Mountain climber Alison Levine has scaled the highest peak on each continent, skied to both the North and South Poles, trained West Point military cadets and lectured Fortune 500 companies about leadership.
Now the inspirational adventurer, who used to work on Wall Street, is talking to ENTITY and passing on tips for you to climb whatever personal mountain you are facing.
ENTITY: You have said that climbing a mountain is not about standing at the top. So what is it really about?
AL: For me, it is very much about the lessons you learn along the way as you’re fighting your way up the mountain. It’s about the empowering feeling of knowing that you can survive with only the things you can carry on your back. It’s about embracing solitude while also bonding with teammates. It’s learning to listen to the voice in your head that tells you to take just one more step when your legs and lungs feel like quitting. It is all of these things really.
ENTITY: Given your business degree from Duke and old job as a junior associate at Goldman Sachs, how hard was giving up the business world to become an adventurer and lecturer?
AL: I was a grain of sand on the beach at Goldman for the most part. The good thing about that was the other grains of sand that surrounded me were exceptionally smart, so I learned a lot from my coworkers. I wanted a job that would allow me the flexibility to make outdoor adventure part of my life. With some encouragement from friends, I came up with the perfect plan. I decided that becoming a speaker and sharing my experiences from my expeditions would allow me the flexibility I needed while also bringing me a really comfortable income. Mission accomplished.
ENTITY: Now you’ve accomplished so much, how tempting is it to stay home and binge watch “Gilmore Girls” or something on Netflix rather than heading to a remote area of the world on another adventure?
AL: LOL … I do binge on “Ray Donovan” and “Scandal.” I also recently binge watched all eight seasons of “Dexter,” so clearly when I need an escape I need something a tad more twisted than the “Gilmore Girls.” I am on planes all the time and also have terrible insomnia, so I get plenty of TV time in and I am not ashamed to admit that. But the longing for another adventure is still there, and I doubt that is going to ever go away.
ENTITY: Tell us about the new film you are executive producing and why you wanted to get involved?
AL: “The Glass Ceiling” (www.theglassceilingmovie.com) is a documentary about Pasang Lhamu Sherpa who was the first Nepali woman to climb Everest and she has inspired me since I first learned about her 20 years ago. Pasang was a woman of color who had no formal education and could not read or write, yet she had the guts to go up against the government of her country to fight for Nepalis women’s right to climb Everest. Believe it or not, the government of Nepal allowed foreign women to climb the mountain but did not allow local women until Pasang changed all of that. She had so much courage and determination and she refused to give up on her dreams. She finally made it to the top of Everest in 1993 … but she died on the descent. We still need to raise a few hundred thousand dollars to get the film made, but are hoping to attract a mix of corporate sponsors and individual donors who might want to partner with us.
ENTITY: Who should play you if there is a movie made about your life?
AL: Shiri Appleby. Do you watch the show “Unreal? ” She is so fabulous in that. No matter how many times her character gets knocked down, she makes a comeback. Shiri – grab your ice ax girl!
ENTITY: What women’s issues are of particular concern to you and how do you feel they should be addressed?
AL: Well, there are a lot, but if I had to name one concern – I would say it is the media’s focus on women’s looks and the insecurity it causes in young girls. From a young age, girls think they have to look a certain way or be a certain size and that’s how young girls lose their confidence (and many develop eating disorders). For example, Lady Gaga just killed it at the Super Bowl and every article was all about what she did to get her amazing figure. This woman is a master when it comes to branding and creating a marketable persona. I want to know how she honed her business skills vs. how she toned her thighs.
ENTITY: What are some of the key lessons you have learned about leadership?
AL: Well, I could write an entire book about that…Oh wait…(haha) I have. If I had to just name just a couple that I talk about in my book, “On the Edge,” it’s that leadership is about realizing that every member of a team has the responsibility to help the team move toward a goal, and everyone also has the responsibility to be looking our for one another. As a leader, you can never expect the people around you to be willing to do something that you are not willing to do.
ENTITY: When have you been the most frightened?
