JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Alison Levine worked out during her spare time at a 24-hour gym to stay in condition for Mount Everest and had to raise about $200,000 for the trip. CLICK FOR LARGE
Summit of success sometimes lies below apex
Mountain climber Alison Levine applies the lessons of Mount Everest to daily life
When you approach the summit of Mount Everest, mountain climber and motivational speaker Alison Levine explained, you take five to 10 breaths for every step. She left her place at the podium and dramatized the process of walking at the highest point on Earth. Then she turned to the audience: "So if you ever think you're having a slow day, it could be much worse!"
Dressed in a stylish suit and standing 5-feet-4, the 40-year-old Levine does not look as though she spent a couple of months on Mount Everest or that she has scaled the highest peaks on six continents. She's using those experiences -- and the wealth of metaphors they provide for daily life -- to inspire women to become leaders, overcome adversity, adjust to constantly shifting environments and prevent fear from making decisions for them.
Levine spoke to 250 women (and about three men) at HerStory, the sixth annual conference organized by the Junior League of Honolulu, held Friday at the Hawai'i Convention Center. Her engaging, witty, often self-deprecating approach complemented the magnificent photographs of her trip to Everest as captain of an all-women's expedition team.
Part of the story is that she was never supposed to be doing this sort of thing in the first place. As a child she was unable to participate in physical activities and constantly found herself out of breath because of a heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. She wasn't even allowed to drive because she was always in danger of losing consciousness. Before the age of 30, she had endured two heart surgeries, and now considers herself cured.
Leading up to this expedition, Levine earned her MBA at Duke University and worked for three years on Wall Street before moving to San Francisco. While preparing for the Everest trek, she worked at Goldman Sachs from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., and spent 8 p.m. to midnight trying to raise $200,000 for the trip. When asked how she maintained fitness on that schedule, she laughed and said she went to a 24-hour gym during her "free" hours. "I tried to convince myself that I was sleeping and working out at the same time," she said. This, of course, led to a "total breakdown from sheer exhaustion."
In her new approach, she tried to manage a more normal schedule during the week and focused her training on the weekends, when she climbed Mount Shasta all day and night. This provided hiking training and the most essential component of managing Everest, "learning how to cope with sleep deprivation," she said.
When Levine was first approached to lead this expedition in 2001, she had climbed many peaks but doubts about Everest lingered. "I felt like I wasn't good enough and that I wasn't experienced enough," she said. But then Sept. 11, 2001, came along, and it changed her thinking. "You should never let fear stop you from doing things you want to do," she said, convincing herself that she at least had to try.
As in business, recruiting the right team is essential. "Recruiting mistakes are very costly," she said. On Everest they can mean life or death. So she set out to assemble the best team -- climbing credentials came second to character -- and explained that you need to choose people "you would want to hang out with in a tent 24/7 for two months, because that's what it's like on Everest."
Because the altitude would kill a human being in minutes without careful acclimatization, climbers must ascend to a certain point, spend a couple of days, then descend to spend time at base camp to regain their strength. The next time, they go a little higher. Progress is laborious and hard to measure.
"Progress and direction don't necessarily follow the same path all the time," she said. "So when you have some goal that's completely overwhelming, break it into much smaller steps."
Levine also introduced herself to the other expedition teams at base camp before they began their summit bid. The reason? Everest is a deadly place -- frozen bodies are still there to remind anyone who might forget -- and it's no secret that people intent on reaching the top might not stop to help those in trouble. But Levine saw a solution to that.
"If you have relationships with other teams, there's no way they're going to walk by you and not help you!" she said. "You need to have those relationships in place before you need to call on them for help."
On Everest everything is always changing: the weather, the conditions of the route, your equipment and your health. At 26,000 feet "your body starts to shut down."
In an interesting twist that put things in perspective, a freak storm rolled in at 6:30 a.m. on the day Levine's team was supposed to reach the summit. Storms usually come in the afternoons, and they had planned for that. But the team knew this weather change made it too dangerous. So after months of preparation off and on the mountain, they turned around about 200 feet short of the actual peak.
"You have to be able to walk away if you know it's not the right thing," she said, noting that it would have taken two hours to cover that distance. "Sometimes that's harder than staying. But we just weren't willing to risk our lives."
Now in her busy schedule of maintaining her nonprofit organization in Uganda (see Page D1) and speaking around the country, Levine said she exercises when she can, "even if it's just 15 minutes." And after sleeping in a tent in freezing temperatures on the side of mountain, she said she rests soundly on airplanes.