Alison Levine Has Scaled the Highest Peak on Every Continent and Skied to the North and South Poles. The Question Is: Why?
Asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, the British explorer George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.”
I would have framed the question slightly differently: “Why bother?”
That was just one of my questions for Alison Levine, the 47-year-old explorer who has accomplished the Adventure Grand Slam, which requires scaling the highest peak on every continent and skiing to both the North Pole and the South Pole.
Ms. Levine is also the author of “On The Edge” (Business Plus), a book due out next month about the leadership skills and insights she developed during her grand slam quest. It’s a good read, filled with humor and shrewd observations about human nature. But, as far as I’m concerned, it fails in one important way: It doesn’t answer why anyone, let alone someone with a heart defect that required three operations to correct, would repeatedly place herself in harm’s way.
My bafflement might have peaked—no pun intended—when early on she describes her unsuccessful 2002 attempt at Mount Everest, serving as team captain for the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. Bad weather forced the climbers to abandon their attempt a mere 200 feet from the summit. (Ms. Levine finally reached the top in 2010.)
But what really hit home was her description of the hardships that climbers face even before they arrive at base camp. These include gastrointestinal bugs with symptoms such as vomiting and explosive diarrhea (her description, not mine). “Plenty of Everest dreams have been dashed by GI infections,” she writes.
And then there was insomnia brought on by altitude sickness, howling winds outside her tent and snoring tent mates. In other words, she was running on fumes even before she started. “There’s a lot of anxiety associated with that,” she acknowledged. “‘I haven’t slept. My water bottle is frozen. My snack bar is frozen and I break a tooth trying to bite into it.’ You’re going to be sleep deprived. My view is you can either be sleep deprived and OK or sleep deprived and stressed out.”
It’s not the end of the world. Though in her case and considering the extreme conditions she has found herself in—schlepping a 150-pound sled, harnessed to her waist, across Antarctica, for example—she approached the precipice.
“I’d be lying if I said little things don’t keep me up at night,” she said, when I brought up my garden-variety, middle-of-the-night angst. “The difference is I have the voice in my head that says you’re going to get through it no matter what. When you make it through 28,000 feet getting pelted by snow and ice, you’ve not exaggerating when you tell yourself, ‘I’ve been through worse.'”
But what about the rest of us? Ms. Levine’s attraction—as a motivational speaker and an adjunct instructor for leadership skills at West Point—is the sometimes counterintuitive lessons she learned from her top-of-the-world experiences and how they apply to the business world.
These include recruiting people with big egos—to be distinguished from those with overinflated egos. Because they know they’re good, that gives them the confidence they can win. Another suggestion is to embrace weakness. Or rather to accept it—we can’t be good at everything—and find ways to compensate and contribute.
In Antarctica, when the 5-foot, 4-inch, 108-pound Ms. Levine found herself lagging behind her teammates and they relieved her of some of her load, she repaid them by volunteering for the exhausting work of digging and stacking ice bricks to protect their tents at night, claiming she loved snow because she never got enough of it growing up in Phoenix.
One area of strength that Ms. Levine gives short shrift in her book, though it’s implicit on every page, is a sense of humor. Providing comic relief is never more important than when you’re in the middle of nowhere.
For example, Ms. Levine, a California resident, told me about the time she was working at Goldman Sachs and was asked to introduce a visiting politician. “I was told that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a couple of hours to kill,” Ms. Levine remembered. So she took the assignment literally, researching “what happens when Arnold Schwarzenegger has a couple of hours to kill.”
She included the action hero’s on-screen body count in her introduction, catching the campaign’s eye and going on to serve as deputy finance director.
The adventurer traces her indomitable spirit to her parents. Her father, Jack Levine, was an FBI agent in the 1960s who Ms. Levine said was among the first to speak out against J. Edgar Hoover. It cost him his career. “What my dad showed me is that you go to the mat for the things you believe in,” she said.
From her mother, Corinne, she got a high pain threshold. She remembered the time her brother fell off a roof, shattered both heels and writhed in pain for three days before her mother took him to the doctor. “Throughout my life when I had things that were painful I learned to suck it up,” she explained.
“That’s one reason I make a good expedition teammate,” she added. “Who wants to be in a tent with someone complaining?”