Alison Levine has climbed the highest peak on each of the seven continents. She has skied to both the North and South Poles. She is an adjunct professor at West Point and has survived working on Wall Street. These accomplishments come in spite of the fact she was born with a rare heart defect and a blood vessel disorder that causes her vessels to narrow and inhibit blood flow. She was also the speaker at The Federation of Greater Washington‘s Network event on February 28th.
After having surgery to correct her heart condition, Levine was free to pursue active interests including mountain climbing. Levine shared with us the lessons she learned from her first attempt at Mt. Everest.
When first asked to be the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, Levine originally said no. Then the tragic events of 9/11 happened and changed the world. Levine realized, you can’t let fear keep you from doing what you want to do and accepted the role as team captain. However, the hard part was just beginning. She needed to find the funds to buy the needed equipment to make it to the top of Everest. It just so happened that her expedition coincided with the launch of the Ford Expedition, providing perfect marketing for the full-size SUV. Levine jokes that she is glad it worked out with Ford because she was also in talks with Chevy whose full-size SUV was named the Avalanche…Much better to go with the Expedition than the Avalanche when climbing a mountain. With her team and funding secured, it came time to climb the mountain.
Climbing Mt. Everest typically takes two months. Starting at the base camp (see picture), a team will climb to Camp I and spend a night there. After that night, they will climb back down to base camp and let their bodies recover. Next, they will climb up to Camp II and then, after spending some time there, climb back down to base camp again. They then repeat this process with Camp III. The repeated trips are necessary because the body starts to degenerate after 18,000 ft. above sea level and the back and forth between the camps allows the body to adjust to the air pressure. Levine admits that this process, constantly having to go backwards, can be mentally frustrating. The important thing, she continues, is to remember that even when you are going backwards, you are still making progress- sometimes you have to go backwards to get where you want to be.
Levine learned another lesson on fear at the Khumbu Icefall. Located between Base Camp and Camp I at the head of the Khumbu glacier, the Khumbu Icefall is one of the most dangerous stages of the route because it is constantly in motion. Climbers must cross the area on ladders while large crevasses, thousands of feet deep, can open with little warning due to the movement of the glacier. Levine admits fear when crossing the icefall, “Fear is okay, complacency is what will kill you.” The fear keeps you on the edge of your game, aware of your surroundings. The fear gets you across the icefall alive.
The trek up the mountain included a multitude of obstacles, including the death of a member of another team a day ahead of Levine reminding them that no matter how much you prepare, things can go wrong. Levine wondered whether her team would continue after the death of the fellow climber. However, the morning following the death, her team packed up their gear and continued their trek up. Levine reminds us that even when the storm rolls in, it is only temporary.
Her team pushed forward and finally reached Camp IV where the death zone begins. Altitudes above 26,000 ft. are considered to be in the death zone, the height at which the body begins to die. At this point, the climbers must take ten to fifteen breaths for every step they take. Ten to fifteen breaths. For one step. Insane. This is also the point at which Levine began to freak out. She told herself, “I just need to make it to that piece of ice.” Then, when she had reached that piece of ice, “I just need to make it to that rock.” When she was ready to give up, she told herself, “Just make it to the next landmark.” The task ahead can seem overwhelming if you look at it as a whole, but breaking it into smaller parts makes it manageable, and that is how Levine moved through the death zone.
About 500 ft. from the summit, the situation began to change. Storm clouds appeared, and conditions quickly worsened. Levine’s team had to choose between moving forward and risking their lives in the storm, or turning around and abandoning their summit attempt. A team only gets one chance at the summit because they only bring enough supplies to make it through the death zone once- turning back meant losing the chance to reach the top. Making the decision to turn back was harder than than continuing on for Levine, but she had to think of the members of her team. You can’t always stick to the plan and action must be taken based on the situation at the time. Levine’s teamed turned around, and in the end they made it back down the mountain with their lives.
That would not be Levine’s last attempt at Everest. Eight years later, in honor of her friend Meg Berte Owen, Levine made it to the summit of Everest. Reaching the summit also meant that Levine had completed the Adventurers Grand Slam: summiting the highest peak on every continent and reaching both the North and South poles.
I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Levine at the end of the event, and I took the time to ask her, “What advice to you have for young professionals at the beginning of their careers?” Levine reiterated her earlier advice from earlier: Sometimes you need to go backwards to get where you want to be, and not to be afraid of that.
Levine was an inspiration to everyone who attended the Federation event Thursday night, and Gather the Jews wishes her well in all her future endeavors.