by Patricia Sellers Jan. 31, 2014
This adventurer’s weakness could have led to disaster for her and her daredevil team. An extraordinary tale of survival and success.
FORTUNE — Alison Levine grew up like the a lot of us, did well in school, got an MBA at Duke, worked for Goldman Sachs , tried politics (as deputy finance director in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California gubernatorial campaign) and never felt satisfied. So she started climbing mountains, with inordinate determination. Levine reached the highest peaks on all seven continents. She served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. She skied to the North Pole and became the first American, male or female, to ski a ridiculously challenging route 600 miles across Antarctica to the South Pole.
Quite a feat for five-foot-four, 110-pound Levine, who on that South Pole trek had neither the strength nor stride to keep up with her teammates. How do you succeed with a weak link? What if you are the weak link? Levine, 47, talks about this and other challenges — teambuilding, risk-taking, embracing failure — inOn the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership, an inspiring New York Times best seller released this month. In this edited excerpt from Chapter 6, “Coming Up Short: Making the Most of Weakness,” the author shares her remarkable story of how she survived her South Pole adventure and emerged stronger from it.
In extreme situations, the way you deal with the weak link on your team often means the difference between success and failure. But even if you cannot overcome a weakness, you can always compensate for it. Compensating involves leveraging hidden attributes in innovative ways that can move you and your whole team forward.
I experienced this firsthand during a historic trip across Antarctica. I was part of a five-person international team of polar adventurers that set out to ski a 600-mile remote route from the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf in west Antarctica to the South Pole. The route that my team took is referred to as the Messner Route because legendary Italian explorer Reinhold Messner was the first to complete it nearly 20 years earlier. No one from North America had ever made an attempt. The Messner Route is considered more challenging than the traditional route taken by most South Pole expeditions because it has a significant amount of crevasse danger. Also, the surface of the ice is laden with sastrugi, which sounds a little like an Italian pastry, but they are actually ridges that have formed on the snow’s surface from snow deposits and wind erosion, sort of like sand dunes but made of ice.
The harsh Antarctic environment throws some serious psychological challenges at even the most experienced adventurers. First, there is very little visual stimulation. Out on the ice, the world appears white in every direction. You look around and sometimes you can’t tell where the ground stops and the sky starts. The days mesh together thanks to 24 hours of sunlight. Add the fact that Antarctica is the coldest, windiest place on earth, and it’s clear you’re in one of the most extreme (and extremely bizarre) environments on the planet.
When I was researching the trip, I came across a paper published in 2007 in which Lawrence Palinkas, an anthropologist from the University of Southern California, defined a condition known as “polar madness.” He described how people who spend extended periods of time in polar regions are at risk of, well, pretty much completely losing their minds because of the lack of visual stimulation combined with sleep deprivation and physical and mental exhaustion.
As for my polar jaunt, it pretty much looked like this: We were going to the coldest, windiest place on earth to attempt what is considered to be one of the harshest expeditions known to man. We would be covering 600 miles of challenging terrain on skis while each hauling 150 pounds of our own gear and supplies in sleds harnessed to our waist. Our team of five would be pushing our bodies to their limits as our physical and mental conditions deteriorated over the course of the journey…and all the while we’d be hoping that none of our teammates would develop polar madness and mistake an ice axe for one of those back scratchers that you get from the Sharper Image catalog. I knew one of my greatest challenges would be my size. I am short and have a small frame, and there is no way around that.
THE BEST way to train for a polar expedition is to practice what you’ll be doing every day, which is skiing in subzero temperatures while dragging a mammoth sled across the ice. This is tough to set up in San Francisco. The next best thing is to simulate the activity. So I used a long rope to tie a car tire to a harness around my waist, and then I dragged the tire along the sand of a nearby beach to mimic the motion of dragging a heavy sled.
Several times a week for three months, I trudged through the sand on Ocean Beach, dragging that tire behind me. I was struggling and grunting the entire time, but eventually I got used to dragging that tire, so I then added another one. Pulling those tires for miles and miles was hard. And it was also ridiculously boring—which was ideal training for the monotony I would face in Antarctica. I did get stronger, eventually working my way up to dragging three tires behind me. By the end of my training period, I had collected enough random remnants from the beach to make a lovely collage out of dead birds, beer bottles, syringes, and condom wrappers. I was ready to mount my own art show. I was also as ready as I could possibly be to hit the ice.
On November 27, 2007, the journey began. The expedition launched from Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost large city in the world. There, I met my four teammates, all from different countries. We spent the first three days sorting gear and organizing food supplies. We needed to consume a minimum of 5,000 to 6,000 calories per day, and to meet our caloric intake goals, we packed a lot of sticks of butter; butter is high in calories as well as fat, which we needed to keep us warm. Eating plain butter is every bit as disgusting as it sounds, but you can’t afford to run out of energy during a trip like this, so you choke it down.
