Why failing to climb Everest was this woman’s greatest feat

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Alison Levine made the tough call to turn back less than 300 feet from the summit of Mt. Everest. Photo by MJ Ceeg

Alison Levine shouldn’t have been standing on the highest mountain in the world—at least, not if you’d taken a look at her medical history.

She was born with two different congenital heart defects that required three different procedures to correct. She suffers from Raynaud’s Disease, a condition that causes her nerves to clamp down on her blood vessels, cutting off circulation to her fingers and toes and leaving her with an extreme risk for frostbite. So to be standing 26,000 feet above sea level in an oxygen-deprived place known as the Everest “Death Zone,” where temperatures can dip 100 degrees below zero and winds can blow with hurricane-force strength, Levine was an anomaly.

Which made it all the more heartbreaking when she was forced to turn around just before she reached the summit.

“I would be lying if I said it was not disappointing to spend two months on that mountain and miss the top by what felt like spitting distance,” Levine tells GrindTV.

With only 275 feet from the summit of Mount Everest to go, Levine, the captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition in 2002, made the tough call to turn back and head for the safety of base camp to avoid a storm. With a major company sponsoring the climb (Ford) and more than 450 media outlets tracking the journey, the decision was far from easy—but according to Levine, it was the right one.

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Levine’s best-selling book applies lessons she’s learned during extreme outdoor adventures to real-world situations. Photo by Jake Norton

“You can’t let other people’s expectations get in the way of making smart decisions,” she explains.

There it is—the difference in attitude that makes Levine one of the most powerful leaders in the world. And we aren’t the only ones to think so.

Levine’s smart decision making in dangerous situations is the foundation of her new best-selling book, “On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership,” which rocketed to No. 9 on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a study in how real world problems can be solved by the defeats and lessons learned in extreme adventure situations.

And she would know a thing or two about extreme adventure. Levine is one of only a handful of explorers to pull off the Adventurer Grand Slam by reaching the top of the highest mountain in every continent (she went back and successfully summited Everest in 2010). She’s skied across both the North and South Poles, an accomplishment fewer than 30 people can claim. She was the first person to complete the 600-mile journey from west Antarctica to the South Pole via the Messner Route. But her most influential achievement? The lessons learned from her Everest “failure,” which as it turns out, looks a whole lot like success.

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Alison Levine says she felt pressure to keep going on her first Everest attempt, but knew the summit was only the halfway point. Photo courtesy of Levine

Tell me about that experience of making the decision to turn back so close to the summit on your first Everest expedition. Did you feel pressure to keep pushing with so many eyes on you?

The physical challenges of an Everest expedition can at times feel daunting, but the psychological and emotional challenges are very real as well. I was so grateful to Ford for sponsoring our expedition, so in addition to the sense of obligation I felt to my team, I also felt a sense of obligation to Ford. I wanted them to be proud of us and to feel that sponsoring the first American Women’s Everest Expedition was a great decision. That said, the No. 1 goal of any expedition is to come back alive, right?

Did you struggle with the aftermath of that decision?

You have to be cognizant of the fact that the summit is never the final goal—it’s merely the halfway point because you still have to get yourself all the way back down the mountain. I was well aware that most of the deaths on Everest occur after people have reached the summit—because they’ve used everything they’ve got in them to get to the top and don’t have enough energy reserves to get themselves back down. So immediately after the climb I was feeling relief more than anything else. But then when I returned home from the mountain it started to sink in because everyone wanted to hear all of the details, and you tell the story over and over … and people say things like, “Oh, bummer, that’s probably gonna haunt you forever.” Argh!

What was different about you and your journey on the second Everest attempt?

I was better equipped, and I am not just talking about a better oxygen system for summit day. I am referring to being equipped with more knowledge. Because of my failed attempt eight years prior, I knew a hell of a lot more about my pain threshold, my risk tolerance, and my ability to withstand getting the snot kicked out of me high up on the summit ridge in a storm. If I had not experienced that previous failure, I am sure I would have turned around when everyone else did.

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Alison Levine is a keynote speaker who’s presented lessons from her Everest “failure” on the TED stage. Photo by Claude Shade

Everest just seems like the epitome of adventure, but you’ve been on many similar expeditions. Why take on challenges with such a grand scale?

When I was younger, I was always intrigued by the stories of the early Arctic and Antarctic explorers and the early mountaineers. I would read books and watch documentary films about these adventurers … and then the light bulb went on in my head and I thought, “If I want to know what it’s like to be Reinhold Messner and drag a 150-pound sled across 600 miles of Antarctic ice, then I should go do it instead of just reading about it or watching films about it.”

Sometimes after a great trip, I feel this weird sense of loss, like I can’t face the idea of doing something as boring as grocery shopping. Do you ever feel like that?

Yes, yes, yes! I definitely suffer from post-trip depression, and it takes me several weeks (sometimes a couple of months) to snap out of it. But I think a big part of it is that you have this amazing bonding experience with the people you meet when you’re in these remote, extreme environments—and then the trip ends and everyone scatters, and you pretty much know that you won’t see many of those people again. The realization that I may not have another opportunity to spend time with people I’ve grown very fond of during our time on the mountain hits me hard at the end of these trips, because the most important thing in life is not a mountain, it’s people.

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Levine has made a career out of polar expeditions despite her health conditions. Photo courtesy of Levine

Do you ever have to push through moments of thinking, “This is really damn uncomfortable; what am I doing up here?”

I do have many, many moments when I think about how uncomfortable and challenging it is, but I never ask myself what I am doing there, because I know I am always there to learn. These types of environments are the best classrooms. You learn about yourself and about what you’re made of. As far as how to push through … well … you have to find that voice in your head that reminds you that no matter how crappy you feel, you can take just one more step. Sometimes the voice is soft and other times it is ear piercing, but it is always there.

And I have to ask—what’s your favorite outdoor gear that’s been with you through it all?

It has to be the “pee funnel,” the plastic device that enables females to urinate standing up. When you’re up in the Death Zone, it’s a matter of safety because the process of dropping trou and squatting can not only be complicated, but also dangerous. And when you’re skiing across Antarctica this device prevents you from having to expose too much skin, so there is less risk of hypothermia and frostbite. A word to the wise: Practice with this device at home before using it in the outdoors. There is a bit of technique involved when it comes to angling it properly. I wish I had learned about this device back when I was a Girl Scout! Every girl should know how to use one of these things (and bonus: you can write your name in the snow).

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