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Sweden with Love: Got Fear? Meet Alison Levine

Dec 15, 2014

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Mount Everest is its own mythical world with daredevil mountaineers, merciless temperatures, unpredictable avalanches and ferocious storms. At the two base camps you’ll find anticipation and fear: for every 13 climbers who reach the summit (29,035 feet above sea level), about two die along the way.

But you’ll also find the possibility of greatness — as in 2002, when the first American Women’s Everest Expedition arrived at the south base camp in Nepal. The team, lead by mountaineer and polar explorer Alison Levine, had more than 450 media outlets covering their every move. CNN conducted live updates from the mountain. The Discovery Channel live-blogged the climb, a first at the time. The Ford Motor Company sponsored the expedition, estimated at $75,000 per climber. But less than 300 feet from the summit, a storm came in and the team was forced to turn around. The failure was devastating.

Eight years later, at age 44, Alison made a second attempt and got to the top. In between, she had climbed the highest peaks on every continent and skied to both the North and South Poles. By finally reaching the summit of Mount Everest, she became one of the few people in the world to have completed the Last Degree Adventurers Grand Slam.

As a climber, Alison was born with the cards stacked against her. Since childhood, she suffered from Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a serious heart condition that can lead to cardiac arrest. After being rushed to the emergency room more than a dozen times in her late teens and 20s, she finally had successful surgery at age 30. Eighteen months later, she bought a pair of climbing boots, borrowed a jacket and backpack and flew to Africa — by herself — to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Boldness and a sense of adventure are great assets: Alison has both in spades. But she also knows how to put them in to action, living her life with a daring beauty. For this month’s Gutsy!, Alison — author of theNew York Times bestseller On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership — teaches us the importance of failure, and why we need to push ourselves beyond our limits. • Ulrica Wihlborg

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Alison by the Geneve spur, above Camp III, on Mount Everest..

Ulrica: Eighteen months after you had surgery to correct your heart condition, at age 30, you flew by yourself to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. That is pretty crazy!

Alison: I had always been intrigued by explorers since I was a child, so when I finally had successful surgery I thought, ‘Now that I’m healthy, what’s stopping me?’ I can’t just sit here and read about things, I have to do them myself! I bought my own hiking boots, because they have to fit you perfectly, but everything else I borrowed from my jacket to my backpack.

Ulrica: How did that first climb change your life? You had lead a pretty ‘normal’ life until then.

Alison: Even though that mountain is not that demanding — it’s a very long, challenging walk — it’s where I found what I call ‘that voice inside of you that talks to you when you doubt yourself.’ I remember I was up on that mountain and it was summit day. I felt terribly exhausted. I’d never put myself through anything like that before, and I was convinced I couldn’t take one more step. Not even one! I was at my limit. And suddenly, I heard a voice inside of me that said, ‘Yes, you can. You can take one more step.’ It was louder than my doubts and fears and it changed my life.

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Ulrica: By pushing yourself to your absolute limit, you discovered you had more in you than you thought. Why is that important?

Alison: I think a lot of us never hear that voice, because we never put ourselves in a position where we need it. But if you never put yourself in that place — a place where you think you’ve reached your limit — you’ll never learn where your limits are. You’ll never learn to push yourself past that point of discomfort. It doesn’t have to be about climbing mountains or anything physical. But if you never give that voice a chance, you might never know your own greatness. And that’s when you limit yourself and your life.

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Alison (in the middle) on The Hillary Step, a nearly vertical rock face about 40 ft high on Mount Everest. Located approximately 28,840 feet above sea level, it’s the last real challenge before reaching the top of the mountain via the South East route.

Alison: A lot of it has to do with fear of failure. It’s not about our own fear of failure, it’s fear what other people will think about is if we fail. If no one ever knew we failed, who cares, right? But what prevents people from pushing themselves to their limits, or taking risks where failure is a real possibility, is that they’re scared other people will see them as failures. They’re scared they’ll be judged in a negative light. And today, with social media, it’s even worse. Social media gives us an even greater fear of failure, and that’s a huge drawback.

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At the Mount Everest base camp before heading up.

Ulrica: You experienced a very public failure in 2002, when you got less than 300 feet from the summit of Mount Everest.

