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New York Times’ Women in the World: Meet Alison Levine

Life in the death zone: Alison Levine says “Everest” is  real

Having summited the highest peak on each of the planet’s seven continents, this intrepid woman can vouch for the legendary mountain’s ferocity.

World-class mountaineer and polar explorer Alison Levine. (Eric Philips)
World-class mountaineer and polar explorer Alison Levine. (Eric Philips)

On her second climb up Mount Everest, caught in a vicious midnight snowstorm in the region just below the summit, known as the Death Zone, Alison Levine felt her corneas starting to freeze. She had removed her goggles, which had fogged, and though she knew Chewang Nima Sherpa was just a few feet behind her, she was battling against the profound negative effects of altitude, fatigue and – Everest’s specialty – intimidation.

“We started out at night and it was snowing, and it really did not ever let up, so all I could see was white,” Levine, 49, recalled, in a far-ranging interview earlier this month. “They call it the Death Zone for a good reason. At 26,000 feet, the human body is literally starting to die.”

But Levine and her eyeballs did not die, and at 8am on May 24, 2010, she stood, elated, at the highest point on Earth, 29,029 feet above sea level. Elated, in part, because she had just joined the tiny fraction of humanity that has summited the highest peak on each of the planet’s seven continents and skied to both poles – a feat known as the Adventure Grand Slam.

Mount Everest is in the news again lately, this time as the focus of a new movie – named Everest, of all things – that portrays a disastrous 1996 attempt by a group of climbers to reach the summit in blizzard conditions. Eight people died. When she first heard about the movie, Levine said, she assumed it would be awful. “I thought it was going to be some cheesy adrenaline-junkie movie,” she said. After attending the Hollywood premiere of the film along with the director, Baltasar Kormakur, Levine told me it authentically captured the mountain’s ferocity and the emotional ambiguity over who, if anyone, was to blame for the fatal consequences.

“The cinematography and the special effects are nothing like I’ve ever seen – anywhere,” she said. “All of the footage looked like it was on Everest,” though the Dolomites in Italy were used for some scenes. “It’s just such a realistic portrayal of what life is like climbing up into the Death Zone.”

Beck Weathers, a member of that 1996 Everest expedition, whose book about the episode formed the basis of the movie, told Levine that the storms his group faced on the mountain had been even more severe than those the movie portrayed, she said. “Here is one instance,” she told me, “where Hollywood was less dramatic than reality.”

I first met Levine in 2009; we were introduced by a mutual friend who recognized our shared interest in outdoor adventure, and to be extra clear about what that means: she is a world-class mountaineer and polar explorer, and I am not. Since her Everest summit, Levine has built a wildly lucrative career as a public speaker and leadership expert out of her physical accomplishments. And she’s managed to do all of that by overcoming two serious illnesses that would keep most people from climbing no more than a long flight of stairs.

Levine was born with a potentially fatal heart condition, Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, that sent her to emergency rooms more than a dozen times, until a 1996 surgery corrected the abnormality. She still suffers from Raynaud’s Disease, a disorder of the blood vessels that, in cold weather, puts her in fingers and toes at extreme risk of frostbite.

Levine says she also manages a third debilitating physical condition: she is so short and slight – at five-feet-four-inches tall and 112 pounds – that her stature creates a size and speed disadvantage on expeditions that often include men of Viking proportions.

In 2014, Levine published, On the Edge: Leadership Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments, a business book that translated her extreme adventure experiences into bite-sized corporate leadership lessons. Those lessons also extend to the military: from 2009 to 2013, she was an adjunct faculty member at West Point, where she taught courses on leading teams in extreme environments.

For each of the last several years, Levine has earned her living by giving more than 100 polished multimedia presentations, which she calls “speeches,” that spoon-fed leadership insights to corporate groups around the country. She now grosses over $1 million a year for appearances that her audiences seem to love. She is, she says, her speaker bureau’s most requested booking.

All this paints an almost ridiculously impressive portrait of a tenacious, tough woman of extraordinary ambition and talent. But it doesn’t reveal how she got that way or explain the complex personality that quietly resides behind the mirrored polar goggles and neoprene face mask.

Levine was raised in Phoenix, and her parents became her two greatest influences. Her father, Jack, now 81, was a young FBI agent in 1962 when he became among the first within the bureau to publicly condemn J. Edgar Hoover for his brazen malefactions. It didn’t take long before “he was railroaded out of the FBI,” Levine said of her father. “Hoover blocked my dad from the Arizona bar. My dad sued the state bar, and he won.”