AL: When I was going though the Khumbu Icefall on Everest in 2002 and there was a huge ice avalanche – several thousand tons of ice came crashing down and missed me by just a few feet. Another event that would rival that would be when I was dog-sitting for a friend’s lab – her name was Chief – and she jumped out my bedroom window and escaped. I was sure she had been hit be a car or something, and I was sobbing and hyperventilating … but as it turned out, she just wandered across the street to another apartment building and was getting dog treats and belly rubs from some adoring fans.
ENTITY: When you speak to Fortune 500 companies, which lessons you give get the most interesting response?
AL: People are always quite surprised to learn that during the two months you spend climbing Everest, you don’t just climb up the mountain toward the summit. You do establish various camps along the route as you move up, but you also spend a lot of time climbing back down to base camp before you head up to the summit. You have to do this because it is part of the acclimatization process that helps your body get used to the altitude, rest and regain strength. So I explain that sometimes you have to go backwards or move in a direction away from your goal in order to eventually get to where you want to be. People can relate to that, because rarely is the path to success a straightforward journey. Everyone has obstacles. It’s like that GPS woman’s voice is in your head and is always saying, “re-calculating.”
ENTITY: How many days a year do you spend on the road as a speaker?
AL: I do about 100 talks a year. I am the #1 speaker for Keppler Speakers and they represent a lot of very accomplished people — professional athletes, Olympians, politicians, CEOs, astronauts, TV personalities, bestselling authors, etc … but contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a famous name to do well in this business. You just have to be able to deliver useful/valuable material in a compelling fashion.
ENTITY: What have you taken away from lecturing at the United States Military Academy at West Point and how do you feel your experiences help the cadets there?
AL: I spent four years on the part-time faculty and loved every minute. West Point is one of the premiere leader development institutions in the world, and I learned so much about leadership from the faculty members who were active duty or former military. My lectures add a bit of a different perspective on leadership because while they still focus on leading teams in extreme situations (where lives are on the line), my stories are framed by my experiences during mountaineering and polar expeditions and help them develop a leadership philosophy.
ENTITY: How are you able to balance a relationship with your unusual working and adventuring life?
AL: I have an AMAZING guy in my life who I have been with for seven years. He has a pretty demanding job in the anti-terrorism arena (sorry readers – gotta just leave it at that for now ) and he is the most supportive partner I could ever ask for. He constantly tells me how proud he is of me, he loves that I have an adventurous spirit and he supports my ambition whether it is an expedition or a film project or whatever. I am incredibly lucky. Of course we do not have kids so that takes some of the stress out of the relationship. We do have a 105lb black lab named Trooper who is the center of our universe. Spoiled – SO SPOILED!
ENTITY: The first time you climbed Everest in 2002 and had to stop 200 feet from the summit and go back due to dangerous storms, how did that make you feel?
AL: Well, at first I was just relieved that we all made it back down safely to our tents, so I was thinking, “Yikes, that was scary!” But then the next day when we got back down to base camp I was thinking, “ARGH!!!! WE WERE SO DAMN CLOSE!!!” Two months of blood, sweat and tears on the mountain then something totally our of our control – the weather – thwarted our efforts. I felt crushed that we could not pull out a “win” for our sponsors, Ford, and all our supporters. Then you have to do the big “post-expedition media tour” and go on national television and talk about the experience of not making it. There is no escape from the reminders that you were part of a very high-profile failure.
ENTITY: When you faced identical storm conditions at the same point on Everest in 2010, how did you decide to go ahead with the last leg this time?
AL: Because of my previous attempt, I knew a heck of a lot more about my pain threshold and my risk tolerance. I also knew what it felt like to have the living snot kicked out of me high up on the summit ridge in a storm, and I wasn’t afraid of that the second time around.
ENTITY: What particular challenges were presented by your latest expedition to Mt Khang Karpo?
AL: First and foremost, this was a peak that had never been climbed (by anyone). And then of course being 15 years older than my climbing partners was challenging – I was really feeling my age and I was basically old enough to be their mother. Climbing at 50+ yrs old feels different than climbing in my 30s.
ENTITY: What ‘firsts’ or new challenges remain for you?
AL: I will always be thinking about planning new adventures. There are soooo many mountains out there to be climbed (literally and figuratively).
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