Alison: We were on the Today Show, CBS Evening News, Entertainment Tonight…you name it! CNN was doing live updates from the mountain. Ford sponsored us. So to miss the summit by less than 300 feet…that was failing in a big way. I had to come back to the U.S. and have Ann Curry ask me why I failed. I had to tell everyone about it, because that’s what everyone wanted to talk about. I know it was because of bad weather and we couldn’t have done anything about it, but it was still very hard.

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Ulrica: How did that affect you?

Alison: I was the team captain, and I felt I let everyone down. I was worried about what people were saying, and how it would affect my future. Would anyone want to climb with me again? Would I be able to go on another expedition? I experienced a couple of months of severe depression. Everyone wanted to talk about that day when we had to turn back on Mount Everest. People would introduce me at dinner parties that way. I had put so much into it, and I had failed.

Ulrica: What’s the lesson you learned about failure?

Alison: The reason situations are uncomfortable is because they teach us to be more accepting of failure. I had to accept that I had failed. It’s not bad, it’s actually good. Learning to be okay with failure is the important lesson. We’re not a very failure tolerant society, and that prevents people from taking risks. But look at people who make things happen, who change the world, who are successful. They’re not the ones who never take risks. The often fail over and over again. They almost never have a perfect track record.

Ulrica: So failure is good?

Alison: It’s the people who have been bruised and kicked down and have failed repeatedly who are paving the road. So you know what we need to say to our fear of failure? Who cares! Give yourself the freedom to fail. And encourage other people to take risks, even if they’ll fail. Because those failures are what we’ll build on, and which will allow us to be successful.

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Alison at the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest at 17,999 feet. The icefall is considered one of the most dangerous stages of the route to the Everest summit. The Khumbu glacier that forms the icefall moves at such speed that large crevasses open with little warning. 

Ulrica: You gave yourself the freedom to fail, again, when you went back to Mount Everest in 2010.

Alison: Yes, it took me that long before I had the guts to go back. I felt so much pressure. It wasn’t easy for me. I thought, what if I don’t get to the top again? But in the end, what overshadowed my fear was the thought of never trying again. I didn’t want to have to ask myself for the rest of my life if I could’ve made it. And that first failure was partially what made me succeed the second time.

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Alison and her team on Mount Everest, South Summit.

Ulrica: Why is that?

Alison: That second time, I found myself in the same situation. I was yet again only a few hundred feet away from the summit, and a very bad storm moved in. I thought, ‘Great, here I am, eight years later, and a storm comes in!’ But even though the situation was similar, I was not. I knew a lot more about my risk tolerance and my pain threshold. If I hadn’t had that failed experience in 2002, I’m sure I would’ve turned around. Coming back alive is always your number one priority, but I felt it was a storm I could stare down.

Ulrica: Were you scared?

Alison: It was very scary and uncomfortable, but I had done scary and uncomfortable before. I went back to that voice in my head, ‘Take one more step, then one more after that.’ I had first found that voice on Mount Kilimanjaro, but that voice had gone dark on me. Here, I found it again and it gave me the strength to go on. At the end of the day, no matter your situation, it’s really just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other relentlessly. It’s not the best climbers who get to the top, it’s the people who are relentless.

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Alison training trekking guides for her Climb High Foundation in Uganda.

Ulrica: Do you ever struggle with the question of your life’s purpose?

Alison: I have a significant other, but we’re not married and we don’t have any kids. I’ve always felt this draw to the mountains, but I could never really figure out why. I asked myself for years, why do I do this? Why do I put so much blood, sweat and tears into this? What do I have to show for it? Then I went on an expedition to the Rwenzori Mountains, which borders Uganda, and met so many women who had no way of supporting their families other than prostitution. Most of these women are single mothers and they’re destitute. I trained one of the women as a trekking guide, and I ended up starting a non-profit (the Climb High Foundation) that trains and enables these women to make a living wage by being trekking guides on the mountain. For me, that’s my purpose. I figured out a way for my climbing skills to have a positive impact on the world. I believe if you’re going to put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into something, make sure you’re happy with the effect it has on the world around you.

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Sunset at the Mount Everest base camp.

• By Ulrica Wihlborg

To learn more about Alison and the Climb High Foundation, go to her website, follow her on Twitter and check out her book, the New York Times bestseller On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership.

All photographs courtesy of Alison Levine ©2014.