Her mother, Corinne, is a former president of Planned Parenthood of Arizona who went on to start a small business that sold china, crystal and high-end bed linens.

“I get my street smarts from my mom,” Levine said, “but my sense of determination from my dad. What I learned from him is you go to the mat for the things you believe in. And you absolutely go down swinging.”

When I asked her to describe the biggest turning points in her life, Levine mentioned only one related to her physical adventures: The realization that she was, due to her small size, the slowest member of the 2008 South Pole ski expedition, and how her teammates responded with grace instead of acrimony. “It really changed the way I approach challenges, teamwork, decision making,” she said. “I used to think if there’s someone who is weak, you just need to cut them loose.”

Another moment came during Levine’s first trip to Uganda in 2005 to climb the Rwenzori mountains, when she learned that women were not allowed to serve as porters or to even make the ascent. “Nobody knew the reason that women weren’t allowed on the mountain,” she said, “it was just tradition that they weren’t.” She kept asking why until, finally, local elders relented. “That was a huge light bulb moment for me,” she said. “I could be an architect of change, simply by asking the right questions.”

The experience led Levine to create the Climb High Foundation, which trains Ugandan women to work as trekking guides and porters.

The other big life lesson came when she was 17, after doctors diagnosed her congenital heart defect. “I learned that when people tell you, ‘You can do anything you want,’” she said, “that’s pretty much bullshit.”

Alison Levine is nothing if not a persistent opportunist. During a shift as a restaurant hostess in Tuscon, during her undergraduate years at the University of Arizona, she turned a chance meeting of local Mattel executives into a marketing internship at the company. After the Army rejected her attempt to enlist (she was too old, having turned 42 a few months earlier) Levine called a general she had met at a conference, who asked her to teach at West Point. As a low-level analyst at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, she turned the task of introducing Arnold Schwarzenegger to a conference room full of investment bankers into a job as the deputy finance director of his successful 2003 campaign for governor.

“When they said, ‘Arnold Schwarzengger is going to be in San Francisco and has a couple of hours to kill,’”Levine told me in an email message, “that’s when I started thinking about what happens in his movies (since each one is a couple of hours in duration) and memorized the body counts of each of them.”

Wit and tenacious charm play a significant role in Levine’s success; she leverages an abundance of both with precision. But to borrow a phrase from Donna Summer, she works hard for the money. In hotel rooms, where she sleeps more often than not each month, thanks to a nearly nonstop speaking schedule, she improvises workout routines with “a gazillion pushups and lunges and wall sits.” On airplanes, Levine says she spends all her time answering every one of the hundreds of emails she receives each day, mostly from people who have recently seen her speak.

“I just try everyday to be a clutch player and come through for people and overdeliver what I am supposed to deliver,” she said. “I have a chapter in my book where I talk about my mantra, Count On Me. If I tell you I am going to do something, I do it.”

But unrestrained accountability has a dangerous tipping point, and Levine admits she’s started to reach it in her personal life. While she’s showing up for clients and expedition teammates, she’s not showing up for her friends and family members; important events involving people she cares about routinely happen without her.

“That’s what probably hurts me the most,” she said. “I miss weddings. I miss funerals. I missed my goddaughter’s high school graduation in Phoenix, because I had a speech booked that day.” She later added, “What I aspire to be, I’m not that person.”

What excites Levine the most nowadays is a documentary film she is executive producing about Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepalese woman to climb Mt. Everest, in 1993, on her third attempt, before she died on the descent. “It’s amazing to me that no one has ever told this woman’s story,” she said.

But she can stay out of the extreme outdoors only so long. In January, Levine plans to return to Antarctica, disappear behind her mirrored polar goggles and neoprene face mask, and join yet another expedition team of which she’ll likely be the smallest member. The goal this time, she said, is to complete a coveted first ascent of a yet-unnamed mountain range.

“I place value on what I can learn from these experiences and environments — like how to get psychology to pick up where physiology stops,” she said. “It’s empowering to learn that everything you need to get by in life can be carried on your back,” she added. “Once you figure all of that stuff out, not much can rattle you.”

Paul von Zielbauer is a literary explorer based in Los Angeles. He spent 11 years as a reporter for The New York Times before launching Roadmonkey.