Extraordinary Explorer and Mountaineer Alison Levine Shares Her Secrets for Success

'It doesn’t matter whether you get to the top of a mountain or not, what matters are the lessons you learn along the way'

Photo by Eric Philips

Say you were born with a congenital heart defect, underwent three major heart surgeries over the course of your life starting at age 17, and also suffered from a condition that caused the arteries in your fingers and toes to collapse, meaning you’re at a very high risk for developing frostbite.

If you found yourself affected by such challenges, would you attempt to do something like summit Mount Kilimanjaro or trek from west Antarctica to the South Pole? I’ll admit, I don’t know you personally, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt—maybe you would. But I think it’s safe to say that with so many factors working against them, most people might not dare to test their limits any further.

Alison Levine isn’t like most people, though. An outstanding polar explorer and mountaineer, Levine has accomplished a slew of extreme feats that only a handful of other people on this planet have achieved.

Her impressive and adventurous resume includes roles like team captain for the first ever American Women’s Everest Expedition, finisher of the Adventure Grand Slam—a trek that consists of climbing the highest peak on each continent and skiing to both the North and South Poles, and the first American to ever complete a 600-mile journey from west Antarctica to the South Pole, which followed the route of historic explorer, Reinhold Messner.

And yet despite achieving so many incredible feats (everything mentioned above is only the tip of the iceberg that makes up her astonishing career), what’s most impressive about Levine is her genuine humility, how incredibly humble she is about it all.

“I feel like what I’ve done is not nearly as important as raising kind, compassionate children who will contribute to their community and be good leaders,” she told me over the phone. “It’s the most important thing anyone can do. I look at people like my friends who are working and raising kids and multitasking like that, and I think, ‘Wow I don’t know how they do it.’ To me, what they do is so much more impressive than anything I’ve done.”

It’s not like she feels that her endeavors have been like breezy, beachside vacations, though. She says that that her adventures are challenging, just in a different way.

“The things I do, they have been hard for me,” she said. “But when you’re going to do something that’s hard, the key is to do them in a way that has a positive impact. If you’re going to put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into something, you should do it in a way that has impact. And for me, that’s why I like the Climb High foundation. It’s a way to climb that has impact.”

The Climb High Foundation, which she founded in 2005, is a nonprofit organization that helps better the lives of women in Africa by training them to become trekking guides and porters in the Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda.

“I went there to climb with a friend in 2005, and the first thing that we noticed was that women were doing physical labor,” she said. “Everywhere we looked, women were out on the farmlands working, walking down the dirt roads carrying big loads of fire wood,  fruits and vegetables and water on their heads, but there were no women working in the mountains.”

Levine explained that working in the mountains is the main source of income for most of the population in western Uganda, and that when she asked why no women were working on the mountain, the guides told her that women were not allowed because in their culture it was considered taboo.

“It was interesting because everyone seemed to know that it was taboo for local women to go to the mountains, but nobody really knew why,” she said. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Well we’ve always been told it’s taboo.’ So everybody just kept repeating that old wives’ tale and nobody really knew why.”

Soon Levine put an end to the outdated tradition by asking for permission to take a group of women up the range so she could teach them how to be guides.

“It was amazing, because the women were so strong from doing so much physical labor in the area, that they really didn’t have much trouble climbing the mountain at all,” she said. “Now I go back every few years to train more and more women to work in these jobs, and now that they are working in the mountains they have the opportunity, for the first time, to earn a sustainable living wage and support themselves and their children, because prior to that the only way they could really earn money was through prostitution.”

In addition to her astonishing physical undertakings and life-changing philanthropic endeavors, Levine is also a consultant and speaker on the subject of leadership; a topic she has proven to both understand and emulate time and time again.

Alison climbs the Hilary Step on Mt. Everest. (Photo by Brad Jackson)

She says that the most important quality in a leader is competence and that you want to make sure you’re working with someone who knows everything about how to lead in the environment that they’re working in, whether that’s in extreme conditions climbing up a mountain or a corporate setting.

She also mentioned the importance of a “leaders eat last” philosophy. She says a good leader will take care of their team before attending to their own needs.

“Basically, the people lower on the totem pole, you take care of those people before you take care of yourself. You feed your soldiers before you feed yourself,” she said. “That works to build trust and loyalty among teammates. You can never ask someone on your team to endure anything that you are not willing to endure.”

And as far as what it takes to succeed in any of life’s endeavors, well Levine says that it’s really not about reaching your goal, but more so what you learn along the way.

“Well first of all, it doesn’t matter whether you get to the top of a mountain or not, what matters are the lessons you learn along the way, and how you can use the things you learn on the mountain to be better going forward,” she said. “There are going to be times, whether it’s on a mountain or you’re doing some other athletic activity—running, hiking, whatever it is, and you’re going to say, ‘Oh I can’t keep going. I’m tired. This is it, this is my stopping point.’ You have to find that voice that tells you you can keep going a little further.”

Levine shared a story about the first time she climbed Kilimanjaro. Just before reaching the summit she felt like she had reached her limit. She felt like she just couldn’t go any further. But when she stopped for a second and found that voice, she was able to discover a new determination within herself.

“I heard this voice that said, ‘OK come on, you can take just one more step,’” she said. “So I take one more step and say, ‘Alright, well I just took that step maybe I can take just one more.’ That was the mountain where I found that voice. And now I know I can call on it when I need it. When I’m in difficult situations, on a mountain or off a mountain, I know I can keep going, I know I can take one more step because that’s really all it is. Getting to the top of a mountain is just taking one more step, each time.”

How can you find you find that voice for yourself? Levine’s final words of advice:

“Get out of your comfort zone. Do something that makes you a little nervous. Do something that you’re not sure if you can do.”

And if you reach a point where your body and mind are telling you that you just can’t make it any further—well before you quit, make sure to take just one more step because eventually, it will get you to that summit.

Learn more of Levine's secrets for success in her book On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership.

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