Polar explorer Alison Levine on finding adventure and first ascents
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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