at U.S. News & World Report. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter.

On the Edge Gets a Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly

Alison Levine. Grand Central/Business Plus, $27  (288p) ISBN 978-1-4555-4487-5
In her assured, personable debut, Levine—team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition and a former associate at Goldman Sachs—takes lessons learned on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountains and applies them to everyday business challenges for executives at all levels, as well as politicians, educators, and students. On the premise that “everyone is in a leadership position,” Levine covers topics including extreme preparation, the importance of failure, succeeding in difficult conditions, networking, ego management, making the most of weakness, building trust and loyalty, and bringing your A-game to every challenge. Levine writes, “leadership in extreme environments requires the willpower, the teamwork, the high moral character, and the emotional intelligence necessary to overcome exceptional hurdles, solve complex problems, and face any sudden, uncontrollable, high-risk situation, including those that exist in today’s business world.” The book is best suited to readers looking for their advice framed in an adventure story; the lessons within are cast in broad strokes, appealing, perhaps, to business readers who prefer not to read the words “synergy” or “laser-focus” yet again. If they can get past the feeling of inferiority from reading the work of a business-savvy extreme climber who’s also funny, readers will find much to learn here. Agent: Nena Madonia, Dupree Miller & Associates. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 10/28/2013 Release date: 01/07/2014