On December 4, we took off on an Ilyushin 76, a plane designed in the Soviet Union for military use. Once we reached Antarctica, we boarded a smaller, ski-equipped Twin Otter plane for a one-and‑a‑half-hour flight to the Ronne Ice Shelf. The next morning it was showtime. We covered more than 12 miles the first day. Day after day after day we endured temperatures that reached 50 degrees below zero and crazy strong winds that knocked me off-balance a few times.
I was by far the slowest and physically weakest member of our team. Any of you type A overachievers wondering what it’s like to be the slowest, weakest, most pathetic member of a team? It feels absolutely horrible. Falling a few minutes behind the group on a mountaineering expedition is not a huge deal, but it is a very big deal on a polar expedition. Moving is really the only way to stay warm. If people have to stand around, they get really cold. Slowing the pace significantly to accommodate my speed (or lack thereof) could have jeopardized our chances of getting to the South Pole before we ran out of food and supplies.
The thought of holding up my teammates caused me to double down on my own frustration. Every time I caught up to them, I apologized profusely. “I am so sorry, so sorry, guys—keep going, keep going, you really don’t have to wait for me. I’m fine. Just go.” They smiled and insisted it was no problem. I convinced myself that everyone on my team was wishing I were not a part of their expedition.
About five days into the trip, I was cooking my dinner in my tent, feeling pretty depressed about my inability to perform at the same level as my teammates. Suddenly, I overheard Eric, our team leader, and George, the twice‑my‑size teammate, quietly talking in the nearby tent they shared. “Alison is really struggling with the weight of her sled.” To my relief, Eric genuinely seemed concerned. “Maybe we could offload some of the weight in her sled.”
I was shocked. I’d convinced myself that my teammates wanted to get rid of me. Instead, these two men were secretly strategizing on how to help me.
The next morning, Eric and George began their charade. “Hey, George, help me out with something,” said Eric. “I want to make sure that everyone’s sleds are about equal weight so I know that we’re all hauling about the same amount of gear and supplies.” They picked up each team member’s sled and then mine. Their faces winced and contorted as if this effort of lifting were causing them excruciating pain. “Ali, I don’t know what you’ve got in your sled, but it’s much heavier than the others,” George said. “This is crazy! You should let us take some weight out in order to make things a little more even.”
I stood there, speechless. Sure, their acting was pretty bad, but I was beyond moved. And I went along with their plot. They unloaded some of my food bags and fuel canisters and packed them into their own sleds. When we hit the ice again, not only was my sled less heavy but my heart was as well.
I immediately began to think of how I could return the favor—even though I was not supposed to know that they had done me a favor. One of the important but exhausting jobs every night is securing each tent by making ice blocks, or snow bricks, and then stacking them along the perimeter of each tent to protect it from potential damage by the elements. Shoveling snow and ice was the last thing anyone wanted to do at the end of a fifteen-hour day spent skiing. I’d noticed that it was somewhat awkward for George to shovel snow because he was so tall.
That evening, I grabbed a shovel and walked over to George and Eric as they were pitching their tent. “Hey, guys, may I shovel the snow around your tent?”
Levine wearing her polar couture
They looked at me like I was from another planet. I almost begged. “Because I love to shovel snow. Love it love it. Love. It!” I went on, improvising, “I grew up in Phoenix. And, well, I never ever got to shovel snow growing up, so now I really love to do it and I rarely get an opportunity to shovel like this, so it’s really a huge treat for me to be able to shovel snow and I try to do it as much as I can whenever I have the chance.”
George looked at me as if I were losing my mind. Polar madness, he surely thought. So I just grabbed the shovel and got to work, silently, efficiently, as if it were part of my normal routine.
Every time I had an opportunity to shovel snow for Eric and George, I did. There was not one single minute during the entire rest of the trip that I was not aware that my teammates were pulling more than their fair share of weight in order to help me out.
On January 12, 2008, our team arrived at the lowest point on earth, the geographic South Pole. When we flew back to civilization and had our first real meal in nearly two months (where we ordered steak, red wine, and had bread with our butter), Eric mentioned that he would never forget how much I liked to shovel snow.
I had to confess. “I frickin’ hate shoveling snow! The only reason I pretended to like shoveling snow was because you pretended that my sled weighed too much in order to have an excuse to take a bunch of weight out of it. I overheard you guys talking in your tent, and I knew exactly what you were doing.”
Eric laughed and smiled. “You heard that?”
I nodded and smiled back. What I heard that night was so much more than a plan being hatched. I heard what compassionate human beings sound like. I heard what a committed teammate sounds like. And I heard what a true leader sounds like.
Excerpted from the book ON THE EDGE by Alison Levine. © 2014 by Alison Levine. Reprinted by permission of Business Plus. All rights reserved.
Alison Levine is on the adjunct faculty in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point. She also works with the Thayer Leader Development Group, an executive education program that shares West Point leadership practices with mid-level and senior executives. She serves on the board of Duke University’s Coach K Center for Leadership and Ethic. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski wrote the foreword to On the Edge.