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Explorer tells students that leaders must be ready to adapt to changing world

Tom Coyne
Explorer Alison Levine speaks to students about climbing Mount Everest. (Photo by Ken Voreis)

Sept. 6, 2023

Explorer Alison Levine told Culver Academies students that leaders must be able to make decisions based on ever-changing conditions in an unpredictable environment, not on the conditions they were expecting.

“What you have to remember is that when you are in environments that are constantly shifting and changing, whatever plan you came up with last year, last month, last week, this morning, your plan is outdated,” she said. “You can’t be hellbent on sticking to that plan no matter what. You want to be much more focused on executing based on what is going on at the time.”

Levine, who also is a leadership expert, is one of fewer than 30 people who have completed what is known as the “Adventure Grand Slam,” which entails reaching the highest point on every continent and skiing to both the North and South poles.

Levine, who spoke at Culver on Labor Day as part of the Class of 1962 Student Enrichment Series, focused her talk primarily on leadership lessons she learned in 2002 while she captained the first American all-female team to try to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The team fell less than 300 feet short of reaching the world’s highest point.

“I learned more on this trip than I probably did on any other trip I’ve been on,” she said.
 

Alison Levine at the Geneva Spur on Mount Everest. (Photo provided)

She told students at the all-school meeting at Eppley Auditorium that it takes 10 days just to make it to base camp, which has an altitude of 17,585 feet. After a climber has been there for several days, the climber hikes to Camp 1 at 20,015 feet. After one night there, the climber returns to base camp for several nights. Then the climber climbs back to Camp 1 and spends a night, then climbs to Camp 2 at 21,500 feet and spends a night. Then the climber returns to base camp.

This process continues as the climber goes to Camp 3 at 23,621 feet and Camp 4 at 26,660 feet, each time spending a night before returning to base camp.

“The reason you keep coming down to base camp is because you have to let your body get used to the altitude very slowly,” Levine said.

She said if a plane could drop a person off atop Mount Everest at 29,035 feet, the person would suffer extreme altitude sickness and could die.

She said the repeated treks down the mountain are frustrating. But she said the key is to remember you are making progress.

“Backing up is not the same as backing down,” she said.

She said the area above 26,000 feet – or about 5 miles above sea level – is known as the “death zone” because there is so little oxygen it damages the body and it is hard to move.

“You have to take five to 10 steps for every step,” she said.

Alison Levine climbing with her team. (Photo provided)

 

She said when her team reached that point, she realized they still had more than 3,000 vertical feet to go. She started setting smaller goals of reaching a boulder just ahead or a chunk of ice just ahead.

“Now that I’m here, maybe I can make it one more,” she thought.

They finally made it to the south summit, about 270 feet short of the top of the mountain. But then storm clouds suddenly moved in.

“That’s where we had to make a very tough call,” she said.

She said the decision to turn around was tougher than continuing.

“But when you’re up there in these mountains, you have to be able to make very tough decisions when conditions around you are far from perfect,” she said. “You have to think about how every single move you make is going to affect everyone else around you and not just you. It doesn’t matter how much blood, sweat and tears you personally put into something. If conditions aren’t right, you turn around, you cut your losses and you walk away. … If you do something dumb up there, you might not have the opportunity to go back.”

She said as it was, they spent the night trying to make sure they didn’t get blown off the mountain and she still survived an avalanche that nearly crushed her.

Levine then had to deal with the media and others questioning her about the team’s failure to reach the top.

“I gave them this whole lecture about getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory,” she said.

Alison Levine talks with students at Culver Academies about completing the “Adventure Grand Slam,” which entails reaching the highest point on every continent and skiing to both the North and South poles. (Photo by Ken Voreis)

 

Levine said she initially didn’t intend to try to do the climb again. But when her friend, Meg Berte Owen, died at age 37, Levine decided to give it another try in her honor.

Another storm moved in as she neared the summit, just like eight years earlier. This time, Levine decided to keep moving ahead.

“That’s when I realized that you don’t have to know what’s coming at you down the trail in order to keep moving forward to your goal. You don’t need to have absolute clarity to just put one foot in front of another. That’s what I did for another nine hours or so,” she said. “I’m happy to report that on May 24, 2010, I actually did make it to the summit of Mount Everest in honor of my girlfriend Meg.”

Levine, who wrote the best-selling book “On the Edge: Leadership Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments,” told the students that too many people are afraid of failing. She encouraged the students to have the “freedom to fail.”

She encouraged the students to challenge themselves even when it feels uncomfortable.

“My biggest takeaway from the experience, which I hope will be one of your takeaways as well, is you don’t have to be the best, fastest, strongest climber out there on the trails every day,” she said. “You just have to be absolutely relentless about putting one foot in front of another. That is how you get to the top of a mountain.”

 

Alison Levine tells students at Culver Academies about her adventures. (Photo by Ken Voreis)

 

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