How to climb Everest: What Alison Levine taught us about reaching the top
There was no shortage of inspiration at CommunityLIVE 2022: Inspiration to lead change, to try out new ideas, to take a few risks.
There was no shortage of inspiration at CommunityLIVE 2022: inspiration to lead change, to try out new ideas, to take a few risks.
But we probably felt the most inspiration, motivation and sheer awe during the keynote speech of Alison Levine, adventure-seeker and boundary-breaker.
Levine wowed us with her list of accomplishments.
To name just a few: She’s the first American Women’s Everest Expedition Team Captain, she taught leadership development at West Point, and she’s the New York Times bestselling author of On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership.
And yeah, she’s climbed Everest. Twice.
6 leadership tips for accomplishing big things
Levine’s life lessons are not just for someone leading a team 29,000 feet above sea level. We’ll be thinking about her words of wisdom whenever we’re faced with life’s inevitable challenges.
1. There are times in your life that you just have to step up, even if you feel you’re not ready
Levine wasn’t interested when she first got the call to lead the First American Women’s Everest Expedition in 2002. She had already climbed the highest peak on six continents, but Everest just wasn’t on her to-do list.
Mostly, she worried she didn’t have what it was going to take to reach the highest peak in the world.
She declined the invitation.
“But I knew if I didn’t step up to the plate and try, I would never find out,” Levine said.
She called back and agreed.
The expedition turned out to be where she learned her greatest lessons about tackling challenges, overcoming obstacles and dealing with a changing environment.
2. Backing up is not the same as backing down
What most people don’t know about climbing Mount Everest is that it’s not a straight shot to the top.
Levine taught us that your body needs to adjust to the altitude slowly, or you won’t survive. After hiking 10 days just to reach base camp, climbers have four more camps to reach. They do so by climbing up — then returning down the mountain to base camp multiple times.
Each time they reach a new high point, they have to backtrack.
Levine’s team had to climb thousands of feet and then descend, over and over. It looked like an effort in futility — and yet it was the path to success.
She admitted this process was physically hard, but psychologically even harder. She knew they were still making progress because even though they were going backward, they were adapting.
“We tend to think that progress should be linear,” Levine said. “But that’s not the case. Sometimes you’re going to have to go backwards for a bit in order to eventually get where you want to be.”
We tend to think that progress should be linear, but that's not the case.
— Alison Levine
3. Fear is OK — it’s complacency that will kill you
Part of trekking up and down the mountain meant combatting the fear that creeps in as you go. The totality of your surroundings becomes more and more stark and challenging.
The stretch following Base Camp, Levine said, is one of the most dangerous parts of the mountain. For this area, the Khumbu Icefall, imagine steep, menacing vertical ice chunks soaring above you, and as you work to overcome them, you’re also looking down into deep, open crevasses. It’s the kind of environment where a slipping boot or misplaced step could be fatal.
And the best way onward? With the help of aluminum ladders strung together up and over these house-sized ice blocks.
“Between the huge moving ice chunks, and the ladders, and the open crevasses — it is a very scary part of the mountain,” Levine said.
Yet Levine encourages leaders to welcome that fear.
“Don’t ever beat yourself up for feeling a little scared or intimidated,” Levine said. “Fear is fine as long as it doesn’t paralyze you. Complacency on the other hand? That is going to do you in every single time.”
She calls this mental adjustment — the ability to appreciate the awareness that fear gives you rather than push the feeling away — one of the best lessons about leadership she has.
Fear is fine as long as it doesn’t paralyze you. Complacency on the other hand? That is going to do you in every single time.
— Alison Levine
4. You have to be able to take action based on the situation, not some plan
After spending two months on the mountain, going up and back down several times, the team was set to reach the summit. But at High Camp, just 300 feet from the top, they were forced to stop in the face of a dangerous storm.
Making the call to turn around was a tough one for Levine, but she knew she was doing what was right for the team. As she put it, if you do something dumb up there, you may not have the opportunity to go back down.
While the decisions we make on a daily basis are usually not as life-or-death as surviving a storm on the highest mountain peak in the world, Levine shared some relatable lessons in her near-summit decision.
“You have to be able to act and react quickly when you’re in these environments that are constantly shifting and changing,” she said. “And I don’t think any of us have seen as much shifting and changing as what we’ve seen over the past couple of years.”
5. Lack of failure tolerance stifles progress and innovation
Following her near-summiting of Everest, Levine had time to reflect.
She originally had no desire to try and tackle those last 300 feet again. While having to return home after getting so close was disappointing, she and her team felt accomplished.
“I didn’t have any unfinished business on that mountain,” she said.
But, after losing a truly inspiring friend and fellow athlete who had always encouraged her to go back, Levine returned to Everest in 2010 in honor of her friend’s memory.
This time, she made it to the summit.
Even though, once again, she faced a storm at High Camp, this 2010 expedition was different: Instead of turning around, she made the decision to keep going.
“Because I had that ‘failure’ under my belt from 2002, I knew a heck of a lot more about my pain threshold, about my risk tolerance,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid of that [storm] the second time around.”
Truly embracing the spirit of innovation, she adds, means giving teams the freedom to fail. You never know what kinds of incredible things can happen because of those experiences.
“We’re not a very failure-tolerant society, which is really too bad, because a lack of failure tolerance stifles progress and innovation and prevents people from taking risks.”
We’re not a very failure-tolerant society, which is really too bad, because a lack of failure tolerance stifles progress and innovation and prevents people from taking risks.
— Alison Levine
6. Be relentless about putting one foot in front of the other
While she seems like a superhero with unlimited energy, Levine takes a realist’s attitude to success. She admits that sometimes things are going to go your way, but sometimes they won’t. That is part of climbing mountains, it’s part of work and it’s part of life.
“You have to be willing to get out there on these peaks and push yourself day after day, even when it feels uncomfortable,” she said. “You actually don’t have to be the best, fastest, strongest climber out there on the mountain every day. You just have to be absolutely relentless about putting one foot in front of the other. And that is how you get to the top of the mountain.”
Get your fill of inspiration at CommunityLIVE
CommunityLIVE provides some of the best motivation you’ll get all year. We were inspired and impressed by Alison Levine in 2022 and look forward to hosting next year’s dynamic speakers when we bring the conference to Caesars Forum in Las Vegas in October 2023.