The first time Alison Levine ’87 climbed Mount Everest, in 2002, she had to stop a mere 279 feet short of the summit.
“We just got hit by bad weather,” the renowned adventurer says. “Wind, low visibility, snow.”
Levine was captain of the first-ever American Women’s Everest Expedition, and the team had trained for months. On the climb, they had made it to the south summit, just below the formidable Hilary Step, a steep pitch of nearly-vertical rock and ice, just a few hundred feet from the top.
But as they approached the summit — at 29,029 feet, the highest in the world — the weather turned dangerous.
On Mount Everest, as Levine says, “the weather decides for you.” The group decided to abort their climb and headed back to the safety of their tents. There would be no summit for them.
“A mountain is a mountain. If you’re heartbroken about not reaching the top, climbing is not for you.”
In fact, Levine says, the most successful mountaineers — those who stay alive — stay aware of their surroundings and change their strategies as quickly as conditions change. Climbers determined to reach the top no matter what are those most likely to die.
“Sometimes they get so focused on the summit they don’t realize they don’t have enough energy to get back down,” Levine says. “Most deaths happen on the descent. Part of leading a team successfully is to know that plans have to be flexible. You have to focus on what’s happening in the moment.”
Those smarts have kept Levine alive on countless expeditions around the world. She’s skied across the frozen wastes of the Arctic and Antarctica, and by 2010 she’d gotten to the top of six of the world’s Seven Summits — the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents. The only one she was still missing was Everest.
She returned to Nepal to tackle it once again, and on a glorious May day in 2010 she made the grueling climb in the Himalayas. The moment she arrived at Everest’s peak, she successfully completed the hefty requirements of the Adventure Grand Slam: climbing all Seven Summits and reaching both the North and South poles. She’s one of a handful of people in the world who can make that claim.
And, at age 47, she’s not done yet, not even with Everest.
“I would not bet against going back,” she says with a laugh.
Levine, who earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at the UA in 1987 and an MBA at Duke University in 2000, was awarded the UA Alumni Association Global Achievement Award last December. The prize honored her not only for her outdoor feats on icy mountains and at the poles but also for a dizzying array of other exploits.
Her Climb High Foundation in Uganda trains impoverished local women to work as guides and porters in the tourism industry, and her first book, On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership, comes out in January. She briefly worked as an investment advisor at Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs, and she was deputy finance director for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful run for governor of California in 2003.
And Levine has parlayed what she’s learned on the world’s most perilous mountains and icebound landscapes into a successful business as a globetrotting speaker and consultant — and she now shows top brass in the corporate world how to adapt to a tumultuous business climate.
People on mountains who are “hellbent on sticking to a plan get into trouble,” Levine says, and the same goes for corporate executives. Hanging on to a corporate strategic plan even when, say, the bottom falls out of the market, is a little like continuing up Everest even when storm clouds hit.
She also works with up-and-coming military leaders as an adjunct instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The focus of her lectures are how teams “can create loyalty and trust in turbulent times.”
Levine credits at least part of her success to the University of Arizona. A Phoenix native, she arrived as a freshman with “no idea what I wanted to do.” She majored in communications, thinking “it would be helpful no matter what.”
It turned out that it was: every day in her adventuring and business life she uses information she learned from her “favorite, most influential professor,” Tom Burke, then a Ph.D. candidate. “In helping him do research, I became interested in human behavior and what influences that behavior.”
A member of Order of Omega and Delta Gamma sorority, Levine studied by day and waited tables at night, all while dealing with a serious cardiac defect, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.
“I was not at all an invalid,” she says. “I felt fine 99.9 percent of the time. But then I would land in the emergency room.”
The condition prevented her from exercising strenuously. So, when doctors finally corrected it through surgery, Levine, then 32, wasted no time. She decided to climb her first mountain: 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. She bought a pair of hiking boots, borrowed the rest of her gear, and winged her way to Africa alone. She hired a local guide and learned for the first time the exhilaration of scaling a peak.
“I loved the idea that you can get by with just the stuff you can carry on your back. It was the first time I learned I could push past pain and discomfort.”
Ever since, Levine has zipped back to the wilderness every chance she’s gotten. She’s devoted most of the last year to writing her book, but this summer, when the manuscript was in copy editing, she had two weeks to spare.
She flew to Uganda for the fourth time to ascend a peak in the Rwenzori Mountains. Never mind that because of the turmoil in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo she and her boyfriend had to be accompanied by armed guards. Levine wanted to check in on her women’s training project — and to get as close to the top of the world as she could.
“I have tons left to do,” she says. “After this book is done, I’m gonna go hit it hard.”