Climbing to the Top

Alison Levine is an adventurer, explorer, sportswoman, entrepreneur and mountain climber. She captained the first American Women's Everest Expedition and recently released her book, On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership. She gave her first candid interview and book talk with the Sallie Krawcheck, head of 85 Broads at McGraw Hill. She discussed what it took her to climb to the top.

Alison had personal challenges she had to overcome. Her story is quite incredible as she was born with a hole in her heart and had two surgeries at the ages 17 and 30. She has climbed the highest peaks on every continent, making history by completing the Adventure Grand Slam of ascending the Seven Summits and skiing to both the North and South Poles. Less than 40 people have ever achieved the culmination of those climbs. What made her story so remarkable was that the first time she had fallen 300 feet short of reaching the top of Mount Everest, but she persevered.

Alison's first book event was hosted with 85 Broads as the original founder, Janet Hanson, was one of the first women to support and invest in her adventure. Personally, as a member of 85 Broads, I looked forward to hearing her presentation, as I first heard her story at an event in college and she was a speaker that always stood out.

Alison's leadership skills are in demand as she is an adjunct instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and serves on the board of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University. Matter of fact, Coach K (real name Mike Krzyzewski) wrote the foreword for her book and has given Alison advice over the years about what is important in building a cohesive team. Coach K knows about how to build strong teams as he is the all-time winningest coach in the history of Division I men's basketball and is also the coach of the U.S. men's national basketball team which has a won Olympic gold twice under his leadership.

What's Coach K's advice about recruiting teams? Look for people with an ego. In particular two kinds:

1. Performance ego. You want people who are good and who know they're good.

2. Team ego. Look for people who want to be part of something bigger than themselves, such as an Olympic basketball team.

How do you train for those mountains?

I built my skills up on the less challenging mountains so I was prepared for the tough mountains. My first climb was Mount Kilimanjaro and what you learn about yourself on that first climb is so important. Whether it's overcoming a mountain or personal obstacles, you just have to find that voice in your head that tells you that you can push through pain and discomfort. Yes, you are going to make it, but you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was like can I take one more step? I could and I did. I kept taking one more and one more.

How do you train for the bigger mountains?

It's an entirely different training approach. Mount Kilimanjaro required a lot of stamina. You just needed stamina, leg muscles and lungs. You can't train for the big mountains at the gym -- you have to get out to the mountains to actually climb. I would train at Mount Shasta and would climb 18 or 20 hours through the night. I would start climbing at 11 p.m. and climb through the night so I could train my body to keep climbing even when sleep-deprived. Practicing climbing when you are sleep deprived teaches you that you can push through the really tough times when you need to.

Did you ever think you were going to die?

Yes. Twice. In 1999, I was climbing and had to do an 18 hour push with no water and nothing in my system because I had a stomach virus, so I was already in a weakened state. Then my head lamp broke and I was trying not to step off a cliff so I was scooting along a ridge and ripped my pants. In 2002, during the American Women's Mount Everest climb an ice avalanche missed us by 5 feet.

What did it take you to go back?

It took me eight years to go back to Everest. I was so scared of going back and failing again. I went back in honor of my friend Meg (speaking of her friend Meg Berté Owen, a Harvard University soccer captain and member of the Tour of Hope Team led by Lance Armstrong), who died and her husband is here tonight. She died of cancer and I wanted to dedicate my climb to her, so I engraved her name in my ice axe. Feeling like she was with gave me more confidence -- I felt like I had a special power.

What other advice do you have?

You can't control environment just how you react to it. You also need room to fail as you lack innovation if you don't have that space. Be the best. "Being the person everyone wants on their team." Be the first person to help a teammate. When a friend is having a bad day always try to be the person who sends funny notes or makes them laugh. Show people that you care. Those are the kind of leaders we need.

What is the best advice you can give?

Choose your partner well. Your climbing partner. Your life partner. With the partner I have now, I feel like I can accomplish anything with him by my side. He is "that" guy. Make sure your partner is someone who always has your back. Also, women need to make sure that they are financially independent -- don't rely on someone else to pay your bills. Then you don't need some rich yucky guy to take you to Hawaii when you want to go.

One foot in front of the other works on the mountain and works in life. As you climb to the top, of course.

On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership