Mountaineer Alison Levine Talks Toughness and Leadership
Filed in: Woman of the Week
In an era where terms like “adventurer” and “pioneer” are thrown around lightly, Alison Levine is the real deal. The team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, she has climbed the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on every continent) and skied both the North and South Poles—a combination that’s known as the Explorers Grand Slam and has been completed by only 42 people in the world. (And she didn’t even start mountaineering until she was 32!) When she isn’t scaling cliffs, she is a leadership consultant—sometimes flying up to 27 days a month to deliver keynote speeches at leadership conferences around the world—and serves on the faculty at the Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point. She is also an executive producer of the forthcoming documentary, The Glass Ceiling, which chronicles the story of the first Nepali woman to ever summit Mount Everest. A few weeks ago, she visited the MM.LaFleur office in New York to talk resilience, personal mantras, and the key to packing light. (Pictured above, Alison wears the Alex 2.0 dress in slant stripe.)
I GREW UP IN ARIZONA, the middle child between two brothers. As a kid, I wanted to be an air-conditioning repairwoman. I figured I would make a lot of money in that line of work, and in Phoenix, there would be great job security!
MY MOM HAD A “NO WHINING OR COMPLAINING” RULE. Her tough-love approach taught me resilience and tenacity, and I learned to suck it up and soldier on pretty early in life. My father was an FBI agent under J. Edgar Hoover, and the first special agent to speak out publicly against Hoover and the Bureau. Of course, Hoover did his best to smear my dad and ruin him professionally, but my father didn’t back down. After Hoover’s death, my dad was eventually vindicated. He taught me that if you believe in something, you don’t cave under pressure and you make sure to go down swinging.
I WAS A PRETTY STUDIOUS CHILD, but not a straight-A student. I rode horses and was involved in student government and community theater. When I was a freshman in high school, I was very much influenced by my then-boyfriend’s mom—I’m still in touch with her. She got pregnant at 16 and had a second child shortly after the first. She was in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic, and things could have spiraled downward. Instead, she took control of her life, went back to school and got a college degree, and later graduated from law school and became a lawyer and then a judge. I loved how much she embraced both motherhood and her professional life, and she was just the kindest, warmest person—as was the man she later married. She is a great example of how you can re-write your life’s script.
I STUDIED MARKETING in college, and worked at a restaurant in Tucson on the side. One night, the concierge from a local resort called and said she was sending a large party over for dinner. She mentioned that the people worked for Mattel, and I happened to remember that Mattel sold Masters of the Universe action figures, and that 7-Eleven convenience stores were selling Slurpees in Masters of the Universe plastic cups at the time. I thought it would be funny to have these cups waiting on the table when the Mattel people arrived for their dinner reservation. I asked my manager if I could go down the street to 7-Eleven and buy a bunch of cups for them (and fill them with water, not Slurpees), and he said yes. The Mattel people thought it was hilarious, and asked who was behind the idea. I stepped forward, and ended up talking to them for a good portion of the evening. I stayed in touch with a few of them, and eventually parlayed the whole thing into a summer marketing internship at their headquarters in Hawthorne, CA. It just goes to show you that a little creativity can go a long way.
AFTER I WENT TO BUSINESS SCHOOL, I worked at Goldman Sachs for a few years. It was a stretch—I had zero experience in finance before I got that job, so I was pretty far outside of my comfort zone. The job was so not me, in that I didn’t really enjoy finance, nor did I have a knack for it. It’s very data-driven and formulaic, and everything you do is heavily regulated. I got to work alongside super-interesting people: concert pianists, former Olympians, guys who were in the special forces, artists, and so forth. It was a unique workforce, and I learned a ton. However, you don’t get to use a lot of creative talent in the job, and I like to write and be onstage—now, every speech I give is really a performance.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I loved stories about the Arctic and Antarctic explorers and mountaineers. I would read books and watch documentary films about them. But because I had a heart condition that wasn’t cured until I was 30, I didn’t start climbing until I was 32. I had no idea whether or not I would be good at it, but I wanted to get out there and experience these remote, beautiful places for myself. I am never the fastest or the strongest climber, but I’m usually having a lot of fun.
THE FIRST MOUNTAIN I ever summited was Kilimanjaro. I went to Tanzania by myself and hired a local guide and porters at the base. The climb is straightforward and non-technical (you don’t need any special equipment, just warm clothes), but it was my first time at altitude, and I remember thinking, “I don’t think I can do this. I’ll just take a few more steps and then I’ll turn around.” A few more steps turned into a few more steps, and then I was at the summit. While it’s not a hard climb—just a long hike at altitude—it was an important one for me because it taught me that I could push past pain and discomfort to achieve a goal.
THERE ARE TWO CLIMBS I’m most proud of. One would be Mount Stanley, in the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda, when my team took a group of Ugandan women up the mountain for their first time. No Ugandan women had climbed the mountain before. That climb enabled the first local woman, Malabina Muthahinga, to summit Uganda’s highest peak. The other climb I’m most proud of is a peak called Khang Karpo, which is a 22,000-foot peak in Nepal. I did that one last year with two girlfriends, Squash Falconer and Kath Staniland, and it was the very first ascent of that mountain—no one had ever done it before.
I KNEW THAT WORKING IN A TRADITIONAL CORPORATE JOB was not going to allow me the time off that I needed for big expeditions, which typically take 30 to 60 days. I wanted a career that would allow me that flexibility, and gravitated toward keynote speaking at the suggestion of a few people who had heard me sharing my adventure stories. It took a while to break into the business, but then I started getting booked to speak about leadership about 10 to 15 times a month. At first, I thought, “This is a fluke. This level of demand will never last.” But it did. Today, I am represented by Keppler Speakers, and have been their top speaker for six or seven straight years now.
A FEW YEARS AGO, most female speakers only covered topics like communication, or building relationships, or self-help. Those are important subjects, but I was always more interested in the leadership category, which has traditionally been dominated by men. I am always shocked at the number of clients who tell me I’m the first female keynote speaker that their group has ever booked—and some of these leadership conferences have been going on for 30-plus years! Can you believe that? I’m hoping that more women will start delivering keynotes at male-dominated conferences.
WHENEVER I RUN UP against gender stereotypes, I think of mountaineering. When you’re climbing a big peak, the mountain doesn’t differentiate between the sexes. You are carrying the same amount of gear as the men. You are ascending the same slopes as the men. You are suffering the effects of altitude just like the men. You are covering the same distance as the men. I try to keep that in mind for every aspect of my life. I also think it’s everyone’s responsibility to push for social change in areas where women are held back. I started an organization called the Climb High Foundation, which trains women in Uganda to be porters and trekking guides in their local mountains so they can earn a sustainable living wage.
ANYONE CAN DEVELOP RESILIENCE—anyone. I do think a lot of my toughness comes from the way I was raised, because I was always told to just “get over it” when I had a problem. But part of it also comes from not wanting to let people down or disappoint them. I believe in the importance of having a personal credo or mantra—three words that describe the kind of person you strive to be on a daily basis—and mine is “count on me.”
WHAT I WEAR differs based on the type of conference I’m speaking at. If it’s a formal group and people are in business attire, then I wear a dress and heels. If it’s business casual, then I tend to wear black jeans, a blazer, and motorcycle boots or cowboy boots (I have a custom pair with an American flag and an eagle on them, and they are very “me”). I never, ever check a bag when I’m traveling, and I can pack for three weeks in one carry-on. It helps that I can wear the same outfit on stage 10 times, because I am in front of different groups every day, and I only wear my speech attire for the hour that I’m on stage. The rest of the time, I’m in jeans and a sweater.
I AVOID BURNOUT by spending time with my dog when I am home. I have a 100-pound black lab named Trooper that I’m obsessed with. I love him so much! No matter how stressed I am, all I have to do is look into his eyes and all is well in the world. He’s the best snuggler at night, too—he sleeps in the bed. We hike a lot together on the weekends, and it’s impossible to have a bad day when I’m with him. When I am on the road for weeks at a time, I go in search of dogs and will walk the streets or nearby parks to find a furry friend. When I pet a dog, everything feels perfect.
Photographs by Maria Karas.