IBD: Levine Discovers Peak Leadership Skills On Mountains

In 2011, Alison Levine addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her talk dealt with leadership skills she grasped — while climbing mountains. Levine, who stands 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 100 pounds, might not look brawny enough to climb peaks.

Alison Levine

Levine leapt from Goldman Sachs to the peak of mountain climbing

So a conference participant asked her: “What did your mother say when you told her you were going to climb Everest?”

“She said, ‘Take a coat.'”

Levine abided with insulated jackets — and proceeded to scale not only Asia’s Mount Everest, but also the highest mountains on six other continents.

She topped that off by skiing to the North and South Poles.

It’s called the Adventure Grand Slam, and only 40 people have pulled it off. Making it more remarkable, she overcame two serious illnesses in her quest.

Levine’s Keys

  • Climbed the highest peaks on every continent and skied to both poles.
  • Overcame: Small size.
  • Lesson: Good preparation is crucial.
  • “You don’t want to fail and wonder if the outcome would have been different had you only been more ready.”

Levine suffered from a heart defect that was diagnosed when she was 17. A new surgical technique cured the problem in 1996 — at age 30 — two years before she climbed her first major peak.

She dismisses the heart problem the same way she shrugs off her battle with Raynaud’s disease, diagnosed when she was 20. That limits blood flow to the skin — and mountainlike cold makes it worse.

“I’ve learned how to manage it,” Levine, 47, told IBD.

Healthy Rise

As she describes in her new book, “On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership,” her illnesses helped push her up the mountain.

While growing up in Phoenix, Levine became an avid reader drawn to the biographies of climbers and Arctic explorers.

“After my second surgery, the light bulb went off,” she said. “If I wanted to know how Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner did it, I’d have to get on the mountain.”

In 1998, just as she was about to start an MBA program at Duke University (she got her degree in 2000), she headed for Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro, hired a guide and headed for the top. It was as easy as that, she explains.

Kilimanjaro requires no technical climbing skills — only stamina — to reach the top, which sits 19,000-plus feet above sea level.

So she says: “All kinds of guides and porters are at the base of the mountain waiting to be hired. So it’s a pretty common practice. And for a few hundred dollars you can get someone to take you up.”

The experience awakened Levine: “I had to borrow a fleece jacket, a backpack. I didn’t own anything except a pair of hiking boots. I learned so much about myself on that trip. First of all, everything I need to get by I could fit in a backpack. You really don’t need much in life to survive.

“It’s a really empowering feeling to know you can survive up on a mountain with just the stuff you can carry on your back. Also, it was the first time I tested myself physically, where I was in a situation where I was cold, tired and had an altitude headache. I felt really crappy and thought there is no way I can keep going. And then you just take one step and then you take one more step and then you take one more step. After that you realize, even if you feel like absolute hell, if you have the determination, you can keep going. You just put one foot in front of the other and you take it one step at a time.”

Levine has always been a pioneer. After college she worked in the medical device and pharmaceutical industry in America and Asia — Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. She was such an anomaly as a woman in the field, she got letters addressed to Mr. Alison Levine.

After landing her business degree, she joined Goldman Sachs in the Bay Area, and the firm gave her time off to do her climbing.

Alison Levine drags her sled to the South Pole in 2008, enduring a six-week trek with an international team. Eric Philips, Icetrek

Alison Levine drags her sled to the South Pole in 2008, enduring a six-week trek with an international team. Eric Philips, Icetrek

She attributes part of her climbing success to willpower. “But,” she underscored, “sheer desire accompanied by a lack of preparation is often a deadly concoction up there.”

Grand Approach

It would be nice to say Levine had a post-Kilimanjaro epiphany that inspired her onward. Not so. “I was never inspired to complete the Grand Slam,” she said. “It just sort of happened, believe it or not. But it was never a goal.”

As for the Adventure Grand Slam itself, it’s not official. The title is an honorific, though lists the people who have accomplished the climbs.

Preparing for her polar expeditions — North in 2004, South in 2008 — she harnessed herself to truck tires and pulled them through the sand at Bay Area beaches. That simulated the tug of supply sleds in the Arctic.

For mountain climbs, she mastered Mount Shasta near her Bay Area home. Her routine was grueling, hiking up and down its 14,000 feet in one shot. “I wanted to practice running on empty so that my body and my mind would know what that felt like and I wouldn’t feel uneasy about it if I were on Everest,” she said.

Levine followed Kilimanjaro with ascents of Europe’s Elbrus in 1998, New Guinea’s Carstensz Pyramid in 1999 and Argentina’s Aconcagua (also in 1999), Alaska’s McKinley in 2000 and Antarctica’s Vinson Massif in 2001.

By then she was a titan among female climbers, with some asking her to captain an all-women’s expedition to scale Everest — her seventh continental peak.

The first hurdle Levine faced in the quest to reach Earth’s highest peak was to find financing. The cost was $30,000 per person, so she called and wrote corporations for backing.

Alison Levine at the summit of Mount Everest in May 2010.

Alison Levine at the summit of Mount Everest in May 2010

Coming through was Ford (F), which was introducing an SUV called the Himalayan Expedition.

That worked out well, since she was also negotiating with Chevrolet and its SUV called Avalanche.

In 2002, Levine and the five other women went up Everest, only to turn back in the thick of brutal weather 200 feet from the summit.

Eight years later she headed back up Everest — and made it all the way. Teamwork was crucial, as always. Levine points to her skiing in West Antarctica in 2008. She was part of an international team that traversed six weeks and reached the South Pole.

All For One

“If something happens in Antarctica, it can be weeks — even longer — before rescues take place,” she said. “That’s why it was so smart of our leader, Eric Philips, to rotate everyone into the leadership position at the front of the line, navigating by compass and GPS. Because of that experience, if something had happened to Eric, the team would have been able to carry on.”

When retired Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Kolditz ran the Behavioral Science Department at West Point, he invited Levine to lecture cadets in 1986. Then five years ago “she called me one day and said she needed my help,” he said. “She wanted to enlist in the Army and was six months too old. She was inspired by the sacrifice of our soldiers, and asked if I could figure out a way to get a waiver.”

He told her she could serve in another way and appointed her an adjunct professor at the U.S. Military Academy. “She increased the frequency of her leadership classes,” he said. “That was her way of giving back to the Army. It’s a pretty impressive story.”

He also recommended her to Karen Kuhla, director of education for the Thayer Leadership Development Group, a consultancy funded by several West Point grads.

Already familiar with Levine’s achievements, Kuhla appointed her to the Thayer faculty — then her to the company’s board.

What impressed her was Levine’s fresh approach. “Every time I’ve heard her speak,” said Kuhla, “I pick up something new.”